It’s finally spring in Massachusetts–time to start checking my children’s pockets for pebbles, moss, shells, worms, and lizards before doing the laundry. (If you’ve never found a lizard in your dryer, well…just remember to add that to your list of blessings next time you’re counting!). This, of course, has me thinking about the story of Mary and Martha.
My husband, you see, does not check pockets. He also does not pre-treat stains, use different temperature water for different kinds of loads, remember not to put wool sweaters in the dryer, etc. He also does not carry in his head a list of which child needs which new clothes, what clothes need to be sent off to cousins; he often can’t distinguish which clothes belong to which child. In other words, though he is willing to throw in a load now and then (pretty often, actually), he is not “careful and troubled” about the laundry, or much of anything else in the household. Even my friends who have less traditional, more egalitarian divisions of labor in their households often lament that they carry the “psychic burden” of homekeeping and childrearing.
Part of what I love about the story of Jesus with Mary and Martha is that it neatly subverts the traditional gendered lines of these roles. And, of course, I’ve always loved that Mary is praised for sitting and listening, conversing, THINKING about the gospel. But now that I am a mother, and a provider of meals, clean clothes, repaired toilets, etc. for a household, I am more troubled than I used to be by Christ’s gentle rebuke of Martha. After all, he was planning to eat the meal she cooked, wasn’t he? (We can, of course, soften the story by imagining that Martha was doing something more elaborate than necessary, but that is ultimately unsatisfying to me: even making a simple meal requires a good deal of care and labor–this would have been even more true in a time and place that lacked running water and food processors!)
It seems to me that “choosing that good part” almost inevitably requires having someone else to do the less good part–the Relief Society makes dinner for the leadership meeting, mom and a daughter or son are stuck in the kitchen Thanksgiving morning while everyone else plays football. Or, on a larger scale, I am freed to do academic work while someone else is paid minimum wage to care for my children and my household (this, btw, is a big chunk of the reason I’m NOT doing academic work right now). It’s the dilemma that animates _Howard’s End_ and floats around the edges of Forster’s work (and others’): leisure for a contemplative life is often purchased at the cost of someone else’s freedom to indulge in such pursuits.
So what is the lesson (if there is one) for us in the story of Lazarus’ sisters? Is there more to the story? I confess that I have a recurring fantasy of someone finding a scroll in which Jesus says, “Come on, Mary, let’s go chop vegetables while we talk…” But the scriptures deny that easy ending, and leave us with the questions.