I am a recovering first born, a recovering Martha and a recovering “human doing” who is learning to be a human being.
For years, I hated the Martha and Mary story in the Gospel (Luke 10:38-42).
In my mind, the story went like this: Martha hospitably opened her home to Jesus and his disciples. Knowing Jesus and his disciples were hungry and tired from travel, she worked hard to prepare a feast for her guests. Only the best for the Lord, she thought. But there was so much to be done to feed so many hungry grown men, so she quickly felt overwhelmed. She turned and saw her sister, Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet listening. That sight really rubbed her the wrong way. So, she sourly complained to Jesus about receiving no help and being left to do all the work.
Now, that was not a very kind move. Using a modern concept, Martha “triangulated” Jesus. Instead of quietly telling Mary to come and help, she whiningly accused Jesus for permitting Mary’s idleness. And guess what Jesus did? Not only did he not send Mary to help, he pointed out to Martha that she was worried and upset about many things that caused her to miss the only one thing that was necessary. Furthermore, Jesus said Mary made a better choice.
What? How could Jesus say that? Imagining being Martha (as I could not have imagined being Mary), I felt chastised, hurt and betrayed by Jesus.
It took many years of softening before I was able to hear the love and truth behind what Jesus said. Only then did I come to really appreciate this story. I came to see my compulsion to being Martha, always productive. Like Martha, I equated being busy doing God’s work with being a good Christian, but overlooked the most important thing.
And what is that most important thing? It is the personal experience and love of being with Jesus. And if love is the most important message Jesus taught us, then loving has a lot to do with being with the person we most love. If we are to love God and love one another, then loving is about spending time with God and each other. However, we are inclined to allow life’s service to take priority over time with God and with each other.
Each person shows affection in different ways. Both Martha and Mary loved Jesus. Martha showed her love to Jesus through cooking for Jesus. Mary showed her love by sitting and listening. Yet Jesus said Mary made the better choice. Martha’s mistake is repeated every day by Christians worldwide. We live in cultures that forgot how to simply be with one another, getting to know one another.
For Martha, hospitality was important. Cooking a wonderful meal was important. However, like Martha, when tasks or activities become more important than relationships, we focus more on doing than relating; we care more about outcomes than being present. Similarly, when we think ministry is “doing for God” and “doing for others,” we may miss out on being with God and one another. We become outcome-driven rather than relationship-oriented. We forget that love is the most important focus, not accomplishments or outcomes.
The attitude of “doing for” can be dangerous. “Doing for” may imply that the receiver is a passive person who does not have power or ability to choose or do for themselves. The problem with “doing for” is often that the doer serves in a way that she presumes the needs of others, often without consulting. How often do parents, partners, friends or the helping professionals (out of good intention) say to their children, partners, friends or clients that “I am doing this for you” when the other party may secretly scream out in his heart “but that is not what I want” or “I did not ask for THAT,” and therefore appear unappreciative of what is being done “for” him?
Another trap of too much “doing for” is the fear of not being enough and a secret belief that one has nothing to offer except what can be done for the others. The anxiety and stress over needing to keep serving others may stem from the fear of being judged inadequate or less than perfect. It is important to note that Jesus gently admonished Martha for being “worried and upset” and losing sight of the most important thing, but not for her service. There is joy in service, but only if that service is from a perspective of love and not loaded with anxiety. Excessive stress, anxiety and fear overshadow love. Obsession over task completion overshadows the attention to relationship, to be with or to simply be.
What does “being with” mean? “Being with” is a presence. It involves listening, the willingness to be vulnerable and it involves honest self-disclosure. It leads to knowing and intimacy. It is authentic and does not hide brokenness. It is mutual acknowledgment of one’s inadequacy and propensity for making wrong choices. It is love and acceptance, supporting one another in the journey of growing closer to God.
I have always thought 12-step groups understand the meaning of being “church”— even though they do not claim an affinity to Christianity. Twelve-step groups know that being a true community means being authentic, welcoming, self-disclosing and providing mutual support. Upon gathering, attendants talk and reveal their brokenness. They allow others to see and touch that brokenness. And they allow others to love them through their brokenness. And that is church: a gathering of broken people who know that they are loved sinners — loved by God and by one another.
Attending Sunday worship is important. Serving in the soup kitchen is wonderful. But if we do not practice sitting with God and with another, if we do not show our needs, vulnerability or brokenness, if we do not learn to come together as a community of people in need of healing, then we are missing the one necessary thing of simply being with.
Finally, after years of learning to move from being task-focused to relationship-focused, I understood Jesus’ message to Martha. In essence, Jesus was saying: “Martha, I do not need you to spend hours making a gourmet four-course meal to please me, and as a result feel anxious and stressed (and cranky). I just want you to spend time with me. I do not want you to believe that I only love you because you can cook me a superb meal.” I think if Jesus were physically here today, he may even say: “Martha, leave the cooking. Let’s visit. Tell me what is in your heart. And when we are hungry, we can all be in the kitchen to prepare for a simple meal together. And, yes, that includes Mary. You do not have to feel it is all on you.”
May those of us who are Marthas hear Jesus’ invitation, put down our ladles and the endless to-do list, go and sit by Jesus and join the conversation with our fellow sisters and brothers.
Hsin-hsin Huang is an associate professor of pastoral theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. She also practices as a pastoral psychotherapist and a certified trauma consultant. She is a member of the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church of Greater St. Louis.