I think I was in college when I began to discover that my younger siblings were amazing, admirable, supremely “cool” people. I realized my little sisters were my best resources for advice on everything from fashion, exercise, diet, and makeup to career, relationship and dating. I learned Latin phrases and obscure theological references from one brother and tips for parallel parking, general vehicle maintenance, and what to say to that guy I’m not super into who keeps asking me out from the other.
As an uptight, bossy, fussy, obsessive-compulsive, perfectionist oldest sister, I have always commiserated with St. Martha, whose feast day we celebrated yesterday. She’s just trying to get everything done and make sure everyone’s happy, and she’s justly annoyed that her little sister is sitting around, enjoying the company and not helping. If you’re an older sister, you know exactly what this feels like, and you’re probably mad as all get-out about it. Through most of my teen years and into adulthood I bristled at Jesus’ rebuke when Martha points out in no uncertain terms that her sister Mary should really be helping out and not just sitting there.
I mean really, is that fair? Because what if Martha had chosen the better part first, or set down her dishes and sat down next to Mary in response to her Divine scolding? Who would there be to cook and serve supper then, hmm? In short, we can’t all choose the better part, and it doesn’t seem fair that Martha gets put in her place when she’s serving everyone a meal and making sure they have a bed for the night.
Okay, yeah, yeah, I get it, praying and contemplating are the most important things in life. Wouldn’t we all love to be able to sit around and contemplate all the time? But mouths must be fed, tables must be set, dishes must be washed … especially when you’re entertaining company, stuff has to happen before you can sit around and gaze starry-eyed into the heavens, or listen with rapt attention at the Master’s feet. If Martha can’t do that, why should Mary get to?
There’s probably some oldest child envy going on here, admittedly. As an oldest, it too often feels like you get positive attention only when you’re “doing things” — washing dishes, cleaning the living room, changing diapers, running errands, and in general helping the family out by shouldering what often feels like more than your share of the burden of chores, etc. Meanwhile the younger siblings can strut and flirt and ingratiate themselves with the grown-ups simply by being adorable. And in my case, I didn’t have just one younger sister to vie with for attention and approval: I had four, and two brothers to boot. It was all well and good as long as I could hold onto the subconscious and comfortable conviction that my seniority made me better by default. I was the oldest, which made me practically perfect and always right.
I can’t point to one epic smackdown moment when my whole carefully constructed paradigm came crashing down. It happened in slow stages over several years, as the siblings grew up and became more beautifully themselves and I couldn’t pretend to be the best anymore, because it was so obviously untrue. I marvel at my siblings’ confidence, intelligence, and talent. They’re all lightyears ahead of me in the “cool” department. And I often stumble upon the discovery that, in some way or another, they’ve discovered the “better part” of life while I’m still running around trying to make sure everything is perfect and everyone is happy, and being a huge grouch and a royal pain in the process.
Maybe Jesus’ scolding of St. Martha had nothing to do with her choice of activity, which was all well and good in itself. Maybe he just wanted her to lay off the whining and stop assuming her actions were the standard of perfection.
“You’re doing good,” might be the takeaway here — “but your little sister is doing better, so stop trying to make her be like you.”