Comparing the Sisters — Visiting with Mary and Martha, part 11

Let’s talk about the dreamer and the worker — if that is an accurate description.

This is the eleventh in a series of twelve reflections on the story of Mary and Martha, found in Luke 10.38-42. If you’d like to read the whole series, start with the first post , where they are listed in full at the end of the piece.

As always, let’s begin with the text:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” — Luke 10.38-42 (NRSV)

Black and white mugs.

Sisters: similar and different at the same time.

Comparing the sisters.

Jesus really seems to be comparing Martha and Mary, and to be perfectly honest, his words have always bothered me. It seemed a little harsh to tell Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part…” Gosh, Jesus. Didn’t you ever read psychology books that say that you really, really shouldn’t compare sisters? Isn’t this the path toward sibling rivalry, rather than the way to transform someone’s heart? I wouldn’t have said it that way. But Jesus is smarter than I am, and he did say it this way.

What I’m noticing now, as I study this passage closely, is that Jesus doesn’t say, “Mary is a better person…” or “Mary’s inner being is inherently superior…” He focuses on her choice, not her person. It is sometimes difficult to separate the two, but it is clear in the text that Jesus is not saying, “Bad Martha!” I’ve heard it said that the repetition of her name — “Martha, Martha” — is a language structure that implies care and endearment in that culture. Jesus doesn’t even say that Martha shouldn’t be working on household tasks, only observing that she is “worried and distracted.” Jesus sees each sister as a whole person, full of complex motivations and emotions, making decisions each moment about how to live.

It is easy for us to distill them into stereotypes: Mary is the dreamer, Martha is the worker. Their contrasting behavior has become a sort of cultural shorthand for us to describe obsessive activity level: “I’m being such a Martha today.” But this cannot be accurate, just as none of us are caricatures of “the dreamer” or “the worker.” We are more complex than this. We make a variety of choices, and that is what Jesus focuses on.

The credit must be given to Martha, who apparently (as we see by her conduct in John 11), did not ultimately resent the choice her sister made. Martha doesn’t shut her out, leaving the dreaming to Mary and redoubling her efforts in the domestic goddess arena. Instead, Martha receives Jesus’s challenge and listens to him. Joanne Weaver makes the case for Martha’s transformation in Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World , noting her behavior in John 11, after her brother Lazarus has died: “First, Martha left a house filled with guests and hurried to meet Jesus. This was a woman who used to be obsessed about entertaining. What would make her leave a house full of company?” Somewhere between Luke 10 and John 11, Martha practiced making different choices.

I’m glad that Martha isn’t a one-dimensional domestic tornado, but a living, complex person with a variety of responses. It gives me hope that, even if I get stuck in a choice that Jesus might gently rebuke me for, there is always another chance to turn it around.

Do I saddle myself with a caricature about my identity? How can I release it?
Do I hear Jesus talking to me about my actions? About my character? What is he saying?

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Resources used in this piece:
Having a Mary Heart in a Martha world

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