That Mary and Martha story can be SO frustrating. Martha is busy in the kitchen. Mary is hanging out with Jesus. Martha wants her sister’s help. And Jesus says no. According to Jesus, Mary’s got it right.
Since I just finished baking 50 dozen holiday cookies (35 dozen for a charity fundraiser), I’m feeling a little irritable on Martha’s behalf.
I like to bake. Sometimes I say — only half joking — “I bake, therefore I am.”
If I find myself with half a Saturday free, I’m likely to fill the house with the yeast and molasses scent of fresh-baked oatmeal bread. This year, I finally learned to make wonderful shortbread (thanks Ronda Swaney for the recipe!). I used to make wedding cakes as my wedding gift to couples I knew. Since I don’t have grandkids to spoil, I made Easter cupcakes for my brother’s grands one year.
And when the nonprofit where I work needs food prepped for an event … well, I like to play with food. The colors and textures of sliced red peppers, glistening black olives, crunchy wheat crackers, and green-skinned cucumbers are just a different palette than our artists use.
“Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things, but only one thing is necessary,” Jesus tells the busy sister.
Most of us hear that as: “Chill! Sit! Stop doing already.”
What are the many things Martha is worrying about? If we drop her into our century, it might be a roast and a chicken on platters, a fresh-baked loaf on a cutting board with some homemade herb butter in a Depression glass dish, a couple of vegetables, a Pinterest-worthy dessert or two on the side table … and that’s one amazing table setting she’s got underway. Someone needs to Instagram it! Where’s Mary? Wouldja take a few pictures, Mary? … Mary?
Mary chose the better part, Jesus said. In the 21st century, we tend to hear that as an order to sit. Stop cooking. Stop serving. Stop doing. Be like Mary. Focus on the relationship with the guests. It’s not all about making a dinner that your friends will admire when you post the picture. It’s about the people you’re feeding.
And to feed people, someone does have to make food. So what was Martha’s mistake?
Someone told me once that when Jesus told Martha only one thing was needed, he could have been saying that the guests didn’t need a feast of many dishes. A casserole would have been fine. Just one dish. Much less hassle. And much more time to spend with the company.
That doesn’t mean that it’s bad to cook, even passionately. That doesn’t mean that sitting is always better than preparing a meal. It just means that Martha got out of balance. She got focused on showing off her mad kitchen skills instead of on making her guests welcome and enjoying them.
I totally get Martha. I’m way more comfortable doing stuff than just hanging. Take today. I spent five hours in the kitchen baking 15 dozen cookies for a fundraiser (and starting a crockpot cacciatore) before I hauled a carful to the landfill and drove the cookies to the event. I got to the event, I did a lot of arranging and rearranging of cookie trays, photographing a holiday parade, and chatting about business with a studio owner and the president of the downtown association. Plus I made a quick run into Reny’s (“A Maine Adventure”) to pick up gifts for the holiday party in two weeks.
I had fun.
I’m the kind of person your grandmother was talking about when she said, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” If I’m not busy doing something useful, my brain starts sliding down an icy slope and an emotional crisis will hit like an avalanche before I know it.
Sometimes I’m busy doing something for a local charity. That’s what my mom did a lot. She took the 5 am shift five days a week at a local thrift shop, hauling in (or hauling to a dumpster) whatever had been dropped outside the doors overnight. She knit endless hats and mittens for Christmas charities and homeless children.
Sometimes I’m busy with a hobby I enjoy. That’s what my dad did a lot. He built things out of wood: toys and furniture and clocks. He could spend a full day standing in the same spot outdoors waiting for the right clouds to blow into the landscape he was photographing.
Sometimes I’m busy making something I need. My brothers are way better at this than I am. I make things like cat beds and table runners. They make cherry tables and truck beds.
My family likes to do stuff. One brother told his in-laws this Thanksgiving that they’d join the dinner if they were allowed to “work it off.” So while his wife weeded through a 100-foot greenhouse with her mother, he helped his father-in-law with some heavy chores. When one sister wanted the other to visit, she said she needed help with a project.
I suppose that many people would describe my family as a bunch of workaholics who don’t know how to enjoy ourselves. We describe ourselves as New Englanders — thrifty and hardworking. We have more fun raising your barn than raising a glass.
So are we Martha? The problem with Martha isn’t just that she works but that she works when she doesn’t need to. She creates work for her sake, not for the sake of those who receive it.
And Mary … are her hands truly idle? Or are they working hard at learning, when that’s the most valuable task at hand.
The story of Mary and Martha reminds us that at every moment, God has good work for each of us to do. We’re not called to do too much of a good thing, like Martha, trying to drag others into our frenzy of excessive activity. We’re not always called to sit and listen (although when Jesus is speaking, it’s certainly wise to listen!).
The story of Mary and Martha tells me not to stop doing, but to do only what matters.
I bake, therefore I am. And as long as God allows, I will keep baking.