Grace for the Marthas 

Jesus saw Martha’s heavy-laden heart, and he sees ours, too.

This summer, I’ve been hosting a women’s Bible study in my home every Thursday night. I volunteered to host it in the spring, partially out of genuine interest in using my space to help gather the women of my church, but partially out of a fear that this could be a lonely summer. And so I volunteered; “I’d be happy to host the women’s group here!” I texted the leader. I bought extra chairs and baked brownies, vacuumed the carpet, and fluffed the pillows. “You have to behave!” I told my exuberant golden retriever, knowing full well she would not, in fact, behave.

Overall, I like hosting the study. But there is something about the experience of hosting that I haven’t liked: it made me realize that I’m a Martha. No, I’m not referring to Martha Stewart — the formerly incarcerated yet masterful hostess. I’m referring to Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus, who we meet in the Gospel of Luke and encounter again in John. 

Martha — the sister who does the dishes when the son of God was in the other room of her home. Martha — the sister who did not choose what was better. Martha — the sister who I wish I wasn’t, but know I am.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38-42)

After one chaotic Bible study without my co-leader, I ended the evening wishing I wasn’t such a Martha — wishing I could be more present with my guests, ask more engaging questions, listen more attentively, not care about the dust I saw on the lampshade. But my apartment felt too hot, my facilitating too cold. I was distracted by the (mis)behavior of my dog, then discouraged because of my distraction.

I’ve always read Jesus’ interaction with Martha in this story to be one in which he shakes his head at her, “Tsk, tsk.” But I think that reading is wrong. It is tempting to make the story of Mary and Martha into a fable about two sisters, one who wins the blue ribbon for holiness and the other who wins the blue ribbon for being an uptight busybody. While it is undoubtedly important to trade the anxious impulses of Martha for the present posture of Mary, there’s more to the story than that.

We can read Mary and Martha’s story as one that warns us against distraction or busyness, or other times as a story to teach us how to be better members of a household or better hosts. But it’s insufficient to only see Martha as a character who teaches us how to be better and not sin so much; this is the story of grace incarnate. It is a story about how Jesus saw Martha’s heavy-laden heart, and he sees ours, too. It is a story that reframes his correction not as an act of condemnation, but as care. 

If you’ve ever had to calm down a hysteric child when they are hurt, you’ve probably done a similar thing to what Jesus does here with Martha. You look into the child’s eyes and say their name, acknowledge the situation, and address a solution for healing. These steps do not necessarily stop the bleeding, calm the crying, or pacify the pain. But, their importance cannot be understated. When a child feels that their pain is seen, when they are invited to catch their breath, when someone with authority is there to calm them down, they feel safer. They feel cared for. 

When my co-leader texted me the next day to ask how the Bible study went, I took it as a moment to pause and catch my own breath. And in that moment of pause, the words of Luke 10 echoed through my mind. “‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered.” As I sat and thought, I realized that in even in my spiraling, Jesus was addressing me by name, too. “‘Grace, Grace,’ the Lord answered.” And in his answer was a word of comfort and mercy for all the anxieties and insecurities I had that night of Bible study, and many other nights, too. 

Jesus does not tell Martha that Mary has chosen better so that Martha will feel bad and do better the next time he and his pals stop by for dinner and drinks. No — Jesus tells Martha what he does because God desires to give his children good gifts, the best gift, even. He does not want our lives to be weighed down with social anxiety or people-pleasing perfectionism or our compulsion to clean ourselves up before we can be seen, known, and loved. No — Jesus extends the best kind of hospitality to Martha: he offers Martha a place to pause. To breathe in and breathe out. To not do, but be. Jesus offers his presence, his attention, his mercy. He offers himself. 

A few weeks ago, my former college pastor asked people what their favorite prayer was in the Book of Common Prayer. A number of folks named an assortment of prayers, but over half of the people that answered named the Prayer of Humble Access as their favorite prayer. 

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

I never quite noticed before, but the language of the second half of the Prayer of Humble Access is the language of hospitality. Eat, drink, clean, wash. These are the tasks of someone who is working to prepare their home for beloved guests. But there’s one more word: dwell. Jesus, not Martha and not even Mary, is our truest model for what true hospitality looks like, because his work invites us to come home with him

The Prayer of Humble Access is prayed before taking communion and serves as a reminder that we are invited to the table not because our preparations were effective (Martha) or because, at that moment, we chose what was better (Mary). Jesus welcomes and seats us as honored guests at the table that we are unworthy to even scrounge under. His grace frees us from our impulse to prepare and our dispensation to distraction, inviting us to dwell with him — forever. 

Jesus does not call out Martha because he’s trying to shame her for being busy in his presence, but because he does not want her to starve by the sustenance of crumbs. He looks into Martha’s anxious eyes and invites her to join him in a cosmic exhale. “Martha, Martha.” Breathe in, breathe out. Then, come join me in the feast. 

In our harried hosting or our holy sitting, the story of Mary and Martha reminds us that only one thing is necessary to dwell with Jesus: the abundant and great mercy of a gracious, giving, holy, and hospitable savior. 

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3 responses to “Grace for the Marthas ”

  1. Pierre says:

    This is really helpful for someone like myself who gets way too caught up in “to do” lists, inbox zero, and all that. It meshes well with the Oliver Burkeman ethos… we’re never going to get it all done, Martha!

  2. Jesse says:

    This is beautiful. – so much in the story, but also the transgressive elements – Mary sitting in male company, defying sex segregation norm, and Jesús says she’s in the right place. She’s sitting at the feet of a rabbi – who “sits at the feet” of a rabbi? Rabbinical students like Saul of Tarsus – and Jesus says she’s in the right place. Divine hospitality for insubordinate women who don’t know their place.

  3. Sally Lombardo says:

    Thank you for the grace you give to Martha. I have always thought that Jesus’ words represent the calling of Martha as a disciple, since he uses what’s called the Double Vocative. In other parts of the Bible, this always represents a unique call. In the story of Martha on the road to meet Jesus when Lazarus dies, He reveals himself in a powerful way, something he would only do for a follower. She listened, and then changed. Thanks.

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