There’s Something About Mary (and Martha): Another Reading of Luke 10:38-42
Every time the story of Mary and Martha comes up in Relief Society, I hear women confess that they are too much of a Martha; they need to stop worrying about the housework and read their scriptures more. (If you’re not familiar with the story, you can scroll down and see a quick summary or go to http://scriptures.lds.org/luke/10 for the verses that tell the story.)
Now, I usually love anything that gets me out of housework, but this explanation has always bugged me. It seems a little simplistic, and by not going deeper, I have a hard time fully identifying with these characters. I see this story as representing two different ways of living one’s religion. Martha is embodying the culture of the Church (or any religion for that matter) as she busies herself with the details of religiosity while Mary embodies the spirituality of the Church by stepping back from daily life and listening.
The culture of the Church is easier to define than its spiritual side. It is seen in the way we talk, how we dress, and I think it is also seen in the black and white doctrine, like tithing, Word of Wisdom, chastity. I’m not trying to discount such doctrine by saying some of it is exhibited in the culture of the Church. Mastering the black and white doctrine allows me to practice obedience and submission to God’s will so that I can apply obedience to “greyer” aspects of the Gospel. It’s just that since obedience to this doctrine is more external, it can be seen in the culture, like how Mormons don’t drink coffee. As a Martha, I can pretty easily assimilate the Church culture. However, while the black and white doctrine makes it easy for me as a Martha to know what is right and wrong, it can also threaten my spiritual development if I don’t push myself beyond the external living of the Gospel.
One danger in being a Martha is that it becomes easy to start to judge others. Because the culture of the Church is largely lived externally, it is easy to tell whether or not someone is following that culture. A Martha can mistake the culture of the Church for the entire Gospel and decide that living the culture defines whether or not someone is a “good” member of the Church. As a Martha, I can become so confident in my understanding that I can even decide that some of my preferences make pretty good doctrine. Then, as a Martha I can become concerned about Lazarus’ testimony when he doesn’t wear a white shirt to church.
Another danger of being a Martha is that by only living the culture of the Church, i.e. focusing only the aspects of religion that are clearly defined, I can neglect my spiritual growth. I can become stagnant in my eternal progression if I don’t push myself to move on to the more grey aspects of the Gospel that force me to think, study, and pray for guidance.
Mary’s spirituality is evident in her ability to leave the external manifestations of religiosity and allow Christ to guide her; she stops and listens. When I try to be a Mary, I force myself to slow down. I find a more meditative approach to my worship and study to be helpful. I ponder doctrine that I’ll never fully understand in this life, like charity and repentance. I am humbled as I realize I can’t rely on my own thinking. I must listen to God in order to truly experience the spiritual side of the Church. This is can often feel futile because when I move beyond an external to a more internal approach to worship and spiritual growth, I can’t measure how well I’m doing beyond how my own very subjective judgment.
Yet, when I focus on the spiritual side of the Church, I feel more fulfilled and I’m less troubled by some of the cultural aspects. Still, it’s hard for me to get past my “Marthaness.” After all, being Martha is an easier way to live. I’ve told Jesus to make people I work with help me too. I want to be able to say more definitively that I have am living the Gospel.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I see many members of the Church becoming increasingly focused on the culture of the Church verses the spirituality of it. I wonder if others see this trend. If so, how can we as individuals be more like Mary?
A quick summary of the story: Jesus visits Mary and Martha at their house. Mary sits with Jesus and listens to his teachings while Martha is running around working. Martha tells Jesus to make Mary help her, and Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, thou are careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (verses 41-42).