I recently overheard a couple of women refer to themselves as "Marthas," in a self-deprecating way. Those of us who grew up in the church are familiar with the concept of "being a Martha." It goes back to the story of Jesus and his friends: Martha, Mary & Lazarus. Jesus was hanging out and teaching in Lazarus' house. Lazarus lived with his two sisters, Mary & Martha, and apparently they were preparing a nice big meal for Jesus and his disciples (and their brother Lazarus). But Mary found Jesus' teachings captivating, and neglected her work to sit at his feet and listen. Martha did not approve, and called Mary out, asking Jesus to rebuke Mary. But instead, Jesus rebuked Martha, telling her that Mary had made a better choice.
The easiest interpretation is the popular idea that "being" is more important than "doing." Jesus chooses to rebuke Martha for being so worried about the details of the dinner, rather than choosing to sit at His feet and learn the way Mary is doing.
It's obvious that in the church, we consider the practical work of ministry as less "spiritual," and therefore less valuable, than the ceremonial work of ministry. One church I attended made a distinction between "outer court" and "inner court" ministry. "Outer court" ministry involved outreach and very practical actions, while "inner court" ministry was anything related to music, prayer, or teaching. The hidden bias of that church was revealed when my own fitness for leadership was questioned - I was completely accepted as a leader in the "outer court" ministries, but when I started an "inner court" ministry, my views were questioned and I was told to put my ministry on hold until the leaders had decided whether I was fit to lead. It is clear that they considered "outer court" ministry less important.
And is it a coincidence that the ministries traditionally relegated to women are "Martha" type ministries? Making casseroles, doing laundry, teaching Sunday School, arranging flowers, answering phones, making coffee, etc.
Are we using the story of Mary and Martha as a tool of oppression, even unconsciously?
I want to suggest that we have, in fact, missed the point of the story of Martha & Mary. I don't believe Jesus was rebuking Martha for cooking dinner. He was rebuking Martha for her critical attitude of Mary. After all, Jesus and His disciples wanted to eat. Without the "Marthas" in our churches and our lives, we would be very burdened. The work they do is essential, because it is work that must be done. At the same time, it is work that is ephemeral. We wash clothes and then immediately wash them again. We prepare a meal, clean up, and then cook a meal the next day. We serve coffee to our congregation, and do it all again the next Sunday. Isn't this endless cycle the meaning of Jesus' phrase that what Mary chose would not be taken away? Mary had chosen wisdom and learning. Martha had chosen food and dinner service. The fruit of Mary's choice would remain in her heart and mind forever; the fruit of Martha's choice would remain in her belly for a few hours at most and then need replenishment.
In addition to this, look at the context of this story. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, a story about someone doing "outer court" Martha work. The Good Samaritan binds the wounds of the traveler, and takes him to a place of care and rest. If the Good Samaritan had merely offered spiritual assistance through prayer, the traveler would've died. The work of a "Martha" is powerful and precious indeed.
Finally, there is the story of Lazarus' resuscitation. In this story, Martha confronts Jesus as He approaches their home, 4 days after Lazarus has died. As they talk, Martha proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah. This proclamation, when uttered by Peter, is seen as powerful and prophetic by Jesus. Martha is not just a busy bee who fails to understand who Jesus is. She is a spiritual leader who proclaims Jesus' identity in the midst of her despair.
Let's stop using the nickname Martha to downplay our own work. And let's remember that the real issue wasn't the question of "doing" v. "being." It is the question of judging others.