Michelle Martin

Whose job is it?

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

There’s a painting of the Mary and Martha scene from Luke’s Gospel that hangs in the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts in Brussels that shows Martha, sleeves pushed up, one hand on a broom, pointing at her sister, who is reclining next to Jesus, a dog in her lap.

Pieter Aertsen painted the scene in 1559, but it could have been yesterday. Or today. There are guests in the house, and Martha is busy cooking, cleaning and making sure everyone is comfortable. Mary, apparently, has not lifted a finger, and Martha wants Jesus to do something about it.

Jesus, we all know, demurs, telling Martha that Mary has “chosen the better part.”

Which always makes me wonder what Jesus thinks would happen if Martha decided to just take a seat as well. Or maybe she should have told Lazarus to get moving, although at that time it probably would have been seen as impossible for a man to do the housework.

But the housework — the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry — those are all things that have to be done, and not everyone can sit with a dog in their lap and listen to the Master, even if it is the better part.

Maybe that’s why, when my kids were smaller, I never minded being the one to drive them to their activities. Much of the time, that meant I could count on an hour or so to myself, reading in the lobby or even napping in the car, or, when the older two were little, I could take just one of them to the park.

Since I had taken them to drama or hockey or dance or whatever, I didn’t even have to feel guilty about my break. They were busy, and, at least for the most part, happy; I was doing something by taking them, even if I spent some time with an Agatha Christie or a Dorothy L. Sayers book.

So when I look at the painting, I completely understand Martha’s frustration, and what I think is her understanding that the world, this world at least, doesn’t work without people who see what needs to be done and do it. Mary, perhaps, has chosen the next world, and thus taken the better part.

The other thought that comes to mind is that Jesus never says Martha’s part is unnecessary. He seems to acknowledge that the work needs to be done. By saying Mary has chosen the better part, he seems to acknowledge that Martha has gotten stuck with the worse part, though he never says it in so many words.

Maybe, though, Martha is like so many of us. Maybe she has a hard time sitting still and just listening to God. Maybe she needs the motion and the busy-ness of life to feel that she has value, that she deserves to be appreciated, that she is seen and loved by Jesus. Whether she’s envious of Mary’s ability to just be with Jesus or whether she just doesn’t understand how anyone can sit when there is work to be done, she’s not there yet.

My hope for Martha is that she gets there, and spends time quiet and still, listening to Jesus. The work, whatever it is, will still be there when she’s done. Maybe then, Mary can help her.


  • family life