24 May 2006

Mary, Martha, and Me

Originally posted on Conversation

My mother was kind enough to mail this excellent new book by Camille Fronk to me this week and I highly recommend it.

The story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42 has never sat well with me; it's always seemed much too simple to just say that what Martha's actions were wrong and the Mary's were right as if one were better than the other. I've read several commentaries on this story, but none have come up with an interpretation that really worked for me because, well, of course it was good for Mary to sit and listen to the Lord, but Martha's hospitality certainly wasn't anything to criticize.

The main point of Fronk's book is that instead of there being one “better part” for everyone, something specific that we each should do, that we each need to seek the one needful thing- Jesus Christ:

Choosing the “better part” is therefore remaining steadfast in Christ regardless of our circumstances, challenges, or talents. It is neither what Martha was specifically doing or what Mary was specifically doing. The better part is finding the One Needful Thing.

Fronk suggests that Martha’s problem in Luke was not her service. It wasn't a problem that she was making dinner instead of sitting and listening to the Lord, but instead the problem was that she had lost her focus on the Savior and was thinking about her troubles and what Mary wasn’t doing to help.

I rather like this interpretation because I’ve never felt that what Martha was doing was unimportant and that the Lord isn’t saying that it isn’t important. The Lord is not comparing Martha’s and Mary’s service; instead, he is simply saying that at that moment Martha had lost her focus. This interpretation is supported by John 12:1-5 where (after the earlier story of Mary and Martha), Martha serves a meal while Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. Jesus condemns neither sister for their actions, only Judah’s criticism of Mary.

Of course, it’s hard sometimes to keep your focus. Many women feel great pressure over the upbringing of their children, a dinner for guests, or whether they are reading the scriptures often enough. But as soon as we put our focus on something else besides the Lord, things get harder. Even if those things are important, the Lord is the most important. She has an interesting discussion of this (p. 99) where she talks about a survey of college-educated Christians who were 3 times more likely than non-college-educated Christians to put the second commandment of loving one’s neighbors over the first commandment of loving God.

She also discusses competition over differences- when we think we have somehow chosen the better part instead of our own good part:

Regardless of which path is chosen, someone will certainly criticize that choice. I considered declining future invitations to speak when a woman commented at a “Know Your Religion” lecture, “After hearing you, I felt discouraged because I will never know the scriptures as well. But then I thought, instead of going to school, I chose to follow the prophet- I married and had a family.” Without knowing my choices, she had judged me as disobedient and seemed doubly irked that I was happy about it. . .

Because we can easily detect differences between Mary’s and Martha’s approaches to service, we may unwittingly introduce the unwarranted “better” to the account, exacerbated by a tendency to label one activity good and the other one bad. What is better for one, however, is not always better for another.

I’ve no doubt that many people have experienced these comparisons and have also at times compared themselves favorably to others because they have more children, stay home with those children, read the scriptures more, or make more meals for new mothers than someone else. It’s easy to think you’ve chosen the better part when your outward appearances look like they are in line with what the prophet counsels. Fronk points out that the First Presidency in 1913 warned against this:

People who pride themselves on their strict observance of the rules and ordinances and ceremonies of the Church are led away by false spirits, who exercise an influence so imitative of that which proceeds from a Divine source that even these persons, who think they are the “very elect,” find it difficult to discern the essential difference.

While the focus of Fronk's book is clearly Mary and Martha, she also brings up some other points throughout the book like Jesus' treatment of women, Mary's missionary, and her suggestions for finding your own good part. But it wasn't really heavy on personal application (thank you).

Overall I very much liked this book. My only complaint is that it is altogether too short and I did feel that she was deliberately keeping it a bit light. I would have appreciated citations when she says things like “most scholars assume...” or when she mentions ideas that she disagrees with. I very much hope that she will continue to write (has anyone read her In the Hands of the Potter?) books like this—and I’d even have a few suggestions of some women she could cover.

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