Because I am a lot like Martha, I’ve always balked at the interpretations of this story that make it seem as if there is something intrinsically flawed in Martha’s nature, or something intrinsically superior in her sister’s. I’ve tried before to embrace the mindset that no matter how much my instincts tell me to get to the kitchen and get the supper ready, I should force myself to sit still at the Lord’s feet all the time, to claim the better portion, to do the one thing that is necessary.
But do you know what happens every single time? My brain screams, “Food! Food is necessary. Someone has to do the work!” I end up just like Martha did in this story, agitated and resentful, feeling as if Jesus is playing favorites and I am automatically on the losing end because of the way he chose to make me. And that seems unjust.
But the more I look at this story and Jesus’s words to Martha here, the more I am sure that Jesus never meant us to live in a world where we have to make a choice to be either a Martha or a Mary—where in order to seek holiness, we would have to change the temperament God gave us. I don’t think our Jesus requires us to be something we are not in order to meet his approval.
Jesus was offering Martha, who was stuck in her either-or mindset, another option, the “both-and” option. He was extending to her an invitation to the one necessary thing, the one thing we need to live in intimacy with him, no matter how we are wired. He was extending to her in that moment, just as he extends to us now, an invitation to contentment, to live unhurried and unafraid, knowing that he is present, right here in the chaos of our everyday lives. And we can embrace that contentment whether we are natural sitters or natural servers. He is an equal-access Savior.
Just the Way You Are
The truth is that any one of us could choose to sit at Jesus’s feet and still be anxious and worried, distracted, missing out on the grace of the Savior’s presence—just as we could also be in the kitchen contentedly laying supper out on a platter, while we tuned into Jesus’s presence right there in our midst and drank of all that he had to offer.
What Jesus wants for you and me has very little to do with whether we sit or stand, serve the supper or contemplate at his feet. What he wants for us is to be so keenly aware of his divine presence with us that whatever we do takes on the nature of the extraordinary, and we live in a sense of wild gratitude. We can live knowing that we are completely surrounded by God, knowing that we are not working for his approval but for his pleasure. We can know that we are able to be utterly and completely confident and content in who we are and how we are wired because he is here, visiting us with his love and grace.
What great news, right? Jesus isn’t asking you to fit into a box that feels constricting and ill-fitting so that he can call you good and holy. That’s not the one thing that is necessary. Can you hear me exhaling with you?
We Are All Disciples
What Jesus desires for us, more than he demands it from us, is for us to know that we belong to him. Whether we are the ones who by nature seek the spot at his feet, or the ones who tie up their apron strings and keep their hands busy, we can all be alert and attentive. We are all invited to be disciples.
And maybe, when we learn to be content in our own natural leanings, in the cellular makeup of our skin, maybe a wider spectrum of being will open up. Maybe suddenly we’ll stop wiping those dishes dry and just leave them there sopping wet while we draw near to Jesus. Or maybe we’ll stay, but the wiping will slow, the heavy sighs will silence, and our ears will tune in to the Master’s voice instead of our own to-do list.
Jesus isn’t looking for a world full of Marys, friend, any more than he is looking for a world full of Marthas. He is looking for a world full of women who know who they are and who it is they are called to serve, women who are content because they know he doesn’t play favorites. He longs for women who know that he is universally accessible to each and every one of us, that he desires that we choose him over anxiety and worry, and that he longs for the contentment of our hearts.
Jesus longs for a world of women, of sisters, who will sit together at his feet and work together in his service, not looking to choose the better portion in order to be right or better or holier than one another, but to know Jesus more, love Jesus better, know Jesus more intimately, so that we can all stand or sit shoulder to shoulder and be content with who we are, how we are made, and what his unique calling is for our lives.
Be Content in Jesus’ Love
What if Martha had stood chopping things in her kitchen and let the knife slow and then stop while she took in fully what Jesus had to offer in that moment? What if she had paused to breathe a prayer of gratitude, so that the sound escaping from her lips in that moment of pause had been a contented sigh rather than agitation? What if she had then turned back to her chopping and preparing, filled with grace and with the presence of Jesus?
This is what Jesus desires to invite us into: a contentment that is not dependent on who we are but on who he is. Contentment is a theme throughout the Bible (see Proverbs 21:19; Ecclesiastes 5:1; Sirach 26:4). St. Paul professed, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Philippians 4:11). Like him, we are called to be satisfied knowing that God is near, that he is trustworthy and good.
Excerpted from my book Who Does He Say You Are? Women Transformed by Christ in the Gospels. In Who Does He Say You Are?, Catholic missionary and speaker Colleen Mitchell tells the stories of thirteen women from the Gospels and how they answer the crucial question of identity in the book’s title.
With Mary as the ultimate example of intimate, transforming union, Mitchell weaves together moving anecdotes of her own search for identity as a Catholic woman along with accounts of women in Scripture that reveal the healing, grace and purpose God has in store for all of us.
"The origins of this book," the author says, "were first scratched onto the back pages of a prayer journal as I sat in patches of wild forget-me-nots on the banks of a river in rural Costa Rica. I was living some of the most beautiful—and the most difficult—moments of my life. That journey is captured"