Despite its brevity, this lesson has space enough to explore at length. Are you a Mary or a Martha? Why did Jesus commend Mary for having chosen the better portion? Is Martha trying to show up her sister the way I might show up my younger brothers when I perceive that they have failed to pitch in with household chores? To what extent was Martha “distracted” by her serving responsibilities? How often am I caught in what feels like an important responsibility even though it’s really an empty occupation that leads only to anxiety?
Today, I’m curious what this story says about family relationships. What was the relationship between the sisters like when Jesus wasn’t around? Sometimes the advent of an out-of-town guest can bring to the surface some of the underlying tensions between siblings or other family members. In my experience, “big” moments like this one force adult children right back into the roles they had when they are growing up. And unlike the average houseguest, Jesus doesn’t eschew the opportunity to address the sisters’ imbalance.
“Jesus,” Martha asks, “Won’t you tell Mary to get up and help me?” That’s an odd question to ask an outsider. Usually families keep their disappointments to themselves—perhaps complaining to another relative when the guests aren’t listening. Martha, though, can’t contain herself. Perhaps a lifetime of being the older sister was too much to bear. Or maybe she perceived that Jesus, a man of some authority, would take her side or at least make her feel better about her work. So she asks, but the answer she gets isn’t what she expects.
If we were in Jesus’ place, most of us, I think, would attempt to sympathize with Martha, thank her for her hard work, but not rebuke Mary either—steering a careful path between the sisters so as not to join in the tension that already exists. Jesus, on the other hand, jumps in with both feet. His answer, although critical of the critical sister, leaves room for sympathy: “Martha, you have become distracted by all your serving.” She was distracted…overly focused on the job at hand. But he also refuses to allow the animosity between sisters to continue. He breaks into a potentially broken relationship strongly enough to pull it back together.
How many of us are in family relationships that mimic that of Mary and Martha? How few of us can be honest enough to move beyond it?