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Mary or Martha?

Mary or Martha?

During my working life, I looked forward to retirement. I hoped to spend time doing what I wanted to do, reading all day if I so chose, or going shopping during the week when the crowds weren’t so large as on weekends. As I had a husband older than myself, I thought perhaps I would be widowed early. It turns out that proved to happen before I stopped working. I knew it was going to happen, and every day I woke up with the thought of, “Is today the day?” The day finally came, and my single life began for the first time in over 27 years. 

Still, retirement also came, and I reveled in it – most of the time. I could go to bed when I liked, get up when the cats allowed, watch whatever I wanted on TV, have a breakfast of peanut butter on toast or bacon and eggs at 10 am, and dinner of pizza or cereal at 4:30 pm. I could read all day, dust or mop the floor, or do dishes when I felt like it (and the dish cabinet and tableware drawer weren’t completely empty). It was nice.

I could study all day if I chose, and some days I would do that. Many of the books I read were religious, though I snuck in quite a few British cozies. I did some writing when the Spirit moved me and napped whenever the Spirit sent me in that direction. I had lots of “Mary” moments, but there were moments of “Martha-ism” as well. It was lovely being able to choose.

I don’t live across the street from the church like I used to, or I probably would have spent a lot more time there. There have been changes, so it doesn’t really feel like home like it did years ago. I miss that old home – but I can’t go back now. So much for being Mary, or even a Martha on the Altar Guild.

For me, life always seems to be a choice between those two exemplary women. Martha undoubtedly would keep an immaculate house, always something baking in the oven, and well-planned, healthy meals. Mary would be study the Bible, spending time in prayer, always conscious of God’s presence, and eager to sit at Jesus’s feet as he taught the disciples, never caring that it wasn’t a “womanly” thing to do when there were meals to be cooked and served, cleaning and laundry to do, or sitting quietly away from the men, sewing or mending. 

Inside the house, the women in those days had some autonomy, but it was limited to household matters only. Everything else was under male control. And retirement? There wasn’t any. Most people died before they could retire, and, provided they were rich, could have servants to do the work and make money, with children to care for them. 

I’m glad I don’t live back then. I’d miss things like the variety of food we have, often shipped from far away via fast transit that ensures stuff like fruits and vegetables that aren’t in season where I live still arrive crisp, flavorful, and fresh. I would definitely miss modern indoor plumbing, washing machines, electric lights, fast internet, and many channels I can watch on TV. I’d miss being able to buy and read books by the dozen if I so chose and on topics that I would want to read. I’d miss even being able to read since quite a bit of the world doesn’t see girls as worthy of learning anything but household care, bearing and raising children, and perhaps tending herds of goats since goats were considered womens’ work. There would be little time to be Mary since from morning until nightfall, being Martha was the only possibility.

In the story of the two sisters of Lazarus of Bethany, it is clear that the role of Martha and her busy-ness is typical to most of the world. She was doing what she was supposed to do. She was perfectly within her sphere of influence to demand that Mary also live up to the norms of the time. But Mary had chosen her path, and that, at least at that particular time, didn’t include slicing bread and cooking a meal for a group of men. 

In church, we are taught that Mary chose the better part, sitting and learning from the Master while he was on earth.  At that time, the disciples didn’t know Jesus would soon be gone, but we benefit from knowledge in retrospect. It makes all the difference.

I have lots of choices and abilities Mary and Martha didn’t have. Still, I don’t have the opportunity to sit and listen to Jesus in person. Well, if I’m into my studies deeply enough, I can imagine hearing his voice as I read the words ascribed to him by the Gospel writers. If I’m wise, I would absorb the word, like Mary, then perhaps recall them as I go around, busy in my Martha state. 

I think I need to be more conscious of where I am during the day. Am I doing things that build me up spiritually, or am I making my house cleaner and more comfortable to live in? Am I being active like Martha or being lazy and trying to fool myself into believing I’m a Mary? I’ve got some hard thinking to do (and probably some hard rearranging) to get my life in actual order, inside and out.

Image: Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, stained glass found at St. Botolph without Aldersgate, by Ward and Hughes, 1886. Photo by Andrew R Abbott, 2015. Found at Wikimedia Commons.

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, Baroque and Renaissance music lover, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter.  She lives with her three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.

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