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The Martha Syndrome


Jesus visited two sisters. One of them (Mary) sat at his feet and listened, while the other (Martha) became totally involved in preparing a meal for her visitor. Jesus rebuked Martha, because she had not done like her sister, and taken time to listen to what he was saying. (Luke 19:38-42)

How often we women, with all good intentions, slip into being Martha's - carrying such a weight of responsibility on our shoulders that we are unable to enjoy the company of others, or to receive the spiritual nourishment that is being offered.

Jesus came as a humble servant to "serve rather than to be served", and he exhorted us to be of like mind. (Matthew 20:25-28) Service is a lot of what Christianity is about: laying down our lives for our brothers and sisters in love. (1 John 3:16)

So, what was wrong with what Martha did?

Martha's problem came from (1) ignoring social and spiritual needs in order to meet the physical needs of those around her; (2) ignoring her own need for rest; and (3) being driven by a social conscience which was not in submission to the true conscience.

The first cause for the Martha Syndrome is ignoring spiritual and social needs in order to meet physical ones. When we do that, it's a bit like saying, "I'm so busy doing Christian things that I don't have time to be a Christian." We have to start with our relationship with God, which will then have an effect on everything else that we do. We simply will not have the power to love the world if we don't stay linked to the Source of that power. And we stay linked by taking time to sit at the feet of the Master and wait for his instructions, the way that Mary did.

God also created us as social beings. We need to make allowances for that in order to meet our own needs and those of others who are in our care. Martha may have needed to enjoy Mary's company a bit more, as well as the company of Jesus. There are times when we need to down tools and enjoy one another.

If you're creative, you can make some tasks more pleasant by incorporating social interaction into the task itself. We work best when we enjoy what we're doing, and what better way to enjoy it than doing it with people you enjoy being with! But whether or not you are able to get the physical jobs done at the same time that you deal with interpersonal relationships, you need to understand that relationships are more important than the physical task itself. A terrific meal will never make up for an atmosphere of tension and disagreement.

The second cause of the Martha Syndrome is ignoring the need to rest and take care of your own physical needs.

Jesus, the Servant, sacrificed himself for the needs of others, but he stayed "in the spirit" while doing so, partly by allowing time for important needs of his own. Apparently he was in the habit of rising early and going to a solitary place, where he could pray and receive spiritual nourishment. (Matthew 14:23; Matthew 17:1; Matthew 24:3) But when he really needed sleep, he took it. (Matthew 8:24) He fasted (John 4:32, 34), but he also feasted at times. He neither pampered nor neglected his human needs.

It is not just OK, but it is often preferable for us to tend to our own needs, so that we can be more able to give to others. When Sister Teresa first started out in Calcutta, she used to pack a lunch for herself to eat while she was out, tending to the needs of others. She consistently gave away her lunch, because of the hunger that she witnessed all around her. It didn't take long for her to get sick, and become unable to go out at all to minister. A friend convinced her that she could do more in the long run by keeping herself healthy. She started eating her lunches after that.

We don't want to be guilty of teaching people to be selfish... particularly in cases of real need, such as exist everywhere in India. Certainly we can miss a meal now and again without any harm coming to us. But if we are consistently denying our own physical needs, it will take its toll on our bodies, and eventually in our ministries. In particular, if we are doing it without God's leading, it can lead to a harsh bitter spirit instead of a gentle loving one. Sometimes it is an apparently selfish act (such as eating our lunch rather than giving it away) which has the most effect in humbling us for our greater spiritual service to others.

The third cause of the Martha Syndrome is an obsession with following your social conscience (i.e. your concern about what others will think of you). Society teaches us from an early age what our role should be as women. This socialisation process instills internal drives in us which can make us successful in many endeavours. They can be useful tools to help us achieve our goals within the kingdom of heaven too... as long as we recognise how the social conscience is working in conjunction with our Christian conscience, and as long as we keep the social conscience subjected to the will of God. If we don't, the social conscience can become our master, turning us into self-righteous, bitter Marthas, who resent the Marys of the world, because they are free to sit at the feet of the Master while we are left to do all the work... work which we had never been instructed to do in the first place.

One of the natural social drives is the desire to excel. It is good to aim for perfection in the smallest things, as a form of Christian witness, and so that we can "do all for the glory of God". But we should also learn that it is okay (and often preferable) to settle for something less than perfection at times. A perfectionist has an all or nothing approach to things. She forgets that there are times when a pass mark is actually preferable to a high distinction. Being able to complete the task or project is better than giving up halfway just because we couldn't achieve a certain standard which we set for ourselves.

Perfectionism also reduces our ability to empower others. Our high standards can make others feel unneeded or make them feel frightened to take on responsibility, for fear they won't be good enough. This leaves us continually doing everything ourselves. And when we can't take any more, we do like Martha and snap at Mary because she didn't get in there and do her bit!

The social conscience is linked with wanting others to think well of us. Loving service can result in others thinking well of us; but if our service involves pretending that everything is OK when it isn't, then this is spiritually harmful. Being pacifists doesn't mean living lives of pretence, or running away from all confrontations. God has given us a way to sort out differences, and to confront injustices in a constructive and loving way, by using the grievance system. (See disagreements.) Only by talking out our differences can we come to solutions that are acceptable to all parties. If Martha had a genuine grievance against Mary for not helping with the housework, she should have dealt with it rather than just blowing up at Mary.

There is also a "hurry up" drive in the social conscience that can be destructive. If we have an overview of the many tasks that need to be done within a certain framework of time, it should make us prioritise our time and be efficient in what we do. However, if we panic about not having enough time, we become inefficient, because we have lost the plot. Step back and reassess the situation. With prayer and the right attitude, you will find a way to tackle the most important and relevant jobs, even if you don't do everything. You will accomplish little if you remain in a state of panic, running in circles because you don't know where to start.

In conclusion, if you suffer from the Martha Syndrome, remember that you're not alone. Zeal has just made you lose sight of the bigger picture. Take time for your relationship with God and others. Keep your social conscience in its rightful place, as a tool to enable you to overcome, rather than as a master to dominate you. Then, like Mary, you will be able, in good conscience, to choose "that good thing" that will not be taken from you.

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