“You’re such a Martha.”
Several Thanksgivings ago, I cleared the Corningware from my grandparents’ oak table in Bloomington, Indiana, reaching around family members still relishing their pie. I squeezed between chairs to carry the stack of dishes to the kitchen. As I scraped leftover corn pudding and green bean casserole into Tupperware, my grandmother smiled at my industry.
“You’re such a Martha, my dear.”
I smiled, puzzled.
But isn’t it the point of the story that Martha is doing it wrong?
Martha is, to be fair, the sister with whom I’ve always identified. She’s in the kitchen making snacks for the disciples while her sister hangs out with the guests. It seems unfair that Martha has to pick up the slack, and no one even notices. Her question to Jesus– “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?”– sounds a heck of a lot like conversations I’ve had with my parents:
“Mom, Amy ‘went to the bathroom’ and didn’t come back until the dishes were done. I had to do them all myself!” (This happened all the time.)
“You asked us to fold the laundry before you got back but Robert wouldn’t get off the computer to help me.” (This also happened all the time.)
The subtext was always the same– punish them! Reward me! I’m the good one! I deserve your approval and love!
I imagine Martha putting fresh figs in her prettiest bowl, setting them in front of Jesus with a smile before glaring meaningfully at her sister. I imagine her clenching her teeth when she hears Mary’s laugh above the murmur of John and Andrew’s conversation. I imagine a twinge of pain in her back as she bends down to pull bread out of the oven and her panic when she sees its blackened bottom. She burned the bread when Jesus was at her house. And Mary didn’t help at all!
Her desperate desire to please him, her overwhelming inadequacy, her fear of not getting this right– it’s easy enough to turn anxiety into anger and blame her sister for the bread. It would have turned out fine if Mary had been here to pour the wine, she mutters.
“Tell her to help me,” she says to Jesus, flustered, irritated, afraid.
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
What are you saying? That I did all this work and I still got it wrong? That Mary– Mary, who, by the way, always pulls stuff like this– was right to leave me in the kitchen alone? That I shouldn’t have bothered with the food at all? I should have let Jesus go hungry at my house? That I should have squeezed another chair between Phillip and Bartholomew, left the bread to blacken in the oven, and listened to the word of God from your lips–
Well shit, Jesus.
Or that’s what I imagine– we don’t get her response, if she gave one. I’m sure she stopped, startled. Confused. She probably went back to get the bread, but maybe she sat down with the disciples after she’d brought it out. I hope, for her sake, that Mary wasn’t smug about it.
I don’t think I sat back down at the table after my grandmother’s words. I probably kept cleaning, and then escaped conversation with a book. But I remember them, at least. I remember them most holidays, when I leave the table to clean up, when I’m annoyed that my siblings aren’t helping with dinner, when I’m too busy hosting to be hospitable. Martha, Martha, what is really important here? Jesus asks. Only one thing is needed.
It’s (probably) not the snacks.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.