Thursday, July 11, 2013

That Mary is still being shamed and criticised by Martha

I've seen lots of literature urging Martha-like women to slow down and be more like Mary. It seems to me, because these books are so prolific, there must be far more Marthas in the world than Marys. At least their activity thrusts them more in the limelight. Hard-working, self-sacrificing ladies who see just what needs to be done, plow ahead and do it, then crash in their beds each night. They sometimes snap with exhaustion and sob, "I'm doing all this good work and nobody even appreciates it. Look at her, doing nothing. I'm burned-out and fed up. If anyone deserves to have a nervous breakdown, it's me." I imagine those in the medical and counselling professions may be burned-out too, from being inundated with these Marthas as clients.

Well, today I'm here to talk from the other side. I always identified more with Mary in the first place. I'd be the one with my nose stuck in a book, busily scribbling notes or trying to figure out how this new idea gels with what I've always understood. All the while, I wouldn't have a clue about all the things that required practical attention around me. I'm the sort of person who needs to ask what I may do to help, because it doesn't pop out at me, as it would to a Martha.

I'm not a good person to have in traditional 'helps' jobs and ministries. This is not because I'm not willing to help but because I often don't tend to notice things that seem to stand out as glaringly obvious to others. I'd be the one to say, "Another working bee? The place looks pretty good to me," while others roll their eyes and my husband comes straight out and say, "You've got to be joking! There's enough work to keep an army going." That's sometimes made me feel really guilty and upset.

I'm the person who gets looked past for any 'important' role, because, of course, I'd be no good. Too dreamy and dithery, like an 'arty' person. I've had that accusation flung at me as an insult more than once. This also, has made me want to retreat into my shell and cry, at times, wondering what I'm good for.

While I never thought I was useful for much, I knew what I enjoyed. That's reading, listening, mulling over ideas, pondering, trying to express something I feel fresh and new. But I've felt a lot of guilt because those things seemed self-indulgent and of no use to anybody else.

I wonder how Mary felt when her sister, at the end of her tether, snapped that famous remark to Jesus. In effect, Martha said, "Can't you see I'm doing everything out here. Please tell her to get off her lazy backside and help me." The Bible says nothing about Mary's reaction to this, but I can imagine how it might have been. If I'd been her, I would've flinched before doing anything else. Then I would've started scrambling to my feet, fully expecting to hear, "Yes, first things first. Your sister needs help. We can save this for later, when the more pressing and urgent things are out of the way." I would've started trying to speak humble apologies, wanting to explain that I genuinely didn't know how badly needed I was, fully expecting the others to scoff, "Oh yeah, that's a good one." The reply Jesus did make would have stunned me.

What I would've found most of a shock was the last part of what he said. "Mary has chosen the better thing and it will not be taken away from her." Hey, what? He didn't say it was equally as important as all the cleany, cooky stuff (to which we may add paper work and whatever else keeps our 21st century heads and hands occupied). He said it was better!

The fact that I've grown up with this sort of guilt complex because of my priorities indicates that there must still be other Marys out there too. I'm certain I'm not the only one.  I think we need liberation as much as the New Testament Mary did. We still live in a world where Marthas are lauded and praised while we are chastised and rebuked. I've read about children with Protestant work ethic type parents who who, on seeing them reading a book, would ask, "Don't you have anything to do?"

We see people parading how busy they are on social media, fully expecting pats on the back, which are sure enough forthcoming. The Marys of the world, represented by people more like me, still contend with shame, feeling belittled, wondering if we're just being lazy, silly and selfish.

I love Jesus' response to Martha because it reminds me, at times, that I'm doing okay. Of course I know that those who don't work don't eat. The Bible is also clear about that. But we need to remember that Mary's default choice, and that of people like me, isn't laziness at all. That's just us taking on the erroneous opinion of all the Martha-types who elevate all that busy work to a high position it shouldn't have. (Hey, I'm not the one who said it shouldn't be highest. Jesus did).

A world without sitting back to reflect, to study the words of Jesus, to read about the opinions and experiences of other thinkers, to try to think and process our own experiences, would be a poorer world indeed. It's not as 'in-your-face' as the Martha-work, but more important. (Once again, I was going to type the word 'equally', but he said it, not me.) I do clean my house and look after all the household members. If I didn't who would? But I don't always struggle to get it out of the way first. A sudden idea to jot down, or a conversation about spiritual or world issues with the kids will come first, even if it is sunny enough to hang another load of washing.

My aim is not to criticise the Martha-mindset of others, but just to encourage other Marys to not let it get us all down. Sure, Martha needed to learn that lesson, but I'm sure her sister did equally. It seems Mary did take it on board, because she had the right understanding and frame of mind to make that lavish gesture of worship later, when she poured the bottle of beautiful smelling lard over Jesus' feet. At least, I've read that attributed to Mary of Bethany several times. If so, I believe she wouldn't have necessarily felt the desire to do this, if she hadn't made getting to know him and ponder his words her priority over cooking and cleaning for his visits.

Mary-ladies, even though our natural inclinations may seem useless, they won't be taken away from us. So anyone who reads this, in the midst of all the Marthas who may be running around and organising as usual, don't forget that several Marys may be feeling equally bad and need their own type of encouraging feedback. Even though Marthas get overloaded with stress and need sympathy and understanding, Marys also need to feel as if we're valuable people and not essentially space-takers.


  1. A friend and I (both Marys) were talking about this just today! Excellent observations.

  2. I'm with you ladies. We must have been on the same wavelength.

  3. Great post. I'm also a Mary in a house of Martha's.

  4. Melissa, you're not alone, that's for sure :)

  5. Thanks for this, Paula. Permission to 'be' in this busy world is precious.

  6. That's right, Sue. We need all the help we can get.

  7. Great post Paula. So often I say I'm lazy know that I'm not really lazy.. I just to 'do' a lot of things because I don't notice they need doing. So love that there 'is now no condemnation' and God created us all different and unique and perfect to him.

  8. What a challenge to our modern mindsets! So true that we can easily get caught up in the "what you do makes you" value system. Yes, there are things that have to be done, but honestly, in hindsight some of the "doings" we angst over turn out to be not so important after all. Thanks, Paula.

  9. Hi Michelle and Adele,
    Thanks for your comments. It's the sort of thing we get carried away on and need a reminder from time to time, for sure.


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