The story of Martha and Mary is ubiquitous. It’s a story of two sisters, Martha the older sister who hosted the Lord, and Mary the younger sister who waited on the Lord.
We are always told, in most sermons (given by men), that although Martha busted her chops slaving in a hot kitchen to serve Jesus, it is Mary that chose the better part, waiting on the Lord.
Hence the narrative, we should set our priorities straight – it is more important to study the Word of God, pray and wait on the Lord rather than to try to impress God with our busyness and works. I get it – we should have our priorities right.
However, truth be told, that kind of interpretation leaves me irritated – to put it mildly. In fact such a narrative leaves me cold, like having to face leftover char kway teow from yesterday, all gunky and unpalatable….ugh!.
As a cook, I understand the mammoth task of preparing a meal for an honoured guest. There is the planning of the menu, going to different markets to get the best produce, then the marketing, preparing the mise en place (ie peeling the shallots, potatoes, etc cleaning fish/ poultry, pounding the chillies, galangal, shallots, garlic); marinating the raw ingredients, then spending hours over a hot stove/oven braising, deep frying, roasting and baking.
As each course is served, each dish must be served just right, at the right temperature and the food not overly cooked or cold (unless it’s the dessert). The cook does not have the luxury of eating with the honoured guests, at all. Then after the meal there is the cleaning and washing up.
Truly, when the food was going down Jesus’ throat – did he not appreciate Martha’s efforts? And then to make things worse, did He commend Mary over Martha? Does Jesus compare me against my sister? Could He? Would He?
So, I pondered this story again. I put myself in Martha’s shoes. Luke 10:38 tells us that when Jesus and his 12 disciples (13 people, all-in), coms into the village, Martha invites them in. Martha, the older sister who, prepares the meal, noticing that her “assistant”, her younger sister Mary, is not in the kitchen helping her but is with the guests and she gets increasingly flustered and angry.
Pause here. Is Martha right in getting stressed-up and flustered? I do not think there is a right or wrong in Martha’s reaction. It’s only normal to get hot and bothered when we are overstretched (see Gordon Ramsay at his worst) and having to face an extra 13 guests (and more at the table) without an extra pair of hands.
But what does Martha do? She complains to Jesus. As a host, I think this is a faux pas – you don’t go complaining to your guests that you can’t manage the kitchen and worse still, complain to the guests about your sister. This is a no-no.
What does Jesus do? Jesus calls her by name – “Martha, Martha”. This to me is a tender response that only a loving Father can give to His child in distress. He does not call out her name once but twice! (Note: there are only a few instances in the Bible when God calls a person by name twice. This is one of them.) By calling out her name, twice, Jesus affirms and elevates Martha’s status and self-worth. He does appreciate what she has had to do.
Then He went straight to the heart of the matter and addressed the two big peeves in Martha’s life: (i) losing control and (ii) comparison (and between sisters).
As a woman, I can identify with that. Women do not like to lose control, especially when we have bitten off more than we can chew. Martha didn’t have to invite an extra 13 men into her home. I think as a proficient cook, she also wanted to show off her cooking skills. Then things started unravelling in the kitchen, more so when her trusted help (sister) was not around. She was not able to control the kitchen, and her temper.
The other big peeve is – comparison, and especially comparison with a younger sister. Women hate to be compared with other women. We hate it when people say – “Oh, she is smarter than you.” “She is prettier than you”. Perhaps Martha and Mary had to deal with these issues too.
I believe that Jesus addressed both these heart issues firstly (i) by assuring Martha (and me) – not to be too bothered when we lose control of the situation or when matters do not go on as planned. So what if the soufflé falls flat – it’s an omelette. Learn to fail. Enjoy the process and enjoy your guests.
Secondly (ii) there is no comparison/ competition in the Kingdom of God. Jesus certainly does not compare Martha with Mary and then degrades the other. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus because she needed that time and chose the better part (for herself) [ these words are added and paraphrased by me.] They are both loved and cherished individually. It is different for Martha, Jesus loves Martha and her work of service. But He also wants Martha to enjoy herself whilst doing her work and not to get uptight. It is also not right for Martha to insist that Mary conforms to Martha’s own standards.
Each sister is different and unique and has different giftings. If Martha does not like to be compared to Mary, neither does Mary like to be compared to Martha. Martha should not try to “control” Mary’s responses.
So to every cook, woman and hostess – I hope this story will be an encouragement to you. Be real, be kind to yourself and to each other. On a practical note : the next time when your party plans go awry and you are running out of time – send your sister out (with some champagne) to mingle with the guests. That will give you the extra time you need to make things perfect. Until then keep smiling and continue cooking and serving.