I had a Mary and Martha experience this past week taking my kids on a camping trip to Malcolm Island and later Cortez Island. Unfortunately Florentien was unable to join due to work. Although she did most of the packing to get us ready to leave. It was more the realization that the work of getting kids ready for activities in terms of clothing and the emotional labour of helping through struggles is something I would be doing more on my own. Although the story of Mary and Martha is not a story about gender primarily it can be read as such through a contemporary lens. Martha is doing the household chores, thankless tasks which need to be done in order for others to enjoy the gathering with Jesus. Mary is there for the good times, the lively conversation with the interesting guest. Often in our society women end up doing the work of Martha, whereas men end up enjoying the privileges of Mary. I realize they are both women in the story, but it’s one possible read. I also realize in some households more of the household work is shared equitably. But even there often the emotional labour is carried more by women, even if men do their share of cooking and cleaning. Beyond the typical men’s work of BBQing and yard work.
While camping I found myself in the odd position being both Martha and Mary. Except that Martha’s work always has to get done. Kids need to get clothed and fed. Cuts need bandages. Hands need to be held when someone is tired. Snacks and water need to be provided. You can try cutting back on these duties but everything comes to a screeching halt if you go down this path for very long.
I was heartened that in addition to the work that I did getting kids ready for hikes, paddling, and swimming, that I was also able to enjoy these activities as well. But it cost considerable more time and energy than when there are two parents. And I better appreciated the amount of emotional labour needed to sustain kids through the course of the day especially when someone doesn’t want to join a group activity. We camped together with another family which helped in terms of sharing workload, but also meant it was important to make community decisions for some activities. That too requires negotiation when everyone chooses to do one activity and there is a hold out. How you bring someone along when it doesn’t work for someone not to join a group activity like a hike. In that sense Martha in the Bible and the Marthas of the world deserve a lot of empathy. It’s not easy doing the work and doing it consistently. It seems easier to be a Mary who gets to enjoy the good things without worrying about the work that still needs to be done. So much of everyday life, especially parenting life is about the constant work that seems to always pile up and needs to get done.
Despite the bad rap Martha has received over time, Jesus isn’t suggesting the work doesn’t need to get done. He isn’t ungrateful for all the hospitality that he other guests receive in this household, the sisters of Lazarus his friend. Instead it’s that Martha is so overcome by anxiety that she is losing sight of the purpose of the visit. She is overcome by the work and really who can blame her? Sometimes work can be overwhelming whether in the home or office. I think about all the Marthas out there who suffer from addictions issues, some able to hide it. Sometimes they’re driven to extremes due to loneliness and the drudgery of work. Some people feel trapped by roles society gives them, whether gender roles or otherwise. A sense that a person’s place has been pre-destined by structures around them rather than freely chosen. It’s that kind of feeling trapped from which Jesus wants to free us.
Jesus says Mary has chosen the good thing, which is liberation of work. Jesus comes as an embodiment of liberation. Sometimes we are so busy working that we miss the thing right in front of us. Even when the thing is Jesus leading us beyond a life of work. Not that work disappears. But Jesus leads us to a life that is more than work. In a sense Sunday worship is beyond work. It’s unnecessary for the basics of food, shelter, and clothing. But it celebrates the best of love, beauty, and a common life beyond ourselves. It’s true that some of us work to make worship happen. But it makes churches and religious communities stand out. I think some people including in the Pacific Northwest marvel at worship, at liturgy, and music because it’s so different from so many parts of life. That we take time, receiving the invitation of the Spirit to work within us, out of which something new is born. This is something special we have to share with others. Through the pandemic people are looking for connection and church is one place in which that happens with God and with one another.
At times we might feel like Marthas in the church, always work needing to be done. It’s important we take time. To let Jesus reorient towards the freedom he promises. Freedom that work no longer defines us. Why else would the first disciples make such a big show of leaving their nets and following Jesus? Yes it’s a metaphor, but it was also a show that Jesus stood for something real. People literally dropped what they were doing and followed him.
On the camping trip we visited Malcolm Island including the town of Sointula. It was started by a group of Finnish communists who sought a new beginning, a utopia on a beautiful island. Except it didn’t exactly turn out as planned. They were successful at giving up one kind of work back in Finland, but Sointula was a cold damp place with limited natural resources. They likely had to work a whole lot just to survive. And then their charismatic leader led them into bankruptcy with failed financial schemes to keep them afloat. But some of the Finnish descendants remain in the area and on the island. One thing I noted in my brief visit are the remnants of work still visible on Malcolm Island. Small fishing sheds, commercial boats. Not just the the regular tourist fare. It’s a gritty place and a beautiful place.
It’s a testimony to Jesus and what has become Christian traditions that it didn’t just fade like a commune in hard times. Lots of Christian communities have faced hardship and death and still the call remains towards a liberation beyond work. It’s too bad we didn’t find more common ground with the Finnish communists. Apparently Karl Marx read Martin Luther, seeing the promise of liberation. But they diverge in describing how liberation is to be attained. In some ways we’re not so different. Thinking about West Coast housing and inflation we could all use some escape from the inflation that leads our society into disorder. Such that nurses and doctors aren’t sure they can make a go here without additional supports.
Maybe we’re in a moment we can do some bridge building. It not be with Finnish communists. At least I haven’t met any recently. We hear how many people have left the church. But like a race car driver it’s better to focus on the centre of the track than the edges that lead to ruin. We know churches are declining generally, but do we trust churches are capable of resurrection? Do we trust that as Marthas we can be invited to be Marys as well? So let us dream about new directions for Church of the Cross and the wider church as we follow Jesus and the promise of liberation.
It was a blessing that I could join my kids for a week of camping. A blessing to be there both as Martha and as Mary. And to better appreciate the emotional work women often perform in out lives and society. And perhaps find ways to share that work more equitably.
Know that Jesus desires your liberation from work, from everything prevents you from being fully you. So you might flourish as a child of God. Amen.