I am Mary and Martha


I worry about stuff. I wonder if I’m forgetting something. I get tiny palpitations when the phone rings (“Am I in trouble? Did I do something wrong?”). I sometimes get stressed as early as 3 sips into my morning coffee about whether or not I’ll be able to “get everything done” in a given day.

This morning, about 3 sips into my morning coffee, I read in Luke 10 about Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha. It’s a great and short story, and I recommend reading it really quickly.  I have read this little story a number of times but this morning, for some reason, it was real to me. Jesus comes to their house, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching while Martha is stuck with all the work, Martha asks Jesus to make Mary get back in the kitchen and help, and Jesus in a nutshell says no.

It was real to me this morning because I felt like I was in the story. First, when Jesus responds to Martha. True to form, Jesus answers the question beneath the question. He speaks to her anxious heart, hiding behind concerns about Mary helping with housework. In other words, she comes to Him about Mary and he responds to her about Martha. And instead of chiding her for tattling and not minding her own business, He comforts her. He says her name twice, which my husband just told me was an especially affectionate and tender way of addressing someone in their culture. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better share, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus comforts her, calls out her sin, and instructs her all in one sentence. This morning, I felt like Martha in the story, and I felt the powerful freedom Jesus’ words brought to her. I heard, “Hannah, Hannah, I know you. I know what’s really eating you alive and causing you to gnaw your fingers to the bone. But don’t you know, you don’t have to live that way? The heavy burden you carry is not one I’ve given you. I release you from your expectations and invite you just to sit and enjoy Me. Let Me take care of the details. That is all that’s really necessary.”

Jesus doesn’t dialogue with Mary in this story, which might be why there haven’t been as many “Chicken Soup for the Soul” reflections on her. But this morning, I felt like Mary in the story, as well. See, I’ve written a lot on my blog about my anxiety concerning budgets, grocery lists, and to-do lists, but I haven’t written a lot about my anxiety as a seminary student. A female seminary student.

I didn’t start school expecting to feel this way, but in the last few years I’ve begun to notice that in many ways, I am in a man’s world. Often I am the only woman in the room or seated at the table. Being fairly loud and obnoxious, most of the time I can be brave about it. But every now and then, I find myself thinking, “Jesus, am I just elbowing my way to Your table, inviting myself to sit in and listen in on something that’s not really “for” me? Do you just tolerate my presence like I’m the kid sister in the corner, listening in?” Every now and then, I feel like the third (or twenty-third) wheel in the world of Christian ministry and theology.

But then I read this story and realize Mary probably had it even worse. I read recently that the most shocking part of this whole scenario is not Martha being left to work alone, but Mary having the audacity to enter the “man’s domain” of her culture and sit at the Rabbi’s (teacher’s) feet with the men. Imagine the eyes burning a hole in her back. Imagine the courage she must have had to sit there anyway, and the desperation she must have had to hear more of Jesus’ words, no matter the cost. That is how I feel about being in seminary. It may be awkward at times, and I may feel uncomfortable or even feel eyes burning a hole in my back at times, but I want to hear what Jesus has to say. I must. Even if it means being the twenty-third wheel, it’s worth it to me if it means I can get closer to Jesus.

But then I see how Jesus handled Mary’s situation, “It will not be taken away from her.”  I see that Jesus – Jesus — defended Mary’s spot at his feet next to all his male disciples, and I realize that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. The Rabbi says I have a right to be here. I realize that He has called me to Himself, He invites me to sit at His feet, and He declares it won’t be taken away from me. I realize, “He doesn’t see me as a third-wheel. I’m not an outsider to Him.”

This morning, I felt like Mary in the story, and I felt the powerful freedom Jesus’ words brought to her. I heard, “Hannah, Hannah, I know you. I know what’s really eating you alive and causing you to gnaw your fingers to the bone. But don’t you know, you don’t have to live that way? The heavy burden you carry is not one I’ve given you. I release you from others’ expectations and invite you just to sit and enjoy Me. Let Me defend your right to do so. That is all that’s really necessary.”


Martha and Mary in Ministry

medium_6832493862This last week a miracle happened in my life. I had a full twenty-four hours with no “church stuff” in it. One might think that using the term miracle here is a bit flippant, but when you’re a solo pastor, in the fall, miracle is the only appropriate way to describe a real day off. Until this day occurred, I had not had a Saturday off since mid August, and my coveted Mondays off had not occurred in three weeks because of the funerals that kept popping up. Throw in my first-born child, who is 5 months old and needs to eat every 2 hours because, as his pediatrician says, “he’s too chill to demand food when he’s hungry”, and my life pretty much resembles a chaotic mess.  I don’t mean to whine (ok, maybe a little bit), but for real, that day off was desperately needed. There was a point last week when I seriously considered whether this pastor thing was all worth it. I’m approaching my first anniversary in this congregation and ordained ministry. Is this really how it is going to be for the rest of my life? I love Jesus and all, but come on; a girl needs a day off once in a while.

All of this to say, that when I read Luke’s brief account of Mary and Martha, in an all too uncommon prayerful moment that was truly Spirit led, I said, out loud, “Martha, I totally feel you.”

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)

We’re so often told as women in ministry that we are to strive to be like Mary in this story, seated at the feet of Jesus, learning and being a good disciple. We hold her up as a role model; as validation that, yes, even women are encouraged to be followers of Christ. Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus says. So should we.

I’ve claimed Mary throughout my life; seen her in the women clergy who guided me through discernment, embraced her through missionary work, seminary and even the chaos of hospital chaplaincy. Mary was my model, the one who would not be distracted by life. Mary was the woman who wanted to be with Jesus because it is where she was called to be, and that was ok. She was a woman who gave me permission to “be” in ministry. Martha, on the other hand, was just that other sister, the one who let tasks consume her and didn’t take Jesus, Mary, and the other disciples seriously. Getting dinner on the table was more important than learning. That’s not who, or what I wanted to be as a woman in ministry.

Oh, how wrong I was. I’m claiming it right now, Martha is the woman I resemble more often than not these days. Martha, the woman who is running that house like a boss. Making sure the dinner preparations are going as planned. Getting the rooms ready for all the visitors, who I am sure are also staying the night, meaning that beds have to be made, sheets clean, and don’t forget the extra tooth brushes in case anyone forgot to bring their own.

I now know why Martha came bursting through that kitchen door, mad as hell at Mary. “Can’t I get just a little bit of help around here? I shouldn’t be doing this all on my own.” Martha’s voice is my voice, at home and in ministry.

The challenge in pastoral ministry, I am starting to realize, is to find a good balance of Mary and Martha. The reality of being a solo pastor is that things do have to get done; bulletins, committee meetings, and funerals. The reality of being a mother and a spouse is that dinner has to be made, laundry needs to be done, and emergency trips to the pediatrician happen. Our Martha’s are calling out to the Lord, “please just tell someone to help me!” But there is another side to the reality of ministry and motherhood. There is a Mary side. Those moments of profound holiness, where time is allowed to stand still and I can sit at the feet of the Holy and listen. The difficult part is recognizing when I can give myself permission to do this. The list will always be full and something will probably get left undone. Instead of Jesus’ curt response to Martha in the passage, I wish what he had said was “Martha, you look really busy. Come here and sit with Mary for a while, then we will all go in the kitchen and help you finish dinner.” These are the words I need to hear in ministry. That what I am doing, even in those overwhelming Martha moments, is what I am called to be. But that I am also called to rest from my labors, to sit down and just listen, even if for a moment, because I am called to be there too.