Her courtyard was packed with footsore, road-dusty, crow-hungry seekers after the truth, plus the Truth Himself, needily incarnate, and somewhere between forty and fifty of them would be staying for dinner. As soon as she had heard the Teacher was coming, she’d butchered three goats and thrown their pieces into the two big cauldrons with beans and a full week’s supply of onions; and she had sent the scullery girl twice to the town ovens for double armloads of loaves, and her brother Lazarus to the tavern for a couple of spare amphorae, so meat, bread and wine were reasonably well under control – but how long would the beer last out? And weren’t they a little low on dates, which meant sending the girl to the market once she got back from the bread ovens? Oh, and they’d need more water, because most of her supply had been used up bathing the feet and hands and travel-streaked faces of the Teacher and his followers, plus the followers’ own hangers-on, numerous bedraggled women and their brats, plus a selection of townspeople who had gone some way down the road to greet the Teacher and were probably hoping to stay on afterwards for refreshments. Perhaps she could get Mary to organize bringing extra water from the well while she, Martha, looked to the bedding; but (that reminded her) she would need to be firm about sleeping arrangements, the Teacher and about half of the Twelve could have proper pallets in the upper room, but the rest would have to make shift on the bare ground of the courtyard, or bloody well go elsewhere.
So where was Mary? Martha looked first in the kitchen enclosure, which was a good thing, because the scullery girl was not yet back with the second load of bread, and the fire under the great cooking pots needed feeding or else the meat would not be ready in time; and then she took the long way round to the roof, the steep, narrow stairway from the kitchenyard, so as not to distract the rapt crowd in the main courtyard; and her sister was not in the upper room, either, but of course the pallets were, and they were still rolled up in the corner, dusty and unaired, and moreover the broom lay abandoned in the centre of a woefully dirty floor. Martha, since she was there anyway, lugged the pallets out onto the flat roof and unrolled them for a good airing, and then started on the floor. Happily, the upper room had a window overlooking the courtyard, and every so often she had the great joy of catching a few of the Teacher’s words.
Such wonderful words, too, if only she could hear them better: a story that seemed to be very wise and funny about bread and stones, but alas the Teacher’s voice dropped humorously at the punchline, and she missed it; something quite stirring about the doom of Tyre, at which everyone cheered and waved their arms in the air, something rather garbled about Jerusalem – oh dear God, there were rat droppings in the corner. Panicked, she cleared the droppings, searched the walls, found a rat-sized gap in one corner and plugged it with mud and gravel fetched in a hasty trip down to the kitchenyard – oh, the shame of it, if such vermin should run across the face of the Teacher while He was sleeping in her upper room!
When the floor was clean enough and she had flipped the pallets to air them on the other side, she leaned over the parapet of the roof for a quick look at the crowd below. The Teacher was saying something about taking no thought for what you should eat, nor for what you should put on your body; and Martha had a very, very quick thought, even more quickly suppressed, about how nice that sounded, no cooking, no laundry, no mending; and then she spotted her sister Mary, practically sitting on the Teacher’s feet and staring up at him with worshipful attention, and the weariness in Martha’s bones was stirred by something like indignation. That lazy little slut, she thought, why isn’t she helping me?
Perhaps, she thought, simply by staring hard enough, she could draw her sluggard sister’s attention. There was still so much to do! Somebody had to go to the well – oh, at least three or four trips – and while Mary and the scullery girl were doing that and getting dates from the market, Martha could be cleaning out the big trough in the side yard, which (she now remembered with a pang) was still splattered with chickenshit from those two trussed fowls last week; and she must not forget to hump the pallets back into the upper room and lay them out nice and straight before the dew got to them at sundown…
Look up, Mary, look up, look up at me!
But Mary’s eyes never left the Teacher’s face; so the next thing to try was discreet waving, hoping by some sororital mind-magic to draw Mary’s attention but nobody else’s, hoping that Mary would have the sense to respond with equal discretion. The increasingly irritating top of Mary’s head continued to be pointed in Martha’s direction; but suddenly Martha became aware that the Teacher’s voice had ceased; and, indeed, that the Teacher himself was staring directly up at her from fifteen feet below, and he did not look pleased. Slowly, the many other pairs of eyes in her courtyard drifted upwards as well, dark with disapproval; though somehow Mary’s did not.
“Well, bait my hook and call me a Pharisee,” said the Teacher, using one of his folksy Galilean idioms, “what are you doing up there, Martha? Too good for us, are you? Can’t be bothered to come down and listen, is that it?”
Martha caught her breath at the injustice. “Actually, Teacher, I’d much rather be down there listening, but I – “
He held up one of his smooth-palmed hands to halt her in mid-sentence. “You look like a vulture waiting to pounce,” he said, raising a laugh from his constituency. “What are you doing, that you couldn’t just as well do later?”
“Teacher, I have to get things ready, there won’t be time later, later would be too late. But if you’ll tell my sister to come help me, I can come down much sooner and listen…”
“Martha, Martha,” he interrupted, with an edge to his voice, “you worry too much about the cares of this world. What could possibly be more important to you than me, than hearing my words? The work you are so intent on does not matter; the food we eat today might sustain us until tomorrow, but my words will sustain you into eternity. Foolish Martha! Mary is where she should be, at my feet. Why aren’t you?”
Martha was silent. Part of her was struggling to protest: true, the Master’s words might be immortal, but the mouth that issued them still had to be fed. Today’s dinner might be tomorrow’s bowel movement, but somebody still had to knuckle down and get the food ready and clean up afterwards. Was it really all right for Mary to be sitting down there at leisure in her very best robe, now secure enough to be directing a smug and virtuous look at Martha? She could see what Mary was thinking: earthbound Martha with her hair in sweaty tendrils, great wet patches spreading down her sides from under her arms; short-sighted Martha, valuing the ephemeral over the eternal; ungrateful Martha, casting aside the honour of the Teacher’s company for the indulgence of duty…
Martha, seeing all that in her sister’s face, thought for a moment and then set her jaw. So that was how it was? So be it. Apparently she could ignore the insufficient date supply…leave the water to chance…apparently she could forget about the pallets, the trays to be cleaned, the cauldrons to be fuelled, the beakers to be wiped, the forty to fifty hungry people expecting food at sunset…apparently, God would provide.
So Martha dusted off her hands and loped down the main stairway from the roof and took her place among the crowd of earnest seekers. The Teacher was so eloquent, his words so compelling, so witty, so transporting from the cares of this hard and bitter world – Martha ended up sitting right at his feet, a tad closer even than Mary. Dusk came, and dinnertime, but Martha left it to someone else to discover the fire had gone out under the larger cauldron, and the smaller cauldron had boiled dry; that the pallets, left out after sunset, were clammy with evening dew; that the water pots were empty; that the dates were so scarce as to be polished off in under five minutes. Alas, the townspeople had to depart without refreshment, and the Teacher and his entourage spent a hungry comfortless night in damp bedding, and were careful to leave Bethany as early in the morning as possible.
And some months later, when young Lazarus was sick unto death and his frantic sisters sent to the Teacher to come and heal him, the Teacher took his own sweet time getting there. Yes, he’d made a great fuss over the lad, but honestly, he was in no hurry to stay in such a badly managed household again.