Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 English Standard Version)
Martha is a caregiver.
- The fact that it is “her house” is unusual for the time. A woman lived in a house identified as her father’s until she married, and then lived in her husband’s house. Martha is in charge of a house, for reasons not explained.
- We know from the Gospel of John that she had a brother, Lazarus, who died. This suggests that he was either chronically ill or taken by a terminal illness, since he should have been heading the family in the absence of a dad or a husband.
- She had a younger sister named Mary.
- She practiced the hospitality expected by her culture, welcoming travelers in for shelter and food. A Rabbi named Jesus and his students were frequent guests.
So Luke describes this scene in which Jesus and his students – disciples – are in Martha’s house. Her God and her desert culture demand that she give them rest, food and drink. As a devout woman and one accustomed to caring for others, she sets about her duties. The story tells us that there is much serving – Jesus has a big group with him and the work is to the point that Martha is overwhelmed.
Her kid sister Mary is obligated to help with this work. But Mary sits there as if one of Jesus’ disciples. An embarrassing situation is developing. Girls are not allowed to be rabbinic students. She is neglecting her duty and assuming a role that is not permitted, while dedicated Martha struggles to do the right thing and provide care.
Finally, Martha has enough and blurts out, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”
So many caregivers ask variations on this question. Why don’t my siblings help with my aging parents? Why isn’t my spouse more hands-on with our special needs kid? Why do people turn away instead of help? Doesn’t God care about this load I carry?
Jesus does not judge Martha. Instead of a dismissive, “See here, woman,” he calls her by name, twice. “Martha, Martha…” I imagine that it was a soft spoken response to reach through her agitation.
He recognizes and honors what she’s going through. “…you are anxious and troubled about many things.” He seems to say, “It’s more than just the dinner, isn’t it? There’s a dying brother and a baby sister and God-knows-what painful events that dumped this whole family on you. And now my friends and I have piled into your house.”
Preachers often treat what’s next as a rebuke of Martha. “…one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” The good portion – Isn’t this more likely a bit of tension cutting humor that Jesus offers? Martha is struggling to put out heaping servings of food for this bunch, but Jesus says there’s a “better portion” to be had by just sitting down like Mary, and just like Jesus himself and the other guests.
Jesus cares about Martha enough to waive his entitlement as a guest and as a man of that time. He’s telling her that feeding his pals and him can wait. Martha, too, can do the scandalous thing and sit down and hear about the eternal love that God has for her. That’s the good portion, the only thing necessary. She doesn’t need to kill herself for others. She’s worthy of care – divine care at that.
Fast forward back to our own day. Holidays are at hand. Caregivers will be anxious and troubled about many things, trying to make things pleasant for others while unpleasant demands pile up and pile on.
Like Martha, try to hear a quiet voice speaking your name, letting you know that it’s OK to be still. Scandalously still. Tradition-breaking, rule-bending still, if just for awhile.
Because Jesus is saying that God does know and care about you.