If you don't love your Self can you really love others?
Martha resented Mary for not helping in the kitchen. But Jesus disagreed. What's the deal with this story?
If you’ve ever read the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10 (where Martha complains to Jesus that Mary, her sister, isn’t helping out with the food prep, but Jesus is like, “Yo, it’s cool, she’s hanging out with me”) and got the impression that the takeaway from this story is: Do less work, and do more sitting-at-the-feet-of-Jesus,
If you’ve ever found yourself feeling anxious and troubled,
If you’ve ever felt like sometimes you do things just because you need distraction, or, need to feel more in control,
then this article is for you.
FROM THE GOOD SAMARITAN TO THE SITUATION AT MARTHA AND MARY’S HOUSE
Just prior to the story of Martha, Mary, and Jesus is the story often referred to as, The Good Samaritan.
I won’t recap that here except to point out the following:
It begins with an expert in Jewish law asking Jesus how to “gain eternal life,” which can best be understood as, “How do we live the kind of life that most honors God, and that most leads to human flourishing?” (Jesus referred to this kind of living as, “life to the full,” or, “the abundant life.”)
Jesus replies by asking the man what the Jewish Law says.
The man answers, “Love God with your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as you love your self.” Classic Jewish answer.
Jesus affirms the guy! Yes, he says, you’ve got it figured out. No need to pester me any further. Do that, and you’re good-to-go!
But the man wanted to “justify himself” (says Luke, or at least, the author of Luke), so he pushes Jesus a bit farther by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Essentially the man wanted to know who he needed to extend love to (and, by extension, who he could withhold it from).
That’s when Jesus tells the story of how a Samaritan man was compassionate and kind to this other guy who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead (as opposed to the typical Jewish heroes of stories, such as the priest or the Levite).
Then Jesus asks the man, “Which one was a neighbor to the man beaten by thieves?” In other words, rather than focus on “Who is your neighbor,” Jesus wanted the lawyer dude to turn his attention to the concept of being a neighbor.
I think the reason for this is because there is a subtle but massively important difference between what the legal expert wanted to do (divide up people into “neighbor” and “not neighbor” as a way to differentiate between who you must love and who you can ignore), versus the mindset of Jesus who invites us to assume the posture of a neighbor.
Because when you are the neighbor, then everyone else is your neighbor.
When you are the neighbor, you are then called upon to show compassion to all—without exception.
Okay, enough of that preliminary (but we will come back to it).
The very next verse reads like this,
38 While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest.
39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his message.
40 By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me."
41 The Lord answered, " Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.
42 One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won't be taken away from her.”
Okay then… a couple observations.
A NON-DUAL READING
First, there’s a temptation with stories like this to come flying in with our western, modern, dualistic minds and immediately start parsing out who’s right and who’s wrong.
We hear a story like this and think, “Ah, I see… Mary, she’s doing it right. She’s the hero. But Martha? Oof, she’s doing it wrong. She’s the villain.”
Which makes the moral of the story: Be like Mary, not like Martha. And then from there we extol the virtues of rest and simply-being over and against things such as work, chores, or busyness.
Now, I believe that Jesus was a non-dualistic teacher. Therefore, my sense is that were he to have edited the telling of this story by Luke he would’ve been bummed by how it was told. He would have rejected such a simplistic, dualistic narrative that paints Martha (and work) as “bad,” and Mary (and not-work) as “good.”
YOU ARE ANXIOUS AND TROUBLED
Second, if we step back from this simplistic and dualistic reading of this story, then maybe we can hear with fresh ears the words Jesus spoke to Martha:
“Martha, Martha, you are both anxious and troubled about many things.”
Reader, I ask you this: If I were to take your name and put in the blank below and say to you,
“_______, _______ you are anxious and troubled…”
How would you feel?
Because I think most of us, most of the times, could probably be told this and (if we’re honest and/or self-aware enough) would simply respond with a sigh, “Yep. It me.”
Many of us move through life—and I think the path is broad, many find it, and it leads to destruction—where we are anxious and we are troubled about many things. To me, this is a story about Martha and Mary, yes, but it’s also a story about you and me, and how we go through our days trying to manage our anxious and troubled hearts.
Maybe you can relate to the specific way in which Martha’s anxiety shows up in this story (I know I can!). As I read it, I see someone who is attempting to anticipate the needs of others and deciding ahead of time how to manage them.
To be clear, this following detail isn’t in the story, but I like to imagine that Jesus showed up at the sister’s home and Martha welcomed him in with her typical style, asking, “are you hungry, Lord? Let me get you something to eat.” Because, you know, that’s classic Martha. Everyone knows she loves hospitality. She loves feeding people. And, maybe even more than all that, she loves being known in her village as “the one who always feeds and takes care of people.”
But Jesus just smiles at her, “No thanks, Martha. I’m fine. I just wanna hang out with you and Mary before I head to the next village. It might be awhile before we see each other again.”
While this is music to Mary’s ears, it triggers all sorts of anxiety in Martha. Just… be with Jesus? What does that mean? That doesn’t make any sense. You know what, I’m gonna go put some food together just in case Jesus changes his mind. And off she runs to the kitchen to busy herself with preparing a meal that nobody asked for.
Can you relate?
You play these roles in life. You put on facades. You perfect being this kind of person or that kind of person. And even should someone invite you to set it all aside for a moment, you can’t. You don’t know how. You don’t know who you are if you’re not the one in the kitchen making a sandwich for your guest.
On one level this is a story about Martha thinking she knows Jesus better than he does. She’s gonna make him something to eat regardless of what he says he wants. But on another level, an even deeper level, it’s not really about Jesus at all, is it? This is a story about Martha feeling untethered unless she’s the person who makes people food when they come over. It’s about Martha feeling like she needs to manage other people’s feelings and experiences because that’s how she calms the raging storms of insecurity inside her own inner self.
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled…”
You are not here.
You are not with us.
You are not with yourself.
You are distracted by the roles you play. You are preoccupied with managing other people because you feel insufficient to manage yourself.
Perhaps this is why Jesus said that Mary has chosen the part that is “good.” What might that mean? Well he says that “only one thing is necessary,” and I think this might be why Luke put this story right after the Good Samaritan. Because in that story we get a clear picture of the only necessary thing: Love.
Love God with every part of who you are.
Love your neighbor.
Love your self.
Love is the one and only thing that is necessary. Love is what leads us to the abundant, flourishing, life-of-the-ages (aka, eternal life).
In that moment, at that particular time, Mary was practicing love by simply showing up, as her whole and real self.
So no, I don’t think this is a story about the merits of simply being a person who sits at the feet of masters and listens to their every word. The invitation here is not that we should all move to some ashram, or become a monk, or forsake the busyness of reality in favor of becoming a detached, contemplative mystic.
As I see it, this is about Love, and about recognizing all the ways that we distract ourselves from it.
YOU MUST LOVE YOUR SELF WELL
Which is the last observation I want to make from this story.
Both this story and that of the Good Samaritan touch on the human instinct to want to control and manage other people because we are afraid to care for and love ourselves.
The legal expert asked “Who is my neighbor” because he wanted to know how he could justify withholding his love from the people he didn’t like. For him, love was a limited supply and should not be wasted on people who didn’t deserve it.
And then Martha was stuck in a story where she didn’t know (and therefore couldn't fully love) who she really was. Instead she was lost in a particular role, a facade, a mask. This manifested as her feeling like she needed to meet the (imaginary) needs of Jesus, and then being triggered when she saw her sister free and unencumbered. Rather than turn inward and deal with how she has an anxious and troubled mind, rather than face the fact that she has not yet found a way to be at ease with herself as herself, she turns outward to criticize her sister because Mary’s ability to be free and fully herself was activating all Martha’s insecurities.
Which is just what we do as humans, isn’t it?
When our minds gets troubled, and when our sense of self gets anxious, we have these go-to moves as a way to try and fix our feelings (without actually addressing them).
We might numb out entirely.
We might lash out at others. Accusing them of being against you, or blaming them for something, or, judging them for some behavior that you’ve decided is not-good.
We might (this is my go-to) sit in a seat of self-righteousness and stroke our own ego by assuring ourselves that we’re the ones doing it right. We’re in the kitchen making sandwiches, man! We’re killing’ it!
We might get lost in busy-work, frenetically flitting from task to task because if you slow down then you’ll have nothing to do but sit in your own hot mess.
So what then can we do?
How might we face our anxiety and troubled minds?
Well, at the end of the day, there is only one thing that is necessary: Love.
We love ourselves (as ourselves, not the roles/identities we play).
From that grounded place of self-love we are now free to love others (because when we don’t love ourselves we end up grasping and clinging to others, extracting love from them instead of giving love to them).
And all of that love is how we act out and embody loving God with our whole being.
It’s all the same.
It’s all love.
And it’s the one thing that matters.
May we choose it with courage.
COMING AUGUST 1st
I am excited to be a part of the “NEXT” Sunday Summit being held virtually from July 25th - August 7th where I and many other spiritual innovators engage with Spencer Burke about what comes next for Sundays and faith communities in our changing world.
For more information, and to register (it’s free!) go here.