Marthas Anonymous

A few days ago, I dashed upstairs from the church basement, still wearing the apron I had donned to protect my nice Sunday togs from water and grease splashes, to hear the bishop of Georgia, our church’s former vicar, deliver his sermon.

(Yes, this apron).

(Yes, this apron).

It was a baptismal service, so the place was packed–our familes, of course, plus a swarm of pregnant women and families I’d never seen, all there to take advantage of a bishop’s visit to have their babies baptized. I grabbed a seat at the very back, realizing we were much further into the service than I had imagined downstairs.

As I and my partner prepped a coffee hour repast heavy on local, seasonal ingredients for the guests, the worshippers upstairs had gotten all the way to the sermon. And ironically enough, for a woman who had sneaked into the back row of the sanctuary without taking the time to doff her apron, the text of said sermon was taken from the gospel reading, the Martha/Mary smackdown as recounted in Luke 10:38-42. If you grew up in the church (as I did), you know this story well.

Briefly, Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus are having a quiet day, when there’s a knock–and lo! Jesus is on the doorstep with the Twelve and heaven who knows who else in tow. Everybody ravenous, the laws of hospitality needing to be observed, Martha gets to work in the kitchen, because that’s what, even in the elliptical terms of scripture, Martha apparently does. One imagines not an urn of olive oil or jug of wine out of place when company’s expected in Martha’s house. And when it’s not, Big Sis has skills–knows what to do to meet the challenge and how to get it done.

But in this particular domestic emergency, she looks around and realizes a key player on her team is missing. Baby Sis. Mary. Who, when finally located, is prayerfully seated at the feet of the Lord rather than pulling her weight.


Nowhere was I able to find an image of Martha in which she looks even remotely Middle Eastern, but this has got to be my favorite of the rest: in Renaissance garb, in a European kitchen, surrounded by an unbelievable bounty of fish and game. Vincenzo Campi’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary–Martha’s so much the dominant figure you have to peer waaay back in the left corner to see Christ and Mary.


Martha, justifiably aggravated, starts raising cane (in and of itself a testament to the intimacy of her relationship with Jesus). “Lord, I need some help,” she says. “Will you kindly correct Baby Sis and send her into the kitchen where she belongs?”

The Lord politely declines:

“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.”

Let’s take a moment to let those words settle. To imagine the sermons concocted from those words since they were first set down in roughly the year 60 C.E., to imagine how they’ve been used to support familiar family and gender arrangements–as well as feminist critiques of said arrangements. Now let’s take a further moment to imagine me in my Talbot’s frock, my Dansko mules, and my fetching ’50s-housewife apron–a modern-day Martha (not Stewart) surrounded by prayerful Marys–listening to this sermon about the relative merits of service and grace.

Can you say cognitive dissonance?

For most of the years I’ve heard this story, my sympathies have been firmly with Mary, whom I’ve imagined as a dreamy kid harassed by a bossy, crabby older sibling. Jesus, meanwhile, has gotten a “go Team Jesus” from me for rebuking traditional gender arrangements as he issued a smackdown to that pill, Martha.

The bishop’s view was far more nuanced, more generous than mine. Jesus, he argued, reproached Martha not for being bossy and crabby but for being so worried, so busy with doing for others that she couldn’t focus on the gift of their presence… And that in its way is quite a lovely interpretation.

But I found myself unable to focus on the rest of the sermon, which was about what might have been meant by the cryptic phrase “but few things are needed–or indeed only one.” As I looked around the packed sanctuary, imagining that very crowd pouring into the parish hall in 20 minutes’ time expecting a snack and a cold drink and a celebration of the joyous day, I realized, for the first time ever, that, regardless of her motivations or emotions, Martha had asked a question. In effect, she had asked, “who’s going to help me?”–and Jesus had given no answer to that question at all.

Now, I get it. I know fully well the bishop had no intention of casting aspersions on the role of service–not in families, within congregations, or in society at large, as all institutions would grind to a shuddering halt without willing hands and serving hearts. What he was trying to mine was that deep vein of unworthiness that lurks just beneath the surface of so many of our psyches: those voices that tell us we are nothing, that it is only in doing, endlessly and forever, that we might possibly become something. He was chiding our perfectionism, trying to get us to hit the pause button on our endless busyness, averring that it is our imperfect beings, rather than our acts, that matter to God–and that God proved it by sacrificing Christ on the cross…

But honestly, while I really am not one of those people who thinks that all sermons are about me, who leaps to offense at words I imagine to have been spoken from the pulpit, it was hard to sit there and not feel deflated. I and my partner in love and life had spent many hours and no little creativity in crafting a meal for the day that was fresh, seasonal, healthy, and meatless. Our timing was impeccable, too. The hot dish in that meal would be served piping hot–the fruit and the Southern style deviled eggs, refreshingly cool–the sweet tea with lemon would be bitingly cold. And while the result would be remarked on, certainly, the effort required to achieve that result would be … largely invisible. And we were OK with that.

That is the paradox of service–traditionally, women’s–work. So much of it is hidden from view. As Marjorie Devault wrote in her 1990 study of married women’s work within the American household: “When one person takes responsibility for work, others rarely think about it. Even the one who does it–because so much of her thought is never shared–may not be fully aware of all that is involved. Her work can come to seem a natural expression of caring.” Thus, invisible … and on Sunday, in my own church, that very invisibility was being reinforced, if quite unintentionally, by a very high authority indeed.

But let’s consider those words more deeply. Is there anything natural about Martha’s response to her dilemma: the need to provide a meal, on short notice, in an era before convenience foods or modern kitchen appliances, for upwards of 20 people? And what about modern-day congregational Marthas like me? With entire television networks and forests worth of tree products sacrificed every year to produce content revealing “kitchen secrets,” is it even possible to imagine anything natural about providing a “coffee hour” experience for a crowd of 85?

No, absolutely not. There’s nothing natural, spontaneous, innate, or artless about any of this. All these activities require preparation, intentionality, vigorous mental and physical activity, plus a soupcon of inspiration: in a word, work. Some, like me, find it enjoyable work. Challenging work. Rewarding work. But still… work.

Now the danger of becoming indispensable in–or culturally identified with–performing any job of work is that it’s difficult for people to imagine you doing anything else. Just think of the antebellum “mammy” or the domestic servants in The Help. Culture, over a roughly 200-year period, had assigned to African American women the job of caring for white families. So powerful was this controlling metaphor that African American women, even in the era of tempestuous fictional heroines like Scandal‘s Olivia Pope, struggle with its implications for their lives still.

Returning to the biblical Martha, perhaps she really wanted to be sitting at the feet of the master–but there were 20 people to feed. Martha is not silent in the face of the perceived injustice. But the form of her plaint suggests that Martha had become inseparable from the function she performed in the household: her superlative skills were seen not as a result of disciplined application and repetition but as a natural expression of her personality–and her love for her family. It may well be that Jesus knew that Martha chafed at this role; or that he looked into her heart and saw her raw envy of Mary. If so, the reminder that in her very being she was perfect and beloved of God might have served as a useful spiritual lesson. But it did not solve the immediate problem, then or now, of hungry people waiting to be fed…

I got many compliments during coffee hour that day. I answered them all by saying: “Just call me Martha”–a response that invariably elicited a puzzled look, followed by a giggle or a guffaw, and occasionally a thoughtful conversation.

Greatly daring, I even gently chided the bishop when I finally met him. “Hi, my name is Martha,” I said offering my hand. He shook it warmly, until alerted by the smothered laughter of the bystanders that something was up. “Really, it’s Kendra,” I said, “but I’m one of the congregation’s Marthas.” “Ohhhhh,” was his reply as he eyed me a touch warily. Both of us elected to leave it at that, and the conversation drifted into shallower, more serene waters.

But I keep thinking about Sunday. How, I keep wondering, to redeem the Martha within without stifling the Mary?

If school were in session, I’d turn this into a  teachable moment in my “feminist geographies” class, with Mary and Martha offering the  opportunity to examine women’s lives and roles in the private spaces of their own faith versus the public spaces of their roles in church and society. Can’t you just imagine the conversations we could have, parsing the possible meanings of Mary’s intrusion into male space and Martha’s failed attempt to restore her to her proper “place.” I know I’d certainly relish sharing the stories and imagining the journeys of the Marthas and Marys in our own lives and spaces for worship with an audience of young minds.

I think it’s possible to resolve the dilemma, though the resolution comes less from my reading of scripture and more from my reading of DeVault.

“When couples begin to share the work of care, its ‘workful’ unnaturalness–the effort behind the care–is necessarily exposed,” she writes a bit further on in the article I cited earlier. Her point is that, while people say they value egalitarian family arrangements, and sincerely mean what they say, pervasive cultural expectations may prevent them from actually reproducing those arrangements in their own lives. That is to say, our internalized Marthas are always there worrying and keeping us chained to our internal hamster wheels, refusing to let us make space for Mary’s dreams.

So here’s a thought: What if Mary had actually helped Martha? Not grudgingly or in blind obedience or at someone else’s orders, but with the intention of completing the work faster so that they both had time to sit with Jesus and absorb his teachings? Let’s say for the sake of argument that Martha had no interest in Jesus’s teachings. Finishing the work faster would have been a boon nonetheless, allowing her time to do something she liked and making her less resentful of Mary’s freedoms, because Martha would have shared them.

Here’s an even more daring thought, but one that we’re free to think because we’re no longer 1st century Jews, living in a rigidly hierarchical society, under occupation by a foreign power: What if the guys had all pitched in in the kitchen, too, so that everyone, male and female, slave and free, could have heard the message as they produced the meal and shared in the celebration?

We Christians are full of talk about love not being an emotion but an action. We spend lots of time considering the barriers to such action. What if the person is homeless or a prisoner or… George Zimmerman? we ask. Here’s something we hardly ever ask: What if the person is my “sister” Martha, whom I see every (Sun)day, whom I’ve been treating like … “the help”?

Just to be clear: I feel needed and appreciated by the members of my congregation. Because we’re embarking on feeding as a ministry, the work that I do is perceived as not mere service but “servant leadership,” and I’m praised as much for my leadership as for my spinach Provencale. But there are many Marthas toiling unacknowledged in the metaphorical kitchens of our families, our churches, our nation, the world … With the Feast of St. Martha less than a week away, I think we should all consider saying a prayer–or, better yet, offering a hand–to them.

Joachim Beukelaer's The well-Stocked Kitchen, or, Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary. Again Mary's waaay in the background

Another 16th century image: Joachim Beuckelaer’s The Well-Stocked Kitchen, or, Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary. Again, Mary and Christ are waaaay in the background, and the food–and the women preparing it–are the stars of the show.

For further reading, try Marjorie DeVault, “Conflict and Deference”–about how women reproduce their own subordination by deferring to men’s food preferences and thus reinforcing the “naturalness” of their labor. It can be found in Food and Culture: A Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (Routledge, 2008). Much more recent data on the gendered division of household labor is available, though. Andrew Cherlin’s “American Marriage in the Early 21st Century” and Scott Coltrane’s “Household Labor and the Routine Production of Gender” are both must-reads and both found in Michael Kimmel and Nancy Aronson, eds., The Gendered Society Reader, 4th ed. (Oxford University Press: 2011).

1 comment for “Marthas Anonymous

  1. July 28, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    I read this the other day and have been pondering it all week. I too remember thinking something similar about that poor Mary, but as I read this, I realized I’m a Martha – and I no doubt react very similarly to Marys when our paths cross and I’m on a productive bent.
    Very thought provoking post.

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