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Scripture doesn’t tell us the birth order of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. I think Martha was the oldest sister.

A Reflection for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,

“Lord, do you not care

that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?

Tell her to help me.”

The Bible does not specify the birth order of siblings Martha, Mary and Lazarus, but I just feel in my bones that Martha was the oldest sister. (It takes one to know one.)

Today’s Gospel reading is a well-known lesson in priorities. When Jesus comes to visit their village, sisters Martha and Mary welcome him in opposite ways. Martha, ever dutiful, has taken on the role of hostess. We might imagine her cooking, cleaning up after people, telling them where to be and at what time, maintaining her composure in front of guests even when something doesn’t go as planned. Mary, on the other hand, is not juggling; she is fixed in one spot. Jesus speaks and Mary sits at his feet, paying close attention.

When Martha finally can’t keep the serene hostess act up any longer, it’s Jesus who hears her complaint. When she asks him to make Mary help her, Jesus basically tells Martha to lay off. (Of course, he says it much more kindly than that.) He gives Martha an explanation, a gentle but firm redirection. Mary’s focus on being present with Jesus is “the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” (Lk 10:42)

So often I’ve been convinced that my worrying, my diligence and my rule-following are necessary and justified, virtuous even. And I’ve been resentful of the people around me who don’t do things just the way I do.

The Gospel doesn’t tell us what happened next. I hope Martha took Jesus’ words to heart, let the dishes wait in the sink and sat right down to be present with Jesus, her sister and the other members of her community. As an outside observer, I want her to relax and just be; I can clearly see that all those tasks bogging her down are keeping her from something much more essential.

But boy, do I understand Martha. I relate to her in the same way I relate to the older, oh-so-responsible brother in the Prodigal Son story. So often I’ve been convinced that my worrying, my diligence and my rule-following are necessary and justified, virtuous even. And I’ve been resentful of the people around me who don’t do things just the way I do.

In my life, the role of oldest sister is a place where these beliefs come out, and it’s often an identity-defining role for me. That’s why I’m so convinced that the anxiety in Martha is a clear tell of her birth order. But we all have these roles—and not just in our families. We step into them with our friends, at work and in romantic relationships.

Jesus’ words to Martha are words to me and words to you. They’re not telling us to sit on the floor and ignore the tasks on our to-do lists; they’re warning us not to let the roles we play keep us from hearing what God is asking of us in the present moment, not to get so stuck in what we think a good sibling or parent or boss or spouse must always look like that we miss the opportunity to respond to what our people (and our God) really need from us right now.

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