Everybody who has gone to church or opened their Bible more than once all know the story of Mary and Martha; the two sisters with completely opposite personalities. It kind of makes you feel sorry for their brother Lazarus, who had to live with them.
Basically, Martha was a Martha Steward type person; everything had to be “just so” when guests popped in for a visit. So she buzzed around the house like an angry bee trying to clean the closets and the bathroom that she had just cleaned that morning while preparing a multi-course dinner with all the trimmings the likes of which her guests had never seen nor were likely to ever see again. She terrorized the “help” with her drive to have everything perfect. If what little we know about her characterized her daily tendencies, I would venture to guess she was a highly driven personality with OCD. In most traditions she is depicted as the older sister who looks like one of the evil stepsisters in Cinderella. (I don’t know why older sisters are stereotyped like this. I'm an older sister and am NOT that way)
Inversely, her sister Mary is always depicted as a young and beautiful maiden with a dreamy sweetness that just makes you want to gag. While Martha is freaking out and screaming at the servants, Mary sits calmly at the Lord’s feet soaking in His every word, as she ought to be. Jesus even commended her for it while chiding Martha for freaking out. But what if this kind of behavior was normal for Mary? What if, instead of tending to her chores, she was off picking flowers or daydreaming on the way to market? In this scripture passage, Mary is always held up as the model person because for once she chose to do what was right. But what if she was a horrible procrastinator with the attention span of a gnat? We know that she was a very relational person who would rather be involved in an interesting conversation than in making the perfect matzah balls.
So what does all this have to do with living life in the 21st century? In every sermon and teaching about these two that I’ve ever heard, Mary can do no wrong and Martha is an evil ogre; therefore, all women should strive to be like Mary. But when a woman acts like Mary, she is frowned upon as being unproductive and the Proverbs 31 woman (which clearly describes a Martha if ever there was one) is thrown in her face. I don’t know about you but there seems to be a mixed message here.
So here are a few things I have learned about myself and my christian sisters that it has been my privilege to live with. First of all, I am very much a Mary type person. I can fully relate to her. If we had lived in the same era and had a chance to meet, we would have become instant best friends for life and would have probably wondered off into the sunset never to be seen again.
For some reason, the Lord has seen fit to have me live in community for extended periods of time with a few Marthas; hyper-active, very driven, OCD Marthas. We can and do drive each other crazy. Guess he wants us to learn long suffering grace or something.
Nothing drives a Martha more batty than to see Mary sitting around appearing to be unproductive, or working on a project that she herself considers a leisure time activity, when there is so much REAL work to be done. That is why we see Martha more or less chewing out Jesus for not putting Mary “in her place”. Think about it. It took some real hutzpah to chew out God in front of everybody over a little housework not getting done. But Martha is like that. She is driven sometimes to the point of tunnel vision.
Mary had real hutzpah too. I mean look where she was sitting; in a room full of MEN, LEANING against the Master’s knee, probably right up next to the beloved disciple John. It just wasn’t kosher for a woman to be where she was in those days. But did she care? Not one bit. She was a rebel and didn’t care who knew it. That’s why Martha needs Mary; to remind her that sometimes there are more important things to consider than just decorum and the tasks at hand. Mary teaches Martha to relax and enjoy the sunset with friends because those moments are once in a lifetime and too quickly over. The dishes will still be there after everybody goes home.
But Mary needs Martha too. Being a Mary, I can honestly say that one thing that can really get my passive aggressive dander up is to be constantly badgered about mundane things like housework when I’m off in my own little world or trying to concentrate on something that has caught my interest. That’s why I need Martha; nothing would ever get done if it were left up to me. I probably wouldn’t even eat without Martha’s voice telling me that I should go into the kitchen and fix something before I pass out. Mary can be a bit ADD so Martha helps her to stay focused and on track. Martha reminds Mary that sometimes the task can’t be put off until she feels like doing it. Some things need to be done immediately and maintained in order to facilitate good relationships.
If the two sisters let their differences get in the way, things get ugly real fast. But with Martha’s drive and Mary’s vision working together, they can become an unstoppable force in God’s Kingdom.