Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Jesus Always Liked You Best

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Jesus Always Liked You Best

Article excerpt

Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things . . ." Okay, I admit it up front. I am a recovering Martha. I like to think I'm on the road to Mary who has chosen the better part, but I lapse. There are inexplicable days when my usual 4 p.m. meditation time nears that I deliberately choose Marthaism instead, escaping into the kitchen to recycle the leftovers, feeding my anxiety by rationalizing that, while I may not be choosing the better part, I am certainly choosing the necessary part. I like being busy and indispensable. But it doesn't work. Even while opening the can of mushroom soup, I long for Mary's quiet time at the feet of my Lord, soaking up wisdom and peace. It's the old dilemma of which guilt is stronger followed by a suspicion that any guilt is self-indulgent in this case. Just turn the leftovers into prayer, as Brother Lawrence would say.

My appreciation of the Mary and Martha story mirrors somewhat my own spiritual development. I once despised that story, buying into a homily-supported defense of Martha who took care of everyone but herself. At a time when the church adopted Martha's ceaseless activity as its model of the good Christian woman, what else could a preacher do but defend her? In an era when every parish had a women's service group called the Marthas who served funeral dinners, and nothing for the Marys starving for spiritual food, how could it teach that Mary had chosen the better way?

That era is not so long gone but it coincided with my young mothering days and their attendant demands from children and household. I thought Jesus exceedingly insensitive to Martha's need for help, and I likened it to males watching football on Thanksgiving, expecting an all-the-trimmings-on-the-table feast at the last whistle while frequently calling to the kitchen, "You gals ought to get in here and watch this." Every time I heard or read that passage in Luke (10:38-42), I got angry. "Easy for him to say," I muttered inwardly, "but I'll bet he ate her supper without guilt."

Accompanying this anger was a reluctance to admit that we women enjoy martyrdom and collaborate in our own oppression by competing with one another for male approval. Wasn't that what Martha was doing? "Jesus, I am much put upon. Can't you see that? She's just sitting there and I'm doing all this work. Tell her to help me." Poor Martha. Already peeved, she had to call Jesus' attention to her role as martyr, a familiar and unflattering habit we martyrs share. What's the point of suffering if nobody notices? In my frustration with feeling criticized by Jesus for trying to meet all my family's demands, I identified with Martha's unappreciated status. At this stage in my life I could have renamed the passage "the story of Mary and Martyr."

I imagined Martha's feelings when Jesus scolded her instead of Mary. Worse, he praised Mary for doing nothing but sitting in his presence. How outraged the already-martyred Martha must have been! It's times like these that make siblings grumble, "Mom always liked you best." Favoritism is the only explanation we can fathom when we're doing all the work while our siblings are being praised. Jesus' approval of Mary's lack of consideration for Martha's needs was surely perceived by Martha as his disapproval of her. How that must have hurt. Was she able to separate his disapproval of her busyness from his disapproval of her as a person? We don't know.

Let's face it, sisters. We compete for men's approval. We enjoy their criticism of other women and feel betrayed when they admire women unlike us. To return to our Thanksgiving analogy, let's imagine that one of the cooks abandoned her post in the kitchen to watch the football game with the men and then later the men say with admiration, "Boy, that Susie sure knows her football. And she knows how to have a good time on Thanksgiving Day, too." Who wouldn't feel unappreciated and put down?

Steeped as I was in all these feelings, I didn't like this story, but as I aged in grace, and as the role of women did likewise, I came to understand that Jesus was more caring than insensitive. …

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