I am no expert on daily life for first-century Jews in Palestine, but if you are, I’d love to hear from you!
Martha had never told anyone how much she liked rocks. No one had ever asked, for one thing. But the older she got, the more special the secret seemed. She knew, even if she didn’t understand, that the adults would laugh if she tried to point out the beauty in each one, the intricacies of pattern, color, and even weight that distinguished them from each other. And now that she was approaching ten years old, the other kids would laugh, too.
Today, Martha’s hands and eyes inspected the bit of limestone in her hand while her ears strained to listen to the men’s conversation. Silly as it was to care so much about rocks, trying to learn about the intricacies of the Law was even more futile, but Martha couldn’t help it; the wisest of the men could discover such great truths in even the smallest sentence of scripture. Whenever she got the chance to listen and understand, Martha felt for the rest of the week like she could see farther. It felt like she was storing up more secrets, even more beautiful than her stones.
“Martha. MARTHA!” She spun around at the edge in her mother’s voice and hurried toward her, framed in the door of the house. In a few steps, Martha had the baby on her hip, but she knew she deserved the scolding that came anyway: “Are Mary and I supposed to play patty-cake until you’re good and ready to wander back inside? Are you going to explain to your father why supper’s not ready?” Martha’s mother turned to light a fire, still muttering about chores that hadn’t been done, as Lazarus and Gideon nearly bowled Martha over. They were so engrossed in their swordfight that Martha didn’t bother to yell at them; she picked up a piece of string from the floor and sat Mary on a chair instead. Martha pretended to tie the rock onto Mary’s wrist. “It’s so you’ll remember the scriptures,” she whispered. Mary seemed to consider this for a moment. “Spitchers!” she replied, throwing the rock on the floor with gusto. Martha moved to throw it back outside before anyone could accuse her of bringing in more dirt.
Martha had dumped out her rock collection many years later when her husband moved to the family home, but she had never stopped straining to hear the religious teachers—and no one had stopped doting on Mary. They had all indulged her fantasy of never marrying for so long that they hardly noticed as Mary actually became an old maid. When Martha’s own husband died, she mourned him dutifully, but soon found her life with Mary and Lazarus quite cozy.
Everyone in the village had expected her to invite the traveling teacher to lodge with them. Martha had a knack for concocting huge meals out of thin air and an infamously immaculate house. Still, she had heard her heart beating in her ears as she awaited Jesus’s reply; when he spoke, it was as if every glimpse of beauty she’d ever gotten from the Torah readings suddenly coalesced into a pattern, simple but captivating—one that she knew had always been there, but never quite believed she’d understand, let alone see, on earth. This man didn’t just theorize about Shalom. He described the Kingdom of God. He was the Kingdom of God.
Of course Martha had started preparing before she’d even asked, but at his acceptance of her invitation all the tasks before her became suffused with joy. Never before had she been so proud of her talent for hospitality or so excited to share it. She sang as she dusted and scrubbed, and tried to appear modest but terribly busy in her conversations at the market. She tried, too, not to mind as she caught glimpses of Lazarus and Mary listening to the teacher in the square while she hurried home, arms loaded with produce.
By the time the whole group bustled in the front door, the realities of pulling off a dinner party had overtaken the thrill. Martha had been hoping for Mary’s return for hours. No matter how many eggplants she chopped, it seemed she still needed more. Her feet ached and her back was in knots.
“Thank God you’re here,” she breathed, grabbing Mary’s arm when she walked in after the guests. “We missed you!” Mary said with bright eyes.
“Well, that’s nice, but I need…” Martha trailed off as Mary returned her attention to Jesus and walked away.
It doesn’t matter she thought, the plan will work well enough without help. Mary has never been very attentive to household things, and it’s my own fault for spoiling the girl. Martha thumped a bowl of nuts onto a table and checked the lamb: right on schedule. Mary just doesn’t understand how the world works. She’s making a fool of herself, as if she thought she belonged in the middle of that group of men. She found herself setting dishes on the table a little more loudly than normal. How can Mary sit there, seeing how many people they had to feed, and act so entitled? Martha moved the lentils off the fire. The bottom layer had burned; that would mean a lot of scrubbing later tonight. The thought of cleaning up after all this made her want to cry. Why had she invited Jesus here in the first place?
Jesus. She knew what to do. Grabbing a wine glass, she walked out of the kitchen and offered it to the first person she saw. Then she leaned down next to Mary, who sat at Jesus’s feet. “Lord,” she said, certain that he would make Mary see sense, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Martha moved to take away a hand-washing bowl, pretending not to see Mary’s shocked expression.
“Martha…” His voice was calm and inviting, but she was already scanning the room for tasks that needed to be done. “Martha!” She turned back around and made eye contact with the teacher for the first time. The kindness in his face made her want to cry again. Here would come his thanks, his recognition of her work.
“You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Martha stared from Jesus to Mary for a minute, both of them appearing to genuinely hope that she would plop down next to Mary on the floor. Then she swept back into the kitchen.
Only one thing is needed! All that is needed is for everyone to sit around playing patty-cake until dinner magically appears! Later she would think that Jesus himself had inadvertently helped her, because she was so angry she hardly noticed her hands making the rest of the preparations. Once they all made their way to dinner, though, she was so relieved to have a seat and a glass of wine that her frustration quickly dissipated. In Jesus’ company, the group was lighthearted but sincere. At his words, they felt for the first time that they could be good, as the teachers had always admonished, and that it would be a joy to do so.
The food was impeccably done, and compliments abounded. Once Jesus even asked for her opinion on a theological matter, with such simplicity that she answered frankly before she even had the sense to demur. She blushed deeply, but Jesus’s friends seemed unfazed. “Yes, I think you are right there,” Jesus answered, and carried on. Martha vaguely knew that water and wine glasses were sitting empty, that the bread was gone and the centerpiece was askew. But the words that had continued to ring in her ears no longer galled her; she felt the truth of them. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. So perfection had been taken away from Martha just as it always was. Didn’t Jesus care more about her than about her napkin folds?
A couple of hours had passed when Martha felt a hand on her shoulder. “Hey Martha,” Mary whispered, “Where’s the baklava? I’ll bring it out.”
For a moment panic seized her. Utter despair followed, but just as quickly came resignation. She had forgotten to make dessert. Martha glanced around at all the contented faces, chattering but always with Jesus in view. She stood up and pulled Mary into the kitchen. “This is it,” she said, scooping some dried dates into two bowls.
“Oh, Martha…” Mary said.
“What’s done is done,” Martha said quickly. The women made no grand entrance, but simply returned to their seats and offered the dates to their neighbors.
They were the best dates Martha had ever eaten. Juicy and sweet, winey but bright, the best of the summery fruit remaining alongside the deep caramels of aged sugars. In a blink, across the table, Martha could have sworn Jesus raised a date to her in a toast for just a second before attending to another guest’s earnest question
“Martha, it was an honor to sit with you at your table today,” Jesus said as they filed out the door.
“I hope I will see you again soon,” Martha replied.
Later, cleaning up, Martha noticed something odd on the table. There, at Jesus’s place, was a beautiful rock, not exactly unusual but with a pattern and a heft she thought she recognized. Mary glanced over, too.
“Inconsiderate of people to bring extra dirt inside, don’t you think?”
Martha only smiled.