Forgiving Martha,
Freeing Mary

“And the pace that I have chosen suits me poorly, but I’ve come to believe it’s how it’s got to be. How many are the sunsets I’ve not noticed, and the miracles I’ve simply failed to see?”
-Martha’s World, by Allen Levi

Excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming Chasing 70: The Quest to Live Life at the Pace of Christ.

MARTHA IS ONE OF only three people in the entire New Testament who’s name Jesus repeats twice in immediate succession.

“Martha, Martha,” he said to her that day in Bethany when she ventured out of the kitchen in search of her sister Mary.

Having her name repeated in that way put Martha in good company.  The only other two with whom she shared this in common were Simon Peter and Saul-Paul.  That makes her the only female of a biblically formidable threesome.  Her words and her actions have been timelessly revisited in the years since, though overwhelmingly under a microscope of negative light.  I think it’s time we all extend the olive branch and forgive first century Martha.  In part because, if we’re honest, most of us harbor a significant measure of her likeness. Even those of us who identify more closely with her sister Mary find ourselves tending to Martha-like behaviors far more than we care to admit.

I want to come to Martha’s defense for a moment.  In some respects, I think she’s gotten a bad rap over the last couple thousand years.  I’ve never been convinced that Jesus had a problem with the work Martha was doing in her kitchen that day.  After all, he was coming over for a meal.  And while we all know now that he could have waved a corner of his robe and supernaturally produced a full feast on the dining room table, that’s in fact not what he did.  Rather, he allowed Martha, who would have known he was coming and set about making preparations hours ahead of time,  the cultural respect of putting great effort into readying the meal. 

Before our family moved to modern Nazareth, we’d read and heard and even taught on the cultural significance of mealtime in ancient Semitic culture.  Two thousand years later, not much has changed. In both the Jewish and Arab communities, shared meals involve a great investment of time and effort, not only with regards to preparation, but at least equally in participation.  Such gatherings are meant to be savored, enjoyed, lingered over.

Soon after settling in Nazareth, we learned that when visiting someone’s home for a meal, we should expect to block off at least three hours, sometimes more.  Appetizers and salads, pita and sauces, were followed by multiple main courses, then desert, then fruit, then additional sweets, possibly more fruit and of course drinks throughout.  Conversation was mixed in along the way and virtually no question was off limits. We quickly discovered that the two trigger-point topics back in the US, politics and religion, were open game in the Holy Land. 

Once it was clear that the end of the food train had passed, coffee or tea would be offered.  We learned that then, and only then, was it culturally acceptable to start thinking about leaving.

At friends’ homes in Nazareth, prior to coffee or tea, if we even hinted we were preparing to leave, we would be lovingly rebuked with the Arabic word “bikeere!”  Too early!  The word was delivered with emphasis and inflection, but also with endearment.  Being hosted for a meal in that culture was an invitation into the highest order of fellowship.  Regardless of the conversation, there was an underlying intimacy that pervaded the entire event.  Leaving “too early” was seen as an affront to that intimacy.  You left when the hosts decided it was time for you to go, not the other way around. 

That day in Bethany, Jesus would have been well-schooled in these traditions and customs.  After all, he grew up under them, his own mother no doubt having hosted her own share of guests back in his childhood home.  Ironically, in all likelihood, she would have enlisted his help in making those preparations!

The fact that Mary sits at his feet, and he commends her for this does not, in my view, automatically put Martha in the wrong.  Rather, I’ve come to believe that the mistake Martha made was one of projection: she implied and even chastised Mary for not joining her in making those preparations. I think if Martha had simply remained in the kitchen, acting upon her conviction for, and perhaps even love of serving others –practicing her own version of first century hospitality — all might have ended well.  Jesus would have no doubt praised Martha for a fabulous meal — he likely did anyway –and equally affirmed Mary in her choice to host him with her presence and attention in the other room.  The problem was Martha believed in that moment what she was doing in the kitchen was somehow more important than how Mary had chosen to spend her time with their guest.  And she projected  that upon Mary, sort of ruining the run up to what was certain to be a rich time of food and fellowship.  If Martha had simply allowed Mary the freedom in how she chose to spend that time, I’m not sure there would have been any need for the Lord’s admonishment.  He would have likely been just as pleased with Martha and her desire to serve him a memorable meal, as he was with Mary’s eagerness to sit and soak her soul in his presence.

So, let’s forgive Martha and move on.  Most of us — I’d go so far as to say the overwhelming majority — have at least some measure of Martha in our makeup, if not an abundance.  If we don’t forgive her, we will find it increasingly hard to forgive ourselves.  And then we won’t allow the Mary in each of us, longing to escape, to be released and realized.