Sibling tension & Jesus

Strangely when thinking about the portion of the Gospel with Martha ragging on sister Mary for not helping her prepare dinner for Jesus I had a tangential thought about mirrors. I have gotten to that point in life where I don’t really like mirrors. They may be helpful for checking whether what little hair I have left is in place, that there’s no spinach stuck between my front teeth, and that my shirt is properly tucked in. It’s just the truth telling aspect of mirrors that’s a challenge to my ego: the extra weight, the aging skin…   

But the looking-glass is not the only kind of mirror we have.  Several years ago, our youngest son wrote a Facebook post about watching his cousin’s young children for a few hours.  He wrote, “I suddenly heard “my father’s words coming out of MY mouth.  Oh NO!” This is mirroring from his childhood – some statement I made about expected behavior. More than a few of us older folk have mirrored our parent’s voices and realized it afterwards. 

I wonder if Martha – the dutiful and hospitable sister who was busying herself with putting a meal together for Jesus and his disciples – heard her mother’s voice when she came to Jesus to complain about her sister, Mary, choosing not to help with this work.  Martha’s words are: “Lord, do you not care that MY sister has left ME to do all the work by MYSELF?  Tell her then to help ME.”

Martha seems completely filled with Martha – her needs and her feelings at the moment spill over taking center stage. 

I am reminded of a time Nancy and I were traveling across Canada by train – arriving in Jasper at 7pm, five hours late.  We had arranged to travel the next day to Bampf  by a sight-seeing tour.  Promised on this tour was a trip to a glacier – the first time we had ever seen one let alone walked on one – along with amazing Rocky Mountain views.  It was lovely – except for the couple in the front seat.  They had arrived on the same train, but were completely miffed that they had spent an extra five hours on the train the day before.  They were loud, rude and demanding – they kept trying to push the tour driver to go faster – to spend less time at the glacier, and not to make other scenic stops.  There was no consideration of wishes of the other passengers.  It was all about them. They had announced in their introduction that they were psychologists who were trying to have some “leisure time” before they got to a conference. Instead of enjoying this leisure time the tour provided in nature they were distracted, annoyed and annoying.

Or as Jesus names it, “worried and distracted.”  I’ve been in that same spot – and likely most of us have been, too. There are uncomfortable ways in which Martha’s situation and response ca easily be mirrored in each of us. 

Jesus responds by tells her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus knows Martha is providing a welcome meal for him and his disciples  Why does he react that way? 

Mary is described as sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening.  It’s the end of the day, and Jesus may be reviewing the teachings & experiences of this day – this passage follows the telling of the story of the Good Samaritan.  Imagine Mary is “soaking it all in.”  She is focused, she is likely in the midst of a conversation about God and neighbor and expected and unexpected behavior.  This is the core “stuff” of Jesus’ concerns, ministry and life. I imagine Mary so focused on Jesus that she has lost sight of her sister; is completely unaware of the setting sun and the approaching night. She is fully alive to her Lord, her faith, herself.  It is her focus AND what she is focused on, that Jesus is protecting from Martha’s chastisement.

Martha’s worries about the hospitality may be real, but they are also exaggerated mundane, and as the focus of her attention they only compound and deepen her misery. She frets that Mary & then Jesus won’t join her in her worries. To worry is one thing, but to feel alone with no one to help with your worries is worse.

Martha’s dilemma reminds me of the many in our society who want and insist that others to join in their worry and distraction. They want us to engage their worry and they become incensed when we refuse to be distracted and pulled into THEIR worries.  Yet, most often their worries like Martha’s are exaggerated and their proposed solutions are of little help. It reminds me of the quote: “we were too busy mopping the floor to turn off the faucet.”

Martha is, in this instance, MY, ME, MY, ME all the way.  She is feeling left alone and put upon.  She feels she is owed her sister’s help. She then tries to triangulate Jesus into forcing Mary to join her in frenetic fretting & activity. She has created a world of distraction, demand and worry. 

That is never an easy or good place to be.  It’s a downright challenge at times. Family pressures, work pressures, building issues, illness, car trouble, the grocery list left at home, traffic – & frustration piles up, and before we know it we are in a world of ME & MY – with the accompanying thought why does everything “happen” to “me”?

Jesus says (and here you may insert your name ) “…you are worried and distracted… Choose the better part.”  Are we being asked to sit at Jesus’ feet in the midst of traffic or a bad day at work?  Not exactly, but yes, in a way we are. We are being invited to get out of a “MY, ME, MY, ME” attitude. Traffic jams are not about ME – it could be an accident, road work, or just plain heavy traffic.  A bad day is not the demonic or the universe conspiring against ME.  The problem is that to focus on these things distracts us from paying attention to the presence of God around us.  “Choosing the better part” is an invitation to see the opportunities around us to be good news to other and to ourselves. We might drive more courteously, connect with coworkers, give a smile to a worker or fellow shopper… do whatever is life giving and connects us with God, Gods people & creation.

To make this shift is not a natural response. It requires that we practice shifting our focus from the distractions, in order to seek an awareness of the presence of God in and through nature and in other people we meet as we interact with. To be present with requires focus and intention. This allows us to become lost in the present moment. And elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus tells us that in this way of “losing” our life we gain even more deeper and richer life.              

We need to practice being intentional about Jesus advice to Martha to choose the better part until it becomes our second nature…

It is all too natural and too easy to “mirror” worried, distracted, self-focused, everything is against me “Martha” type behavior.  It takes greater attention, more focus and self-awareness to be like Mary.  “Mary” behavior pays attention to relationships: with God, with neighbor, with self.  But  that response makes all the difference to us and to others. Jesus shows us that there is nothing wrong with Martha or Mary – but that Mary has managed to focus in this instance on what is REALLY important – as can we if we want to do so.

As Jesus notes, “choose the better part.” 


PS And I should add, this better part makes looking in the mirror much more tolerable.

About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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