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 to help me."But the Lord answered her, " Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many tings; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her. (Luke 10:38-42)
The story of Mary and Martha, like so much of Scripture, has changed in meaning for me over the years. That's the beauty of Scripture, I think,that is it timeless. It can speak to us over and over again, continues to be relevant and contemporary, personal and corrective. It continues, indeed, to be needed.
Occasionally, as a mother of three with a house and a yard and all kinds of driving to do, I am Martha. I keep everything and everyone clean, fed and put away. I do not get to read, go to the movies or get my run in. I do (here imagine me closing me eyes and holding the back of my wrist to my forehead) what is needed for my family at my own expense. It is possible to read this passage as permission to be the martyred and under valued stereo-typical stay at home mom.
On better days, I am Mary as Martha. Or maybe, Martha with an attitude adjustment. Martha did, after all, invite Jesus in. She knew there would be some work related to that kind of entertaining, she knew what needed to be done and she did it. I read this as permission to throw a Thomas the Tank Engine birthday party, plan elaborate and nutritious meals no on would eat, don a proverbial cocktail apron and putter around the house with a hot glue gun and colorful ribbon (after all, it says it is Martha's house). Jesus doesn't tell Martha to drop what she's doing, she's not doing anything wrong. I am doing what I needs to do at this moment. I needed to nurture my family.
But most days, a mother of three in graduate school for Bible and with other ambitions outside the home, I read this text in a whole new way. Martha and Mary. I am Mary: I want to be at the feet of the master, I desperately want six more hours of study time in a day, I would love to go to that conference in Fall...I am Martha who knows that the laundry, if let lie on the basement floor will get moldy and spidery and no one will have anything to wear.... and I know that I have a paper due on August 6th... and all the time that grass is growing and growing, higher and wilder....
But the text reads, "You are distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing."
Recently, my 8 year old daughter was sitting in the back yard with nothing to do, no camp, no summer school, no chores or lessons. She said, "Mom, if time were money, I'd be rich." I answered, "If time were money there would be no "rich." We all get the same amount of time."
My mother, who made her living writing fiction, would occasionally be told by a neighbor or friend, "I could write a novel if I just had the time." She would answer, "I get 24 hours in a day. How many do you get?"
Her house, by the way, was always just one dust bunny shy of actual squalor and she was an absurdly contented person.
"There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
We all have a certain amount of time and we all have to "spend" it on what is needed. If we spend it doing something that we think isn't "needed," then we are wasting our time, our time is "taken away from us."
Now it is important to note that "needed" is not the same as "valued" or "enjoyable." It may be working a job that sucks but pays the bills, it may be having a PhD but sticking your hand in a clogged sink drain. And there are certainly times when very urgent and horrible things are happening in the playroom, when what I need is to shut the door to the kitchen and sing "Praise to the Lord Almighty" very loudly.
The point is, needed comes from within. Only you know what is really needed in any moment.
The question is not "What do I want?' or "What do I deserve?" but rather what, in this moment in time, in this context in my life, do I need to do.
As long as we know in our hearts that what we are doing is "what is needed" and not a "distraction" then our time is not "taken away from us" and we are "choosing the better part."
In my mind's eye, verse 10:43 has Martha walking back into the kitchen and saying, "I need to know that these dishes are soaking. I will need to make Mary wash them later." Then she walks back in and sits down at the feet of the Master, beside Mary and nothing taken away from either of them.