I have been thinking about Mary and Martha this week. My mother — and many other women of her generation — took umbrage at this story. It seemed to show a lack of appreciation for the actual work of hospitality. It seems fine to invite friends home for dinner, but who will prepare the meal? Who will clean up? The women had been the worker bees in the church; they did the fund raising, made the coffee and goodies, ran the altar guild, taught the children, responded to the mission of the church. Usually the story of Mary and Martha was told as an elevation of contemplation and learning over the demand to serve others. No wonder it made them cranky!
Maybe we need to hear this story again. It is a story about choice after all, but maybe it does not praise one choice more than another. Maybe it is a story not just about choice, but our responsibility to ourselves to choose what is life giving over what is simply dutiful. Maybe Martha is being challenged to choose for herself, for what she needs. Perhaps her problem is that she can only choose for herself rather than impose her ideas on another.
I have been reading a novel by the late and wonderful writer, Ursula Leguin. The novel is called The Telling. In it, a society has had imposed upon it the morality, the expectations, and the purpose of life by an external system based on the industrial model of our world. In this artificial and dominating construct, the philosophy, beauty, social organization, and values of an earlier culture are under constant threat of erasure.
I was thinking how much American entertainment, clothing, religion, industry, and values dominate our planet. At last, some indigenous voices — in particular — are attempting to save the earth from the ravages of indifferent, hostile industry. Other voices call out for a civilization that values peace above productivity, education and beauty above expediency, and health above riches. It really is a question of choice for the whole planet. Our choices will determine our freedom, our compassion, our survival as a species.
We cannot choose for another. We must choose for ourselves. It profits no one to blame each other. In our time, it is important for individuals to be thoughtful, not reactive; to be calm and inquiring; to learn how to discern whatever we think the truth is about the sacred, the precious, what is holy.
On Leguin’s planet, there is no religion. What is sacred is ancient story about how to walk in beauty and peace. Here is a lovely quote from the book:
So, without the telling, the rocks and plants and animals go on all right. But the people don’t. People wander around. They don’t know a mountain from its reflection in a puddle. They don’t know a path from a cliff… they hurt themselves. They get angry and hurt each other… they want too much… people eat poison food. Everything’s confused. Everybody’s sick.
But we’re here, and we have to learn how to be here… how to study, how to listen, how to talk, how to tell. If we don’t tell the world, we don’t know the world. We’re lost in it, we die. But we have to tell it truly. Take care and tell it truly. (144-145p.)
So if Martha had wanted to study, she could have sat down. If she wanted to prepare the meal, then she could do that too. What is the better part that Mary chose? I think it was knowing what she needed to do, without imposing on another. Women must remember that we have choice. All people need to be honest about how and why we choose. For us as Christians, if we choose to follow the Way of Christ, then we must be ready to learn, and know when to take action. We need to learn how to listen without preparing an argument in our heads. We need to be ruled by compassion for all people and for our world.