Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Modern Anxiety and the Feast Day of St. Martha

On July 29, we observe the feast day of St. Martha, a feast day that celebrates those who serve in our economy. Martha is often used as a cautionary tale to criticize women who are like Martha.  Martha, you may remember, is so focused on house chores that she doesn’t have time to listen to Jesus, as her sister Mary does. But there’s much more to Martha.

We also meet Martha when her brother Lazarus has died, and Christ arrives too late, from her perspective. She and Mary would have preferred that Christ come earlier so that their brother hadn’t died.

Jesus instructs them to roll away the stone from the tomb, and Martha protests. She’s worried about the smell. She still doesn’t understand what’s about to happen.

How many of us are like Martha? We want to micromanage the miracles that we ask God to give us. We worry about the details. We’re fusspots who want God not to disrupt the social structures in which we live:   keep the ones we love from dying, not raise them from the dead, which will disrupt the social order in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is the smell of decay.

We see Martha behaving similarly in the more familiar story, where Jesus comes over for dinner, and Martha allows the household chores to consume her attention. She’s finally so exasperated that she demands that Jesus insist that Mary help her.  It’s begun to interest me that she doesn’t ask Jesus to help her, but that’s a meditation for another day.

Jesus tells Martha that she’s worried about many things, and in his admonishment, I hear a lesson for us today. Jesus implies that all of the issues that cause her anxiety aren’t really important. It’s a story many of us, with our increasingly hectic lives, need to hear again — maybe every day.

We need to be reminded to stay alert. Busyness is the drug that many of us use to dull our senses. For some of us, charging through our to-do lists is a way of quelling the anxiety. But in our busyness, we forget what’s really important. We forget to focus on Christ and living the way he commanded us.

Some scholars see the Mary and Martha story as an example of how to live the Christian life and the difficulty of navigating the two ends of the spectrum of possibilities. Do we engage in service or do we adopt a more contemplative stance?

Other scholars take a different approach. Worldly concerns and societal norms consume Martha, while her sister Mary is able to focus on the essential.

Some years, I see the Mary and Martha story as one that tells me to forgo the earthly chores to focus on God. All of our busyness takes our focus away from God. God will not appear with white gloves to assess our spiritual progress by way of household upkeep. The assessment of our spiritual progress will focus on much more serious issues than those.

You may think that Jesus said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Jesus did not.

This year, I broaden the lesson to include anything that keeps me anxious. I hear the words of Jesus directed to me. His voice soothes me when he says, “You are anxious and troubled about many things.”

I think about Martha, and I wonder if Jesus was able to quiet her anxieties permanently. I suspect not. This lesson about priorities and our inability to control the world takes a long time to learn. We see in two separate encounters that Martha doesn’t learn right away. But Jesus doesn’t reject Martha for her inability to change. He uses her actions and words to lead to a teaching moment.

I love that Martha has a sharp tongue, and Jesus doesn’t cast her away. I love that we can come to Jesus with our sorrows and our irritations, and Jesus will still stay at the table to eat with us. I love that Martha tries to make Jesus behave in the way that she thinks he should. He refuses, but he doesn’t reject her for her attempts. He understands her all-too-human response to him, and he continues to try to shape her to be the better human that he knows she can be.

Again and again, Jesus reminds the people around him that there is a better way, a way that rises above the cares and anxieties of this world. Again and again, Jesus reminds us all that the Divine lives in communion with us, but if we’re not alert, we’ll miss it completely. Jesus reminds us of what our priorities should be and calls us to shift our attention.


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