There is a small statue on the windowsill over my kitchen sink that I see every time I wash the dishes. Titled “Kitchen Madonna”, it shows a very Old World-style mother with her hair swept back for chores and a broom in her hands, gazing down at her young child by her knees, who is reaching up and clamoring for attention. My husband and I received the statue as a wedding gift, but since the artwork wasn’t especially my style, I hadn’t given it much attention until lately. My infant daughter has recently reached the milestones of rapidly crawling over to wherever I am, pulling up, and clinging to my legs while loudly insisting what I assume means “Pick me up, now!” in her language. These days, I feel a lot like the mother in that statue.
God only knows by what twisted grown-up logic the pile of dirty dishes seems more compelling than the wondrous baby at my feet. Maybe that’s the foolishness Jesus gently warns Martha against:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38-42, NRSV)
My mom refers to the often-frustrating moments when other tasks get ignored in favor of childcare as “baby time”, and baby time is some of the slowest, most unproductive, important time there is. Martha’s sister Mary indulges in a similar sort of time when she chooses to relax in conversation with Jesus. In response to our busy schedules, Jesus tells us, “There is need of only one thing”—to listen to what God is saying through the person before us.
More than an important reminder to keep action balanced with contemplation, the story of Martha and Mary signals the goodness of extravagance in response to the divine before us. God squanders love lavishly on us (see the parable of the prodigal son—Luke 15:11-32). To learn to love as God does, we must let go of keeping score, holding back, or privileging other things before our relationships, including our relationship with God. Many forces in our society drive us to seek accumulation and influence, and to be productive so that we can achieve these things. But how do we treat those parts of life that aren’t “productive”—play, worship, suffering? What about those persons who aren’t “productive” members of society?
To most of us, like to Martha, it makes more sense to get the house ready for guests than to sit around chatting. I could certainly use some more time to study or clean rather than building yet another tower of blocks for my baby to topple over. When I let myself enjoy baby time, however, I resist the temptation to see my daughter as one more chore to take care of in a busy day. Instead, I delight in her babyhood, her emerging personality, and her growth. Baby time reminds me not to see the other as an obstacle in my path or an instrument to be used, but rather as a call to love even when it doesn’t seem to yield a direct benefit to me.