children's book picture of Martha angrily baking

Martha, Martha

I often feel that Martha gets a bad rap. After all, she’s just trying to cook up something amazing for Jesus. But she turns into a stressed-out hostess, trying to make sure it’s all perfect, but poisoning the atmosphere with her grouchy attitude… that sounds a lot like me in the hours leading up to a daughter’s birthday party. If you haven’t witnessed that scenario, firstly be thankful, and then secondly (re)acquaint yourself with Luke 10:38-42.

She works hard, she gets grumpy, she complains to Jesus, and Jesus tells her to chill out.

Anyone else identifying with Martha here?

I hear the rebuke, the redirection towards peace and connection, but I’m still left wondering, What about dinner? Who’s going to take care of that?

Jesus and his retinue were in town, and Martha invited them to come visit. This was no easy task, you couldn’t just pop down to the supermarket or order a pizza. She would have been expected to host well because hospitality was so important culturally, and I expect she wanted to host Jesus particularly well because she wanted to show her love for him.

Serving was her thing, it was how she loved.

Martha had been serving and leading and loving her brother Lazarus and sister Mary for a long time. Jean Vanier has suggested that perhaps Martha had remained unmarried but in charge of the household because Lazarus (as a male the natural leader) was intellectually disabled. This idea has captivated me, it would be just like Jesus to choose a person with a disability for the kind of love he had for Lazarus. But for Martha it would have meant sacrifice and hard work. She had been serving for so long that it was her identity – her culture expected it from her, and she expected it of herself. I can just imagine the people of the village talking about how good Martha was, how self-sacrificing; praising her to her face, but pitying her behind her back. Getting sh*t done was her mode of being.

And so when Jesus comes, she is in her element.

But it all gets a bit much, and she gets pissy. Bloody Mary is just sitting around when there is so much to be done. She tries to get Jesus on her side to rebuke her sister (who after all was breaking a whole lot of cultural norms), but no luck there, the rebuke comes to her.

“My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:41-42

But what were the options here for Martha? Cancel dinner and take a seat by Mary? The disciples would start complaining about that, and her good reputation would be smeared for sure. I suspect the shift need to come not just in what she was doing, but HOW she was doing it.

The words that the NLT translate as “worried and upset” carry the meaning of being too busy, distracted and over-occupied, and troubled, with feelings stirred up to tumult and turbulence. Her response to the tasks before her was disproportionate: she was loading on too many details, and letting it her upset her. She was focussed on getting the jobs done well, unaware of her internal state, and it was negatively affecting her family relationships and limiting her potential relationship with Jesus.

Ooh, ow, that’s familiar.

I wonder what Martha’s internal talk was like that weekend? Often you have to use your Spirit-inspired imagination to flesh out the bare bones of Scripture. If I was Luke’s editor and he brought me this gospel, I’d send him back to rework it with a request for way more character development – what’s her story Luke?! Actually, I’d probably pair him up with Francine Rivers and she could work her magic.

Anyway, I wonder what Martha’s internal narrative was like? Because when it comes to your internal state, what’s happening externally doesn’t matter nearly as much as the STORY you tell yourself about what is happening.

I can imagine her: “I can’t”, “I have to”. “I can’t…, I have to…”. “I can’t take time for myself”, “I have to help others”, “I can’t voice my needs”, “I have to look after them”. (Sounds like an Enneagram 2 to me).

I can hear a narrative of constraint.

Her freedom is sitting right in the living room. But when she comes to him, she’s asks him to reinforce her narrative – to get Mary to join her in it. “I can’t sit at Jesus’ feet, I have to serve”. His response is to rewrite her story, if she’d just listen.

He doesn’t require of her the things that she requires of herself.

You don’t need to be this over-achieving, anxious, troubled person. Maybe you need to downscale your plans–Jesus would have preferred time with Martha over the fanciest of feasts–but most of all you need to let him help keep your spirit sweet.

When you’re in a state the solution is still to come to Jesus.

But instead of pointing the finger at someone else, we’ve got to open our hearts. Name the feelings, seek the peace. When the serving becomes burdensome and unhealthy, when you’re over-occupied with details, when it’s a storm in your heart as well as in the kitchen, come to Jesus.

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