Laundry, Lizards, and the Sisters of Lazarus

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.


  1. Wow…I actually have a contribution that’s got a spiritual POV. I hope I don’t mess up my rep.

    In her book “Lighten up!” Cheiko Okasaki talks about wanting to spend time with Christ, but the business of our lives getting in the way. The solution she presents to the Martha Problem is to bring Christ into the process, exactly as you describe in the Missing Scripture, Kristine. The thing is, Martha is not being gently rebuked for being busy; Christ rebukes her for being “careful,” and troubled about many things.

    By bringing Christ into our work, we can magnify that work. Lizard in the dryer=gross. Lizard in the pocket is a thing to contemplate and to be thankful for.

    By bringing Jesus into the process, we are lifted up in our work, whatever it is. He wants to help. But he won’t just barge in. We have to invite him.

  2. Ann, your rep is intact — but I’m glad you shared that.

    I’ve been thinking about these genderized roles after watching ‘Fiddler’ on broadway last week, and watching “The Chosen” on PBS the other night. Orthodox Judaism presents a society where the wife runs the house, cooks the food, etc. while the husband reads the Torah and studies talmud. Yet it is not an inferior/superior system, so far as I can tell.

    Kristine, what do you think of the standard interpretation of this passage, which is that Martha was too worried about the details to appreciate the presence of the savior?

  3. My mother tells me that my grandfather, a man who rarely set foot in church himself, liked to say that in the church there are Marthas, those who attend to the mundane and do the heavy lifting that the organization requires, and there are Mary’s, those who sit at Jesus’ feet and sing praises. I wonder if he really said this since it seems a little to perfect not to be an urban legend incorporated into the family history.

    Jesus’ personal lesson on prioritizing leaves open the question as to what priorities ought to take precedence over other desires–and like you I have found no easy answers, but at the same time I think it is easy to identify some areas where I haven’t bothered to consciously think about it in the same way that you seem to have when you chose dishes and diapers instead of a dissertation.

    I’m beginning to think that it is easy to be “troubled” and forget to even consider what the better part may be.

  4. The “better part” can be found in everything we do with love.

  5. First, my list of simple rules for guys doing laundry: (1) always use cold water, you can’t do much damage with cold; (2) avoid all wife’s shirts, much too complicated, something always goes wrong; (3) avoid all sweaters, which come out as misshapen blobs of fabric.

    About Martha: One can read this as Jesus’ response to the Mormon Female Guilt Syndrome: you don’t have to feel guilty about shirking a few domestic duties. How else are you going to get time to read a book, surf the Bloggernacle, or do other high-priority Mary-like activities?

  6. I think the real problem is that after doing the cooking, knitting, table-setting, and interior decorating, the Marthas tend to get on the phone and insider trade their Imclone stock.


  7. I used to think that the Savior’s response to Martha was contrary to the praise heaped on the woman whose price was far beyond rubies in Proverbs; after all, the woman exemplified one fully engulfed in domestic labor. After giving this more thought, I suppose what distinguished the “virtuous woman” was that she was faithful in her service to her family and community *all the while* “fearing the Lord.” This was probably what Sister Okazaki was getting at–bring the Lord into the process.

  8. He *wants* to be part of the process. There is no piece of our lives that Jesus can’t elevate, ennoble, and help out with. Even if it’s just to say, “be still, and know that I am God.” Or in other words, sit down, put your feet up, and watch “Changing Rooms” on BBC America.

  9. Kristine says:

    Ann et al., I get the part about bringing Christ into our work, and I think the standard gloss that Martha was too busy to pay attention to Christ’s presence gets at this. But I still think it’s more complicated than that–I think that it’s important the Christ *notices* Martha, points out her care-taking. Perhaps he’s also forcing Mary to notice…

    I think I’m still grappling with my (very late!) realization of the *staggering* amount of work that goes into keeping a house and caring for children. It’s easily a 20-hour day, every day, even with a washing machine, Swiffer, etc. I think the Mary and Martha highlights the inevitable tussle between the grunt-work that just plain *has* to be done, and the delightful work of learning and contemplating and making friendships, and I’m wondering if there isn’t some lesson there about paying attention not just to our own choices, but to our relationships–both intimate ones and societal ones–and whether there’s some balance in who does the grunt work. Maybe there isn’t and I’m just making it more complicated than it is (wouldn’t be the first time :))

  10. I think of the Mary/Martha issue every month when we set up for Enrichment Night. Each month, we plan to keep it simple, and each month, the woman in charge of centerpieces goes overboard (and over budget). I think that, when it comes to centerpieces, there’s no excuse for being careful and troubled (especially when they’re so large you can’t see over them to talk to the visiting investigator across the table).

    In our home, it seems to be a constant juggle, especially for those of us who have to work (even if it is only 3 hours a day). I like the quote from the founder: “Let go of perfectionism…You don’t have to do the job perfectly to get it done. Housework done incorrectly still blesses your family.” Anyone who’s been in my house could see that’s my philosophy…(of course, I’m still struggling with the “get it done” part – forget perfection.)

  11. Up into the Renaissance and later, the story of Mary and Martha was used as an illustration both of the “fact” that women are not naturally spiritual, except in unusual cases, and that the spirit is more important than the body. These verses have been much abused and used to abuse women.

    However, I think if you read the story of Jesus, Mary, and Martha in context, you can see it as a contrast with the parable of the Good Samaritan which immediately precedes it. Whereas the latter emphasizes the necessity of practical concern, the story of Mary and Martha reiterates that faith is nevertheless primary. (Consider the similar teaching in Luke 4:4: “man shall not live by bread alone.”) In addition, the translation makes a Greek phrase less ambiguous than it is. And it is contested in other manuscripts. Given the ambiguity and the other manuscripts, “but one thing is needful” can also be understood to mean “only a few things are needed, in fact only one” or “only a few things are needed.” Luke seems to be making a play on words: “we don’t need much for the table” is a play on “following me doesn’t require much.”

    This way of looking at the verses in question makes the “rebuke” much milder, along the lines of Chieko Okasaki’s interpretation: Martha is preparing dinner and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help. Jesus says, “You’ve been anxious about preparing a lot of stuff, but we don’t need much. Mary has chosen something good, something she will not lose.” Thus, I don’t see this as a rejection of doing the daily work that our lives require. Instead, I see it as an assertion that doing them “simply” is often enough, especially if they interfere with more important spiritual tasks. Given Luke’s use of the story as a parallel to the parable of the Good Samaritan, I don’t see it as intended to put down practical work, only as a balance to that story.

    Of course, that doesn’t make it easy to decide what we do out of anxiety rather than simply, nor what kinds of practical concerns interfere with our spiritual lives. There is, indeed, a mountain of work to keeping a family going.

  12. Julie in Austin says:

    I’m in an add-fuel-to-the-fire sort of mood, so I’m posting the section from my book on Luke 10:38-42:

    It is difficult to determine if the better interpretation is that Mary is alone at JesusÂ’ feet or if others are with her (verse 39). Which do you think is more likely to be correct? Does it affect your perception of the passage if Mary is alone or part of a group?

    Why doesnÂ’t Martha ask Mary directly to help her (verse 40)?

    Is Martha complaining about Jesus or Mary (verse 40)?

    Is verse 41 a statement of fact about Martha or a chastisement?

    Is Martha worried and troubled over the meal or over what Mary is doing?

    Why does Jesus say MarthaÂ’s name twice in verse 41?

    The ancient texts disagree on the correct wording of verse 42; some read ‘only one thing’ but others have ‘a few things’. How would your choice here affect your understanding of this verse? Is Martha’s choice worthless or is it less worthwhile? What is needful?

    Some scholars interpret the phrase “one thing is needful” (verse 42) to mean that one dish (that is, a simple meal) would have been adequate and reduced Martha’s trouble. Do you agree with this interpretation? Why or why not?

    ■How can you use JesusÂ’ response to Martha (verses 41–42) as a model when you feel the need to offer correction?

    At the risk of being simplistic, it seems the most obvious solution to MarthaÂ’s problem would be for Jesus to talk in the kitchen while everyone pitched in to make dinner. Why doesnÂ’t this happen?

    If you make a gender pair between Martha and the priest and Levite from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, what do you learn? In what ways is Mary like the Samaritan? Or is Martha more like the lawyer looking to justify himself?

    What would have happened if Martha had sat at Jesus’ feet—and what would they have had for dinner?

    ■Reread verses 38–42, substituting male names for ‘MaryÂ’ and ‘MarthaÂ’. How does this exercise affect your interpretation of the story? Is this a story ‘forÂ’ women? Why or why not?

    Many scholars note that Mary and Martha are interpreted as ‘types’ more than as real people. They can typify numerous things:

    (1) faith versus works
    (2) charity versus prayer
    (3) the labors of this world versus the world to come
    (4) life of the flesh versus life of the Spirit
    (5) the active life versus the contemplative life
    (6) charitable works versus gospel scholarship
    (7) Judaism versus Christianity

    Do you think any of these are accurate? What could you learn by assigning Mary and Martha to these roles? Are there dangers inherent in making people into symbols? Is it fair to read this story as promoting one type over the other?

    Barbara Reid writes:

    “To complicate matters, most women identify with Martha. Like her, they desperately try to juggle all the household demands, usually in addition to working outside the home, while at the same time managing to be a charming hostess, wife, mother, companion. From such a stance, there is no

  13. Julie in Austin says:

    oops, must be a space limit. Here’s the rest:

    . . . good news from a Jesus who not only seems indifferent to the burden of the unrealistic demands, but even reproaches one who pours out her life in service.”

    Not many Church members would be sympathetic to the final sentence of her statement. How would you respond to her argument? Do you identify with Mary or with Martha? Is it easier to be a ‘Mary’ or a ‘Martha’ in the Church today?

    Is this a story about table service (i.e., a meal) or about service (ministering) in the Church? How does your answer affect your interpretation of this passage?

    Elisabeth Sch ssler Fiorenza wrote:

    “[some women] secretly identify with Martha who openly complains, and they resent Jesus who seems ungrateful and unfair in taking MaryÂ’s side. Yet because Jesus is not supposed to be faulted, women repress their resentment of JesusÂ’ action. Instead they vent their resentment against other women who, like Mary, have abandoned traditional feminine roles.”

    Do you agree with this assessment—in whole or in part? Why or why not?

    Do you think it is fair to compare Martha and Mary to 8:14–15?

    Compare this story about Mary and Martha with John 11:1–44 and 12:1–11. In what ways do Mary and Martha act differently? Do you think they have changed as a result of their experience with Jesus in verses 38–42? Why do you think Luke doesn’t mention Lazarus?

  14. Harvey J. Dockstader, Sr. says:

    Interesting commentary, but you all miss the essential element of the story, that of a man reasoning with his wives and mediating a perceived conflict in family activity.

    Of course, Mary had chosen the preferred, intimate and loving role of washing and anointing the feet of her husband after his arduous journey on foot. It just so happened to be Martha’s turn to prepare the meal, but also her opportunity to provide her husband with loving sustenance as well. Upon his next visit, the roles would be reversed and the absolute fairness of his love demonstrated to his companions for eternity . . .

    For an interesting and insightful interpretation of the “Parable of the Talents,” send me an e-mail and I’ll give you the Prophet Joseph Smiths’ version of this instructional parable, as he expounded it to his young friend, Benjamin F. Johnson.

    Ye who have ears to hear etc. . .


  15. gotta love a polygamous take on this whole thing! All right!!

%d bloggers like this: