woman cleaning house

The Mary and Martha story found in the tenth chapter of the book of Luke in the New Testament has always been a source of concern to me, a conscientious housekeeper who values talking with and learning from people-and who would cherish an opportunity to sit at the Savior’s feet. I have told myself, in an effort to reconcile the matter in my own mind, that we just do not have the whole story, that this is definitely one of those instances where plain and precious truths have been omitted.

A few years ago, however, I read something that put the story in an entirely different perspective. I’m referring to a 1991 BYU devotional address by Catherine Corman Parry, associate professor of English, Brigham Young University. At the time, I shared her thoughts with a number of friends. Because this issue continues to come up among women, often resulting in a lively discussion that often leaves some feeling offended or undervalued, I am sharing it once again, this time with you, my Meridian readers.

Sister Parry writes, “Let us turn now to a familiar episode in the Lord’s life, recorded in Luke, 10:38-42:

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.

And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.

But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.

And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.’

“Those of us with more of Martha than of Mary in us have long felt that this rebuke was unjust. While we do not doubt the overriding importance of listening to the Lord, does the listening have to be done during dinner preparations? Would it have hurt Mary to have joined us in serving, then we all could have sat down to hear the Lord together? And furthermore, what about the value of our work in the world? If it weren’t for us Marthas cleaning whatever we see and fussing over meals, there would be a lot of dirty, hungry people in this world. We may not live by bread alone, but I’ve never known anyone to live without it. Why, oh, why couldn’t the Lord have said, You’re absolutely right, Martha. What are we thinking to let you do all this work alone? We’ll all help, and by the way, that centerpiece looks lovely,’

“What he did say is difficult to bear, but perhaps somewhat less difficult if we examine its context. In the same way that the father in the parable of the prodigal son acknowledges his elder son’s faithfulness, the Lord acknowledges Martha’s care: Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things’ (v. 41). Then he delivers the gentle but clear rebuke. But the rebuke would not have come had Martha not prompted it. The Lord did not go into the kitchen and tell Martha to stop cooking and come listen. Apparently he was content to let her serve him however she cared to, until she judged another person’s service: “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me’ (v. 40). Martha’s self-importance, expressed through her judgment of her sister, occasioned the Lord’s rebuke, not her busyness with the meal.”

(Catherine Corman Parry, Associate Professor of English, Brigham Young University, BYU Devotional Talk, 7 May 1991 Wilkinson Center Ballroom)

Could it be, as Sister Parry explains, that the Mary and Martha example is not really about working with things versus listening to people, but rather it has to do with judging and condemning? Have we worried all these years about a supposed conflict between being a Mary or a Martha when that is not the point of the story at all? Certainly Jesus Christ, who is a God of cleanliness and order, understands that there is work that must be done, or as Sister Parry puts it, “there would be a lot of dirty, hungry people in this world.” Is not He really teaching, through this example, “Judge not, that ye be not judged?”

There is a lesson to be learned from Luke 10:38-42, but maybe not the one many people have assumed. It’s important to pay attention and hearken to the real issue. By not judging each other, we are free to act in each circumstance as the Spirit dictates. Sometimes that will be as a Mary, and other times that will be as a Martha.

Daryl Hoole, mother of eight, has been a best-selling author and popular lecturer on home management and family living. Now retired, she enjoys freelance writing. She is answering questions from readers who contact her at ask@theartofhomemaking.com“>ask@theartofhomemaking.com. Her “At Home” column appears on the second Monday of each month on Meridian. This information is also available on her personal website at www.theartofhomemaking.com