Martha shook her head and sighed. It was always about Mary. It had always been about Mary, ever since their parents died. Mary had been nine, beautiful, with large dark eyes and wavy, almost black hair that always managed to escape her head covering. But Mary had an uncanny ability to read other people’s emotional needs. She tended to try to comfort others far too often, especially men, in ways that were not at all appropriate for a good Jewish girl. As she grew into womanhood, this “talent” only exacerbated delicate situations, and it wasn’t long before Martha found her young sister on the wrong side of the blanket with a ne’er-do-well.
That little episode sealed the family’s fate. Mary was now “used goods” and therefore ineligible as a marriage prospect. Martha and Lazarus had been waiting to get Mary married off so Martha could accept the proposal of a certain Benjamin. Martha and Benjamin’s fathers had arranged their marriage just before Mary was born, but Benjamin had made it clear that Mary was NOT part of the betrothal. Lazarus, too, had been promised to an eligible woman from the next village, but, like Martha’s situation, her family had forbidden him to bring his sisters in tow.
Muttering to herself, Martha grabbed a broom and tackled the dusty floor. “I’m going to be the old maid ‘babysitter’ for the rest of my life. Shameless Mary made sure of that, and she won’t help with the work around here, either.” She pursed her lips and jabbed the broom at some spiders behind a chair. “Save the work for me, I’ll be right back,” Martha mimicked Mary’s breezy tone as she stamped out an escaping critter. “Just like the last time and the time before that?” Martha’s bitterness dripped in the empty air. “You don’t want to help. All you want to do is rescue people because it makes you feel needed.” Martha tied a rag around the end of her broom and swung at the cobwebs on the ceiling.
Every time Martha rehearsed her little speeches they always dead ended the same way. She was stuck at home with all the work, Lazarus labored for their living, and Mary was off who-knows-where. If the family’s ten-generation sterling reputation didn’t matter so much to her and Lazarus, Martha would have ditched the family long ago. It wasn’t for love of Mary that she hung around, that was for sure.
Martha knew part of her resentment had to do with an “incident” a couple of weeks ago. A young rabbi had come through town on his way home from Jerusalem. Lazarus, Martha and Mary went to the synagogue to hear him speak, more out of curiosity than anything else. This teacher was rumored to have performed miracles like no one had ever seen before. But what interested Lazarus and Martha was the gossip that this man disdained authority and riches and instead favored the poor and the under dogs. As far as they were concerned, this was far more important than a thousand miracles.
Lazarus, a common laborer, was a thoughtful man, well versed in the Scriptures. He stayed to listen to other people question this rabbi, and because he stayed, so did Martha and Mary. As the rabbi challenged traditional wisdom with his answers, Mary sat extremely still, gazing intently at him. That worried Martha. Then Lazarus did the unthinkable and invited the rabbi to come home with them for supper and spend the night. The food and a place to sleep were not a problem for Martha. Mary, on the other hand, was.
All through supper, Lazarus and the rabbi talked, not about lofty religious ideas, but about life, people, and themselves. The rabbi spoke openly to Martha, too, which surprised her. Men outside the family rarely spoke to a woman. Even more surprising was that the rabbi asked Martha her opinion on several things, and he listened to her, as if what she thought somehow mattered. Silent Mary kept her eyes trained on the rabbi, listening intently as she mechanically put food in her mouth and chewed.
Later, when the men leaned back from the table, Martha started clearing up the dishes. She asked Mary to help but got no reaction. Lazarus sensed the mounting tension and quietly suggested to Mary that she help her sister. Still no response. Even though she knew it went against all codes of proper conduct, Martha appealed to the rabbi, but his reply only made her angrier. No other man would have dared suggest that a young unmarried woman should sit with the men and listen to their conversation. He even had the audacity to tell Martha that she worried too much! If he only knew…
As Martha put food away and washed the dishes she could hear most of the conversation from the other room. She kept glancing at Mary, but the girl hadn’t moved. Martha leaned on the doorway, twisting her aching back against the door jam. Mary looked so peaceful. Oh, no, Martha thought, she’s going to go after this rabbi! But that wasn’t what Mary’s face said. Adoration, almost reverence – even radiance. What was going on?
As if reading her thoughts, the rabbi glanced up and smiled – and Martha came undone. In a flash she understood what Mary saw in this man. It was love. But love with no strings attached, no conditions. Love, just the way she was. A wave of shame and guilt washed over her. Whirling around, she dropped her head into her hands. How could she have been so blind? She had caused Mary’s problems. Well, to be fair, Lazarus had, too, but she was mostly to blame. Nine-year-old orphaned Mary had needed to know she was loved. As the older female, she had fussed over the responsibility of raising her young sister, but it had never occurred to her to love Mary. Love had always been a duty, not something earned, necessarily, but definitely evidenced by what you did. Where she craved approval, Mary, it seemed, needed love.
Martha turned back, watching her siblings interact with the rabbi. They seemed so peaceful, so comfortable with each other. She didn’t hear it, she didn’t see it, but she felt it. Love. Love without conditions, demands, or reasons, just love. What I would give to love like that! thought Martha.
She felt the rabbi watching her, thinking back at her. “What would you give to be able to love like that?” Martha felt him think to her.
“Everything,” she whispered. And in that moment she had meant it.
But things were back to normal now. Lazarus was at work, Mary was nowhere to be seen, and Martha was doing the same chores she’d always done, just with more venom lately. How much more of this can I take, she wondered.
Just then, Mary popped in. “You look awful, Martha,” she frowned. “You OK? You look like you’re fighting seven demons.”
Martha clenched her jaw, thinking privately, “Not seven, just you!”
Mary took the spidery rag off Martha’s broom and shook it outside the door. “You know,” she said, “you’re very hard to love when you’re like this. Why don’t you sit down and enjoy the afternoon breeze for a few minutes? Just relax!”
“If I relax,” Martha spat, “who do you think is going to get the work done around here, huh? Not you, that’s for damn sure!”
Tears welled in Mary’s eyes as she slapped her hands on her hips and scrutinized her sister. “I’m willing to help, Martha, but every time I try, you always tell me what I do wrong. I’ve never been able to do one single thing well enough for you.” Her lips quivered as she whispered, “That’s why I’m never home.”
Rage paralyzed Martha. She could neither speak nor think. Slowly, letter by letter, words began forming inside her head. Blue words in a white mist. “What would you give to love like that?”
She knew the answer. She remembered saying it out loud. But could she? Would she?
From a distance she heard Mary saying, “Martha, Martha…please, Martha… I love you…”
Could she? Would she?