In defense of Martha

Lani - St. Paul, Minnesota
Entered on February 2, 2009
Age Group: 50 - 65
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Martha gets a bad rap.

In the well-known New Testament story, Jesus admonishes the overworked Martha to follow her sister Mary’s lead and abandon her hostess tasks to listen raptly to his every syllable.

Now I ask you, how long do you think a flock of disciples would have remained at Jesus’ feet without adequate refreshments? I say give ‘em two hours of Gospel wisdom and their grumbling stomachs would be headed for the nearest falafel hut. Surely a man who already knew the importance of keeping a crowd plied with food and drink — whether it meant turning water into wedding wine or exponentially expanding quantities of loaves and fishes – would recognize the significance of a good hostess. With her cooking, serving and cleaning up, Martha’s hospitality created the perfect atmosphere for hearing the good word.

Some of us are born Marthas. As a college student, I had a dalliance with a conservative religious group during which I was admonished to be less a busy “Martha” and more an attentive-to-the-word “Mary.” We soon parted company.

I believe in hospitality, in providing the best you have to nourish both body and spirit. The non-biblical adage says “food is love.” I believe a warm welcome, a bite to eat and a spot at the table have the power to make a difference. I was blessed with two role models — grandmothers who raised hospitality to an art form. Whether a long-lost relative, a recent acquaintance or a grandchild’s college roommate with no holiday destination, there was always an extra place at the table, regularly laid with the good china and silver. With an end product that could best be described as “tasty and hearty,” their bustling kitchens provided the warm backdrop and sustenance for meaningful conversations, bad jokes and spirited card games. And while those two gracious women may not have turned water into wine, they did turn many strangers into welcome family members

I didn’t fully recognize their gift until 10 years ago, when my church sponsored Dragan, a Serbian refugee who barely escaped execution as a political prisoner in Bosnia. Christmas Day found a slightly bewildered Dragan and his limited English at our table, enjoying his first American holiday (and happily washing pots and pans after the meal). A decade later he’s a married citizen, homeowner and father, and the two of us still choke up when we remember the day a bewildered stranger became a beloved part of our family.

So what if Martha had abandoned her hostess duties? Would a hungry prospective disciple have walked out the door before he truly heard Jesus’ words? Or did the mouth-watering smells of her cooking draw in a new believer?

I think she got it right. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in.”