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It Is Their Care in All the Ages

to take the buffet and cushion the shock. It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.

My post about the romance of engineering reminded me of one of my favorite poems, The Sons of Martha. I'd blogged about it in 2002 and again in 2004, so I figured that it was time to do it again, both for its substance and for a reminder that great poetry can be written about many subjects.

The poem is a reference to -- and in some ways a criticism of -- a passage from Luke, chapter 10, verses 38-42:

[38] Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.

[39] And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word.

[40] But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.

[41] And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

[42] But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

The word "careful," of course, means "full of care." Here then is the poem; oddly enough, my favorite parts are the first two lines of each stanza (except the last), but of course you have to read it all:

The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

They say to mountains "Be ye remov'd." They say to the lesser floods "Be dry."
Under their rods are the rocks reprov'd -- they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit -- then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

They finger Death at their gloves' end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.
Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.

To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden -- under the earthline their altars are --
The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city's drouth.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not preach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren's ways may be long in the land.

Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with the blood some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.

And the Sons of Mary smile and are bless'd -- they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confess'd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet -- they hear the Word -- they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and -- the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons!

James Fulford (mail):
The poem is used by Canadian Engineering students at a ceremony called "The Ritual of the Calling," a tradition that goes back to Kipling's day. The tradition is similar in concept to the Hippocratic Oath.
11.28.2006 12:36pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
I just want to thank you for the poem-blogging. I don't know anything about poetry, and wouldn't know where to look for it, (other than in Russian). The stuff you put up is always good and saves me the trouble of seeking it out on my own.
11.28.2006 12:42pm
memphian (mail):
I like this poem/story so much that I might just name my unborn daughter Martha.
11.28.2006 12:50pm
ReVonna LaSchatze:
The poem misses the point of the parable.
Martha's sons aren't serving Mary's sons.

Martha and her sons are making a lot of unneccesary work for themselves. Trust in "I am" -- think and practice what you learn.

Or run around like Martha's sons unnessarily active, "solving" worries created themselves. Don't pretend you're doing it to benefit Mary's sons though.

That is what Jesus was explaining to Martha. "Listen and practice" is the better part.


Jesus gently rebukes Martha for being "worried and distracted" by her many tasks and her resentment of Mary's behavior. Jesus tells her that she has lost her focus; she needs only one thing. And what is that one thing? The answer is in the story of the Good Samaritan, which precedes this one. Martha needs to focus on loving God and her neighbor as herself; to do this one thing is to choose the better part, to be a disciple of Jesus.
11.28.2006 12:59pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Revonna, you are way off. Mary's sons don't have a worry in the world because they believe that God will protect them. Martha's sons know that if they want something - they have to do it themselves, and God won't will it for them. They don't do it out of love for Mary's sons, but because they know it won't get done if they don't do it.

This poems really reminds me of the dichotomy between charedi Israelis, who do nothing but pray, and everyone else in Israel, upon whom the charedi unwittingly depend.
11.28.2006 1:06pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
I don't think the poem misses the point of the parable; rather, it in some measure criticizes the point of the parable.

Indeed, in the parable Mary is doing the right thing by attending to spiritual matters, and Martha is erring by instead fussing about material details. But in life, Kipling is saying, someone has to fuss about material details -- especially if others are to have the safety and leisure needed to focus on supposedly more elevated matters.
11.28.2006 1:06pm
ReVonna LaSchatze:

That is not my interpretation of Christian scripture but Eugene and Mike are welcome to their beliefs, just as I'm sure I could best them on some of what the Torah is really telling us.

Still maintain,
that is quite an artistic stretch -- very Martha-like put upon :) -- to believe that her sons are serving Mary's, those able to rest comfortably at night because of their beliefs and practices. Martha's sons should be a bit less noble and try it -- this "different line of work":

"They do not preach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they damn-well choose."
11.28.2006 1:14pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Someone has to fuss about some material details, but I know many people who fuss about far too many. Was Martha cooking basic food, or was she running around trying to make sure the place settings looked just so, primarily for the purpose of keeping up appearances? I know a number of women who spend hours sweeping up dust that only they see, only to complain at the end of the day how tired and unappreciated they are. These are the people brought to my mind by this parable. I've never seen it as a version of the grasshopper and the ant.
11.28.2006 1:17pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
especially if others are to have the safety and leisure needed to focus on supposedly more elevated matters.

It depends on what the "elevated matters" are. If it's preventing other people from stealing from you, that is working on material security. You're never going to be self-sufficient, as a family or a group, if you allow people to steal the fruits of your labor, talent, intellect, etc.
11.28.2006 1:21pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
ReVonna: I'm sure you can best me on the Torah, since I know zip about the Torah. Somehow some people have gotten the impression that I'm religiously Jewish; I'm not.

But I do think I'm a pretty good interpreter of what I wrote; and I hope I'm a decent interpreter of what Kipling wrote. In my post, I wrote "The poem is a reference to -- and in some ways a criticism of -- a passage from Luke, chapter 10, verses 38-42." In my comment, I wrote "I don't think the poem misses the point of the parable; rather, it in some measure criticizes the point of the parable."

I'm not claiming that Kipling's poem is an accurate "interpretation of Christian scripture," or for that matter even an attempt at such interpretation. Kipling is taking a parable that he expects his readers know, and presenting a different take on the subject -- one that seems to me to implicitly criticize, rather than faithfully echo, the parable or at least one plausible interpretation of it.
11.28.2006 1:24pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Forgot to mention individual too. You're never going to be independent as an individual either if you allow people to steal from you.
11.28.2006 1:25pm
Sarah (mail) (www):
There's also the question of when it's appropriate to be cooking or cleaning house, versus putting your attention on other things. Mary might well have come under condemnation if she'd been slaving away over the scriptures every day, leaving Mary to do all the hard work. Instead, because the Lord was their houseguest, and he wasn't going to be around forever, and he was telling them important things, instead the message was "well my dear, the bread and the dusty floor and whatever other stuff (which yes, Mary, you're responsible for, too) can wait, Martha."

Kind of like that whole "six days shalt thou labor but the seventh belongs to the Lord" principle. Could have sworn that was in the Bible somewhere or other, and generally well-accepted by most readers as a principle...

(I'd comment on the poetry, but alas I don't find it pretty, and that's really the only thing I look for in a poem.)
11.28.2006 1:31pm
ReVonna LaSchatze:
Thank you, Professor. I'll stick with PatHMV's explanation, over MikeBU's. The teaching that accompanied the Bible verse -- important in my particular religion -- stressed Martha's behavior was more like the fussy martyr, rather than the ants to Mary's grasshopper.

With this accompanying teaching -- plus reading these parables in context, the big picture -- Kipling's take is not the usual, you must be aware from some Christian interpretation?

Not that there's anything wrong with this. I enjoy Graham Greene's writings particularly for his take, similar to Kipling's here.
11.28.2006 1:32pm
Eric Barrett:
Fantastic poem. Thank you for sharing this, Mr. V.
11.28.2006 1:32pm
ReVonna LaSchatze:
You're never going to be self-sufficient, as a family or a group, if you allow people to steal the fruits of your labor, talent, intellect, etc.

You're badly missing the point of Martha's actions that day...
11.28.2006 1:33pm
Eric Barrett:
I think that a engineer's (or engineer-type's) appreciation of this poem can be understood through the following passage:

To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden — under the earthline their altars are —


If you are one for whom Belief is not forbidden (ReVonna and others), then perhaps the poem is merely a diversion, or a misinterpretation. But for those who'd fancy ourselves the subject of the poem, it's quite powerful.
11.28.2006 1:38pm
ReVonna LaSchatze:
Eric--

My brother and sister are engineers.
They believe.

With more Mary's and less Martha's, perhaps more of you would feel welcome, less forbidden at birth? It's a choice to accept or reject, but nothing is forbidden at birth.
11.28.2006 1:47pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Martha, Martha, Martha!
11.28.2006 1:51pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Kipling's poem is in truth an indictment of "Martha's sons". As he tells it, they are concerned solely with material things. They sound almost like parents fussing at their unappreciative children for all the sacrifices that the parents have made for them. But they are not my parents, and I didn't ask them to make those sacrifices for me. Nor did the Lord command them to do so or commend the sons of Mary into their care.

In short, they are committing the very ancient sin of hubris, appointing themselves into some elevated role not given to them by others. Faith is not forbidden to them at birth, they choose to focus their lives on the material. In doing so, it seems to me they have rejected faith.
11.28.2006 1:59pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Hmmmm... The sons of Martha and the sons of Jan...

And what about poor little Cindy's kids? They've been forgotten by history entirely as the nice, quiet people who stay out of the way and don't get into the middle of fights with others?
11.28.2006 2:04pm
ReVonna LaSchatze:

I think of Cousin Oliver like the lost tribe...
11.28.2006 2:11pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Revonna,
With more Mary's and fewer Martha's perhaps the sewage treatment plant wouldn't exist.

The fact is one needs to be "specially trained" to read the parable and "know" Martha is acting like Martha Stewart and demanding help gilding lilies. Mary may equally well be asking someone help her bring water from the well so people can wash their hands and feet before eating. Yes, many priests ministers and preachers will tell you Martha is rushing around doing unnecessary things. They go to great pains to do this because the meaning of the text is quite ambiguous (as any puzzled 6 year old can tell you.)

I know that as a 6 year old, my reaction was: If the story means what the priest says it means, why didn't Jesus say, "Martha, put down your cares and join us!" (And my theory was Jesus wanted the food to appear on the table too!)
11.28.2006 2:22pm
AppSocRes (mail):
ReVonna: I hope you don't bother burying your dead relatives: After all, "Let the dead bury the dead."
11.28.2006 2:29pm
ReVonna LaSchatze:
With more Mary's and fewer Martha's perhaps the sewage treatment plant wouldn't exist.

OK, I didn't want to get into this, but...

This parable also shows how Jesus rejected religious convention. He was "teaching" a woman. Martha wanted him to tell her sister to know her role -- get back in the kitchen and help with all the dishes. Jesus said, no -- only one dish is needed. The woman, your sister, can stay here with me and learn.

Maybe Mary's sons and daughters have kept the faith and built the water sewage treatment plants. While Martha's finicky offspring decides what color to paint the visible water tower.
11.28.2006 2:33pm
Jimmy S:
With respect, Lucia, I don't think that the typical Christian interpretation is so obscure. If James Madison were to come to your house and begin discussing the Federalist Papers, I doubt the natural reaction would be to excuse oneself to go do a bit of dusting.

Mary and Martha had someone in their house whose counsel (they apparently believed) was more valuable than any philosopher, theologian, or political leader who ever had or ever would be on the earth. In such a case, the natural reaction is certainly to make such a person comfortable and attend to their creature comforts--until they begin to speak. Then you sit down, shut up, and listen.
11.28.2006 2:38pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Lucia, you say on the one hand that the text is "ambiguous" and on the other that reading it the way ReVonna and I (and many others) do requires "special training". If it is indeed ambiguous, then wouldn't it require special training to read it your way, as well? And if it is ambiguous, why work so hard to interpret it in a way which makes the Savior seem mean-spirited and hypocritical? That, to me, seems to be pure projection.

My way may be projection as well, but I manage to keep a relatively clean house, get productive work done, and relax from time to time. I won't win any Martha Stewart awards, and my papers aren't always as organized as I would like in a perfect world, but nothing is actually filthy, and I can find most everything I need on my desk. Why do so many want to interpret the ambigous parable as an attack on work, generally?
11.28.2006 2:52pm
Delurking:
ReVonna wrote:

My brother and sister are engineers.
They believe.


Do they believe that "their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose", or that "His Pity allows them to drop their job when they damn-well choose"?

If they do not, they are not the sons of Mary to which the poet refers. It is highly unlikely that "To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar." refers to atheists, just to those who don't expect material aid from God in this life.
11.28.2006 3:39pm
Tom952 (mail):
The son who devise the nails that hold their homes together during the storms. Thanks for sharing.
11.28.2006 4:14pm
tefta2 (mail):
Scripture teaches that God put us on earth, not to improve it, but only to love him and by extension, our neighbors. Hence the parable of Mary and Martha and Mary's elevation to a life of the spirit while poor Martha is relegated to household drudgery. This has nothing to do with feminist foolishness.

The Mary's, male and female, look down on the Martha's of both sexes because they lack sensitivity, but then few of the Mary's I've met (and I've met way too many of them) would like to live on the unimproved earth as God originally fashioned it.
11.28.2006 4:57pm
Anon Y. Mous:

Hmmmm... The sons of Martha and the sons of Jan...

And what about poor little Cindy's kids?


I'm embarrassed that I know this, but her name was Marcia Brady, not Martha.
11.28.2006 5:18pm
lucia (mail) (www):
PatHMV> If it is indeed ambiguous, then wouldn't it require special training to read it your way, as well?


No. The story can be read the way you and Jimmy are understanding it or the way I understood it when I was 6 or read the way Revonna mentioned or many other ways. That's the meaning of "ambiguous". I believe you have to be specially trained to cease to notice the ambiguity and believe it can only be read in one way.

I do have a question for PatHMV: How is relating my puzzled reaction to the priest's interpretation "working hard" to make the Lord sound mean spirited? I know you don't like the fact that as a small child, I saw, and as an adult I see the story as ambiguous. Moreover, I know you don't like the fact that I think his and your interpetations don't quite fit the text.

But why do you think my seeing ambiguity in a short parable that lacks detail is "working hard" to do anything at all?
11.28.2006 5:35pm
Thief (mail) (www):
This is why there is no such thing as "faith-based engineering."

Engineers are, of necessity, hard people, and disinclined to follow things which have not been tested and retested until there is no doubt they work. (And I for one, sit on the top floor of this steel and concrete building in perfect safety because I know some engineers calculated the bearing load of the roof and the appropriate concrete density for the floor correctly.) They know there is no such thing as an easy solution, for anything. They are not decieved by cant and rhetoric, they look for success or failure, and they will call either one what it is.

I think lawyers could stand to learn from the care and clarity of vision with which engineers practice their craft. No more wild-ass theories, but just facts and hard data.

/Son, grandson, nephew, and counsin of engineers
11.28.2006 6:09pm
JB:
Rudyard Kipling's poems are often like this--inspirational to some, misleading to those who'd take them too broadly. Another like it, which I've seen a lot lately, is Dane Geld:

It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say: --
"We invaded you last night--we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away."

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you've only to pay 'em the Dane-geld
And then you'll get rid of the Dane!

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: --
"Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away."

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we've proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say: --

"We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that pays it is lost!"


What Kipling doesn't mention is that if the "rich and lazy nation" can't defeat the "young and agile nation," they're better off paying dane geld and trying to prepare for the next year's fight than fighting and dying. If you can't win, don't fight. That's the lesson missed by all the people who've quoted it to me to support the Iraq War, say.

On the other hand, it's true and valuable when it comes to standing up against terrorism in general.

Liek Dane Geld, Sons of Martha makes the point that our easy life is made possible by constant vigilance and sacrifice on the part of some, and that to them belongs the glory or at least a nice poem. However, it is based on an unusual reading of the biblical verse, and the ignorant may take an incorrect lesson from it--keep to your chores and ignore the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

So don't take Kipling too literally, but take the more limited lessons he has to teach.
11.28.2006 6:20pm
ReVonna LaSchatze:

Wow.
lucia rewrites Scripture.

Next thing she'll be telling us who is, and who isn't, Christian. Once people lose their gods, they quickly work to replace him ... with themselves.

Stop with the insults, lucia?
11.28.2006 6:28pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
JB, Dane-Geld is a great poem. It's been blogged here. As has my personal favorite - "Gods of the Copybook Headings."
11.28.2006 6:29pm
lucia (mail) (www):
ReVonna,
Where have I posted an insult?

For that matter, in what way am I rewriting scripture? I said it's ambiguous.

Is it rewriting to fail to read in things the text does not specifically say? Could you post the scripture and point out where the text it says Martha was 'finnicky' as you suggest? Or where in the text it says "Martha wanted him to tell her sister to know her role". Are you sure Martha didn't just want him to tell Mary to help fetch water for the ritual ablutions required before meals?
11.28.2006 7:02pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
You're badly missing the point of Martha's actions that day...

Actually I didn't. Someone referred to people inappropriately focusing on more "elevated" matters. I pointed out that one example of those matters - making sure your individual or group property rights aren't trampled - is actually more fundamental than it appears. Without property rights all the talent or hard work in the world is worthless, because the benefits will be stolen from you. Why work when the benfits go to dishonest leeches?
11.28.2006 7:18pm
JB:
It is a great poem, and very apt for these times--but often quoted in incorrect contexts.

My favorite of his is Clampherdown, for sheer anachronism. Sons of Martha, however, seems to use a meter similar to "Vitae Lampada," which, however devoid of real meaning, is my favorite poem of the genre.
11.28.2006 8:15pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Lucia, my last post didn't deny it was ambiguous. My point was that you claim it takes "special training" to read it the way I do, while your way is, apparently, so easy as to have come to you as a child. That, at least, is how I read your initial post. I understand from your clarification that you believe that the text is ambiguous and that all the readings suggested so far are relatively plausible.

That being the case, my point is that you seem now to be choosing to interpret the parable in a way which has Christ devaluing honest, needful work in favor of someone going ooh and ahh over him, in the face of an equally plausible reading which interprets Christ to be saying "Mary, stop fretting and making work for yourself and sit down to enjoy the more important things in life for a moment." In one reading, Christ is saying "stop and smell the roses sometimes". In the other, Christ is saying "don't do any work at all and just sit around and worship me". Why choose the more negative of those 2 equally plausible interpretations?
11.28.2006 8:58pm
ReVonna LaSchatze:
lucia--
You're insulting how others choose to listen to others in understanding the Christian context.

AP -- you're making up interpretation in the church of yourself if you believe the passage means this: "You're never going to be independent as an individual either if you allow people to steal from you." Neither sister was stealing.

This is suspiciously sounding like a smear the Christians thread here. I'll take my leave.
11.28.2006 9:03pm
lucia (mail) (www):


PatMVH:in the face of an equally plausible reading which interprets Christ to be saying "Mary, stop fretting and making work for yourself and sit down to enjoy the more important things in life for a moment."

Had Jesus actually said "Martha, stop fretting, sit down and relax", I'd clearly choose your interpretation. (Mary is already doing so without any prompting whatsoever.)

However, he didn't suggest Martha -- the hostess-- take a load off. What he said is more like "Martha, stop asking, I'm not going to make Mary, your co-hostess, help you if she doesn't want to."

That's all he says. We have no idea what sort of work Martha is doing. We have no idea if Martha kept working and everyone shared a feast she prepared or whatever.

Why choose the more negative of those 2 equally plausible interpretations?

Why do you see these as equally plausible?

I see no evidence to suggest the "Martha, take a load off" interpretation is particularly plausible, though it's not impossible. If you changed the name "Jesus" to "Fred", and I read that passage, I'd tend to think the "I'm not making Mary help you" message seemed the most plausible interpretation of what "Fred" meant. That is: I assume the words actually uttered captured the speaker's predominant meaning. (But, I do consider the possibility there may be a subtext.)

Still, as it happens, I make no choice as to which interpretation is true. If others want to believe in a subtext, that's fine with me.

I'm not saying anyone else needs to interpret the text any particular way. I am simply responding to those posting here insisting that the "Kipling" view is somehow a serious misinterpretation of the text. (You may scroll up to see several of these criticisms were posted slighly before my first comment.)

As far as I can see the interpretation that Jesus is admonishing Martha for asking her co-hostess Mary to help is quite plausible and not a "serious misinterpretation". I accept there are other ways to interpret it-- I just don't accept that the are obvious-- or even equally plausible.
----
ReVonna,
I know you have exited, but since others read, I want to say that I have not told anyone how they should understand that passage. I have not said anything negative about those who read the passage the way you do. I have said the meaning of the passage is ambiguous based on the text, and I don't perceive that meaning you describe.

I am honestly mystified that you feel insulted, or believe this position represents and anti-christian smear.


----- -----
11.28.2006 9:57pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Revonna, beyond Lucia's apparent disagreement with your position, what is your basis for feeling insulted?
11.28.2006 10:01pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Revonna-

It wasn't my intention to insult Christians. (Unless they're Christians that go around stealing, and in that case they really aren't Christians.) So if you were offended by anything I said because you interpreted it that way I apologize.
11.28.2006 10:31pm
Jimmy S:
Lucia, pay very close attention to what Jesus actually said and then read between the lines a bit:

And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

(translation: yes, you're doing a lot, [and maybe those things actually do need to be done at some point])

But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part,

But of all the things on your to-do list, there's only one thing that really matters right now [and that is listening to the good word].

which shall not be taken away from her.

If you don't think what I'm saying is important, it's your choice and your prerogative not to listen. But don't judge Mary for the choice that she's made.

Note also John 12:1-8, where this same Mary anoints Jesus' feet. Judas chastizes her, saying that the costly ointment used should have been sold for the benefit of the poor. Jesus replies, "For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always". The lesson--which Mary and, presumably, Martha had already learned--was that while there are many things worth doing, and there's a time and a place for all of them, there is also a time to put down your labors and listen to good counsel.

The moral of the story isn't that it's better to sit on one's brains and wait for salvation. The moral is that there's a time and a place for everything under the sun (Ecclesiastes 3).
11.28.2006 10:55pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Jimmy I note you suggest read between the lines a bit: . I think it takes considerable reading between the lines to arrive at your interpretation. There are other readings that take much less reading between the lines.

Example:
And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

Translation: Martha, yes, you do have many burdens and troubles (attending your guests -- who include me and my entourage of hungry disciples). You are justified in choosing to attend to them carefully.

But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

Translation: But you need to realize this one thing: Mary's choice is also good, and we are not going to deprive her of her choice (or let you make it for her.)

-- ---
Possible Moral:

Jesus is telling Martha she chosen her "this" good part part, Mary has chosen "that" good part. Martha doesn't get to choose Mary's good part for her. (Presumably, Mary doesn't get to pick Martha's either.)

I've always thought the interpretation I just described is a fairly good one. Each person gets to choose whichever "good part" they prefer; others don't get to dictate those choices for simply because they prefer their choices to yours.

(Since you find support for your interpretation in the other story, I would note that in the ointment example, once again Jesus permits Mary to choose the "good part" of attending to him, while chastising Judas for trying to insist she do a different "good thing", which would be donating the ointment to charity.)

But even though I like my interpretation and I think it requires much less "reading between the lines" than does yours, I don't think it's the only possible one to believe. After all, the story is very, very short. Details that would let us be certain are omitted. If you want to read between the lines to think Martha decided to do a bit of urgent dusting the moment Jesus stepped in the door, and he's lecturing her to stop and smell the roses, that's ok by me. I just don't see it in the text and find other interpretations more plausible.


I have not, btw, suggested the moral is to sit on one's brains and wait for salvation. (Equally clearly, I see a different moral than you do.)

---
/ Since everyone is giving their engineering credentials, I'mm mention that I am a mechanical engineer, married to a mechanical engineer. I have a number of relatives who are also engineers.
11.29.2006 12:13am
Steph (mail):
ReVonna your belife to the contrary not with standing lucia has not been insulting you. In fact you have been treated with extream gentalness. People read the scriptures in diferent ways. If you can't stand the heat stay out of the kitchen.
11.29.2006 12:45am
Jimmy S:
Lucia, I should apologize for not paying closer attention to your 9:57 PM post. I agree that there's also a sort of "live and let live" theme to both stories in that Jesus doesn't reprimand either Martha or Judas until they begin actively questioning Mary's act of devotion.

Given Jesus' saying in John 12:8, in conjunction with the statement that "one thing" was needful (Luke 10:42), I'll stand by my interpretation of the story as being that when you're in the presence of a great teacher (or a god, as you may choose to believe), things that would otherwise be important probably ought to move down a notch in priority.

I realize that you have not directly stated that the moral of this story is to sit around and wait for salvation, but the Kipling view does seem to interpret the story thus. And you seem to acknowledge that the Kipling view is at least plausible (forgive me if I misinterpret you again).

I, for one, feel that such a view is incompatible with other teachings of Jesus--the parable of the talents, for example, or his constant admonishments to take care of the poor. With the exception of the disciples who were supposed to spend all of their time in the ministry, I don't think Jesus intended for his followers to become a bunch of sponges.
11.29.2006 2:05am
Woodstock (mail) (www):
yeah I'm glad Revonna left...she wasn't interested in serious debate...only in confirming her own opinions about the text (I actually agree with her interpretation but I think it is ambiguous). strange she felt insulted.

But back to the poem itself, I interpret it to be pretty clearly saying that we cannot just live our lives by religion and prayer and faith. Martha's sons are noble because they don't proclaim to be building a ladder to heaven, only " simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need."

And this last part:

And the Sons of Mary smile and are bless'd -- they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confess'd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet -- they hear the Word -- they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and -- the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons!


Basically saying that Mary's sons can think that it is because of the Lord's blessing that they are free to be unproductively praying all day long, and while they may think they are putting the burden of their carefree existence on the Lord, they are actually putting it on Martha's sons.

It is saying that while religious belief is great, it also needs to be tempered by practical concerns for fellow man in this world.
11.29.2006 2:07am
The Anonymous Stranger (mail):
I note that the Gospels are studded through with Jesus telling people not to plan for the future, but live day-to-day and trust God to provide for them (for example, the birds and flowers sermon and the rich man with storehouses parable). And examples of Jesus himself providing for those who did not plan ahead (the loaves and fishes, the wine at the wedding, even defending the disciples taking grain on the Sabbath when merely carrying a bit of food with them would have avoided the challenge).

The Gospels, accordingly, have made it clear you are not supposed to be planning or preparing for what you have to do later on Earth, but for the Kingdom of God. Which is just plain sense; eternal life is so much more important than having a meal tomorrow it is imprudent to be planning ahead for living on Earth if it takes a moment away from preparing for the Kingdom of Heaven. In any case, as Jesus similarly makes clear, you cannot serve two masters without slighting one. So let the dead bury their dead and follow Jesus.

This is the context for the story of Mary and Martha. And in this whole-Gospel context, it is clear Martha is called out not necessarily because she was worrying about things that a normal person would call trivial, but because she was worrying about Earthly things at all.

Which is Kipling's point. Things on Earth get done by those who care about tomorrow on Earth. Jesus, if I should be so bold, would seem to fully agree -- and argue that caring about the future on Earth is a mistake.
11.29.2006 3:32am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
It appears to me that we live or die by material issues. The aforementioned sewage plant, the vaccines, the food, the elevator which fails to fail.
Churches who get involved in what they call social justice are speaking entirely of material issues. "Such and such a group only has this and that percentage of the entire amount of whatsit!!!! Jesus commands us to Do Something!!!"
So, while we may find Scripture telling us to be uninterested in tomorrow, most churches would pillory any society which took that seriously, because the people who weren't supposed to be concerned about tomorrow were dying today.

I wanted to send that poem to a friend and instead of smashing my collected Kipling flat on a copier, I thought I'd search on line for it. That's where I discovered the Ritual of The Calling and the Order of The Iron Ring. It stemmed from a bridge which had failed due to inadequate engineering. There is no evidence that the dead and injured were unconcerned about their early demise. I get the impression that the Order and the Calling are something like a civil engineer's version of the Hippocratic Oath.
Next time you see a guy who is an engineer with a plain iron ring on the little finger of his dominant hand, ask him about it.

This is one of the Master's best.

IMO, it also addresses the gap between the sheep (Mary's sons) and the sheepdogs (Martha's sons).
11.29.2006 8:21am
lucia (mail) (www):

Jimmy: And you seem to acknowledge that the Kipling view is at least plausible (forgive me if I misinterpret you again).

You don't misinterpret me. I think your "unnecessary dusting" reading and the Kipling "don't work just wait for" reading are equally plausible. That is to say, both kind of sort of fit, but have problems.

The "don't work just wait for" reading would make the teaching contradict other Jesus parables (but that would hardly make it the only contradiction in the Bible).

Your "unnecessary dusting" idea has to be pushed into the text. Worse, it's is quite a stretch in context. After all, in the context of Jesus's life, he seems to have been followed around by quite a few disciples. So, one might think that "Jesus stopping by Martha's house" would be mean a half dozen hungry dusty men who had been on the road walking all day had just dropped in. (And who knew precisely when to expect the lord?)

Why wouldn't there be a ton of work to feed them? Why shouldn't Martha hope for help getting water from the well? This was roughly 0 AD, Martha can't exactly throw a few frozen pizzas in the oven, and say "We're good here!" And why shouldn't she want her sister -- the other hostess to be the one to help?

In fact, there is every reason to believe even a very relaxed housekeeper with zero anal tendencies was suddenly presented with quite a few chores. So, not only does the text not suggest Martha was doing unnecessary things no one wanted her to do, there is every reason to believe she was doing precisely what was necessary to make her guests comfortable.

So, yes, I see both the "don't work, just wait" and the "your work is unnecessary now, just sit and relax" as equally plausible or implausible.

So, if someone says "Kipling seriously misinterpreted" and then presents the equally problematic "unncessary dusting" theory, and then suggests the "unnecessary dusting theory" is both crystal clear and "The Meaning", I'm afraid I have to object!

In contrast, my intrepretation has many advantages: the "don't judge others/ live and let live" interpretation (which should, presumably, include not judging Martha harshly,) appears constantly in the Bible, it fits Jesus's teachings and matches the text, and fits the context. We aren't required to judge Martha's entirely justifyable choice to work negatively. (In fact, we get to appreciate Martha's work -- and eat dinner. Which is not, as PatMHV suggested, mean spirited, it's appreciating the work she performed.)

Of course, my interpretation creates a problem for Kiplings poem: Martha is not unappreciated and she is not an unbeliever. (And guess what, in context, of the rest of the New Testament, she is not unappreciated or an unbeliever!)
11.29.2006 9:24am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Lucia, I don't want to be overly pedantic here, but I'm having a great deal of trouble following you. In an earlier response to me, you said:

As far as I can see the interpretation that Jesus is admonishing Martha for asking her co-hostess Mary to help is quite plausible and not a "serious misinterpretation". I accept there are other ways to interpret it-- I just don't accept that the are obvious-- or even equally plausible. (emphasis added)


This seems to me directly at odds both with what you said much earlier in the thread ("They go to great pains to do this because the meaning of the text is quite ambiguous"), and what you said in your most recent post:

So, yes, I see both the "don't work, just wait" and the "your work is unnecessary now, just sit and relax" as equally plausible or implausible.


As for "mean spirited", perhaps I chose the wrong phrase. But it still seems to me that your interpretation portrays Christ in what most would see as a negative light, the negative light cast on the parable by the Kipling poem. And the poem, and what I understand to be your interpretation of the parable, certainly seem to cast Mary in a negative (i.e., lazy) light.
11.29.2006 9:56am
lucia (mail) (www):
PatMHV:

I don't think I have been contradicting myself. I don't think I cast Mary in a negative light. If we are going to throw around accusations of casting people in negative lights, I think you cast both Martha and Jesus in a negative light!

Let me explain how I don't think anything you quoted is inconsistent with the ideas I hold:

1) I think the parable is ambiguous; a number of meanings, including yours and Kipling's are possible.

2) I don't think any one of the meanings is the "obviously true" one. If any were obviously true, the parable would not be ambiguous. (Note: matches "obvious" observation in the bit you put in bold.)

3) I don't think all meanings are equally plausible. (Once again: matches the "even equally plausible" part of the bold statement.) There is a meaning I find more plausible than others; it's not yours!

3) I think the meaning you suggest, (which based on what you actually wrote, seems to include Martha being guilty of hubrish or just keeping up appearances) is possible, but relatively implausible.

You, like Kipling, suggest Jesus is admonishing Martha, but for different things. You think he's admonishing her for doing unnecessary stuff instead of listening to him; Kipling thinks he's admonishing her for doing necessary stuff. I don't think Jesus is admonishing Martha at all.

5) Kipling's poem suggests Mary is lazy which is, I admit, harsh. My interpretation makes no negative judgement of Mary. I have no problem with Mary listening to Jesus (provided she doesn't start complaining that dinner is not appearing promptly -- which she didn't do.) The story gives us no reason to believe Mary makes a habit of not helping at other times.

6) I think the "hubris" or "keeping up appearances" interpretation you favor suggests Martha is doing unnecessary work, and lacks judgement, which is harsh on Martha. My interpretation makes no negative judgement of Martha.

7) I think the "hubris" or "keeping up appearances" interpretation casts Jesus in a very harsh light.

The context of Jesus's life and travels would suggest that "Team Jesus" accepted an invitation, they filled Martha's place, enjoyed the food and drink she prepared but then Jesus lectured the hostess-- telling her that all this was unimportant to them. If it was unimportant, they should have declined the invitation. If they accepted, they should have thanked her for her gift of food, drink and all her efforts.

I do not assume Jesus was such an ungrateful guest; I think Jesus appreciates Martha's efforts. I suspect when the gift of dinner appeared, he said "Yum, yum, wonderful, all hail our hostess". I think that would be a good and wonderful way for Jesus to be. (I am surprised you assume my view is harsh on Jesus!)

7) I do think some preachers and people here are going to great lengths to insist the interpretation "Martha commits the sin of hubris" is "The Interpretation." They are going to great lengths because (for reasons I find mysterious)
a) some really, really really like that interpretation and
b) it's not at all obvious this is what the story says.

8) Finally, and I have not yet said this, I think people suggesting Jesus is tells Martha she is guilty of hubris are the ones who inspired Kipling to write his poem. In my opinion, those people are the ones who cast Jesus in a negative light.

Frankly, if a guest accepted an invitation into someone's home and then lectured a harried hostess for spending time preparing dinner, I would think he was a selfish, inconsiderate jerk who could have gone to a restaurant! This would relieve the hostess of all this "unnecessary" effort accomodate his needs.

So, I ask return edit the closing bit of your reply to me: It "seems to me that your interpretation portrays Christ in what most would see as a negative light, the one where Jesus is an ungrateful guest. What I understand to be your interpretation of the parable, certainly seem to cast Martha in a negative light (that of one who is guilty of hubris.)
11.29.2006 11:22am
Michael Simpson (mail) (www):
Not to be mischievous or anything, but if we perhaps broaden the context of the poem's meaning, might it be the case that our own scholastics would be the sons of Mary? Surely Professor Volokh doesn't get to be the engineer, does he?
11.29.2006 1:19pm
KevinM:
I'd guess that the Jesus' point was more along the lines of that in the lilies of the field. He was on earth for a short time to deliver a message of critical spiritual importance (and many passages suggest that he and/or his followers believed the end of human history was close at hand). It's a fairly constant them in his teaching that his followers should put aside practical concerns -- whether it be cleaning house, mending fishing nets or burying the dead -- simply follow, and let practicalities take care of themselves.
11.29.2006 1:59pm
lucia (mail) (www):
I don't think EV has claimed to be an engineer or a "son of Martha". However, I'm under the impression he was once a computer programmer who wrote codes customers actually used to perform useful. If we broaden the context "engineer" and "the story", that work would be more "Son of Martha like" that would the work of a cleric, monk or itinerant preacher.
11.29.2006 2:05pm
bearing (mail) (www):
I have a doctorate in engineering and am married to an engineer.

I have always read the parable as Jesus giving permission and encouragement to those who would pursue the contemplative life. Were it not for this parable, religious men and women who are called to be contemplatives might be ridiculed for "wasting" their time in prayer instead of, say, serving others by more physical means.

Everybody knows that here on earth we need people to do the hard physical work of the church. It's obvious. It's less obvious that we need contemplatives, too. Hence the need for the commentary...
11.29.2006 4:26pm
lucia (mail) (www):
bearing:

So is your nick name short for "ball bearing"? Is your field tribology?
11.29.2006 5:14pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Lucia,

Thanks for taking the time to clear up your position. I truly was not following you; to the extent I sounded snarky or suggesting you were intentionally shifting your opinion, I apologize.

I do disagree with you on what constitutes the "more obvious" interpretation, though.

As for the guest who suggests that the host should sit down and relax and join the conversation, I would just say that this entirely depends on exactly what work Martha was doing at the time of her exchange with Jesus. If it was actual work involving preparing and serving the food, your interpretation might be correct. If it was, however, make-work (which I have known many women to engage in, even during dinner parties), like getting every last crumb off the floor, rinsing off the dishes before the guests have left, sweeping up barely-visible dust bunnies, then I think it is rude on the part of the hostess to engage in such behavior. A guest imploring her to sit down and relax would be suggesting that they value her company more than they value having one more dust-bunny swept up. I myself have been to any number of dinners and get togethers where the hostess spent much of her time doing cleaning and stuff, when I and the other guests would have much preferred her simple company. In other words, I appreciate her hard work in fixing the meal, but the swan-shaped napkins and the rose-cut radishes added nothing to the occasion, and I would prefer a calmer, more relaxed and serene hostess without such extras.
11.29.2006 5:36pm
lucia (mail) (www):
PatHMV.

I didn't think you were trying to be snarky. I assumed that over the span of the discussion, my various points were buried, and gave the impression of conflicting. (I didn't number to be snarky. I'm an engineer. Bullets are good. . .

Sorry if it came off as snarky-- I just don't know how else to reorganize the points in comments.)

I don't think I said my interpretation is "more obvious", I think I said "more plausible". It's fine with me if others don't think the one I prefer is more plausible -- I'm just saying I find mine more plausible.

To change my mind, I'd need someone to point to some positive evidence either in the text or the context to support the "really finicky Martha" theory. Sure, some women are finnicky; many more aren't. I'd suspect in the context of the story, Martha is a trouper who coped with a sudden unexpected influx of both Jesus and his band of hungry, grumpy discipled who had just been traipsing across Israel.
11.29.2006 6:50pm
bearing (mail) (www):
lucia asked,

"So is your nick name short for "ball bearing"? Is your field tribology?"

No, although I had to have a basic knowledge of lubrication and creeping flow, my field was coatings (I say "was" because I'm now at home with my children, with no immediate plans to return to professional life). I write bearing blog and chose the name because the many meanings, particularly a pun on "journal bearing/bearing journal," enchanted me. I use a dictionary entry as my masthead quote.
12.1.2006 9:43pm