Text: Luke 10:38-42
My sister, Leah, called this week. She’s seven years older than me, and I’ve always envied her because she has a fabulous house in Shenandoah that sits on a half an acre of land, right next to a stream.
It’s close to the mountains, and I’m telling you, it’s a dream. A field of daffodils pops up in
the spring, and from that point on, it’s beautiful. There is an array of flowers for each shade of summer.
And it’s not just the garden, it’s the house too. Leah actually does the dishes as she cooks–it’s amazing to watch. (And, that’s usually what I’m doing. I’m just sitting down on my rear, watching her work.) Dirty dishes never touch the sink. She has a place for everything and everything is in its place. Her home is generous and comfortable. She recently added on to the fabulousness, increasing the size of the kitchen ten times. Now the back of her house opens up to the water.
Yet, when I talked to her on the phone, she explained that she was a bit stressed out.
I was surprised. I asked her what she was anxious about.
She told me it was the mulch. She had acres of mulch that she needed to spread. And she wanted to get it done in one day. “That sort of thing really puts a strain on me.”
I couldn’t really relate. After all, I could trip over bags of mulch for months at our house. So, I learned that the perfectionism I envy so much has a downside.
Now, when my sister visits my house, she usually has to get a prescription from her doctor beforehand so that she doesn’t die from the cat hair and dust. Clearly, I am not a better person than she is. But our conversation did remind me of the problem of household labor.
Housework is a modern complication in our society. And, as we read the Scriptures, we realize it’s been an obstacle for a couple thousand years.
Luke describes a very familiar scene. It would definitely be the scene if my sister and I lived together. Mary and Martha, these two sisters, are having company. And it’s not just any company, Jesus is over at the house.
Martha’s killing herself, finding the matching placemats, setting the table, cleaning the kitchen, doing the dishes while she cooks, and being the perfect hostess. Mary’s on the other side of the room, kicking back, listening to Jesus.
I imagine that Martha asked Mary for help with a few things, and Mary did them, kind of half-way, and then went right back to talking.
Martha finally gets completely annoyed, and says, “Jesus, could you ask her to help me?”
And Jesus said, “Nope. Mary’s doing the better thing.”
Now, even though I relate more to Mary, I’m actually feeling for Martha at this point. I’ve been in her position too. Because you know what? Mary might have chosen the better part, but at the end of the day, somebody’s got to do those dishes. They are simply not going to wash themselves.
So there are two solutions to the household labor in this story: Jesus is a great feminist liberator who says that it’s better for Mary to be educating herself than cleaning up the house. He says to drop the housework, sit down, and start learning.
Of course Jesus is right. Martha had the greatest religious leader in the history of humankind sitting there in her livingroom, and she’s worried about getting through her tedious to-do list.
But, let’s say that Jesus Christ is not relaxing in our living room, then Martha has a point too. Martha stands up for herself and says that they should be splitting the household chores.
Housework is a real problem.
I learned that in graduate school, when my husband and I were taking a full load of classes, plus we were juggling eight jobs between us. And what was I stressed out about? It was not the exams or the papers. It was the fact that our apartment was not as clean as I wanted.
If you’re not a woman or you’re not married, please don’t tune out. Not yet. We all need to be in on this discussion: husbands, wives, partners, and those who are not married. It’s time to have a family meeting with everyone involved, because we’re not going to solve this problem with working women, sitting in a corner, complaining to themselves.
Women are well established in the workplace now. Women are excelling academically and there are more women in undergraduate programs than men. We have a lot of modern conveniences, so it doesn’t take three hours to make a pot of coffee like it did 100 years ago. We have dishwashers, microwaves, ovens, vacuum cleaners, and stovetops, so if we have a high tolerance for clutter, then we can do the housework in a shorter amount of time.
But we don’t have a high tolerance for clutter. Many of us work outside of the home, and yet our domestic hopes and dreams seem to be overwhelming.
Just turn on the television for a little while. With an array of home, garden, and food channels, we become inspired to do things that are really outside of the realm of reality. I flip through the stations, and see people tackling that jumbled storage space. I’m exhausted just watching them, haul out every single item, sorting it into two piles, having a garage sale. It takes them days to put the place back together again. And I wonder, “Why we can’t have a cluttered storage space? What’s so wrong with that?” I could have the straightened out that situation in about two seconds. I would have just closed the door. Problem solved.
I change the channel to watch how I can make a meal in only thirty minutes, and I think, “Are they really serious?” They are telling me that it’s easy to cook this meal, but I know that I couldn’t even finish cutting up the ingredients in a half an hour.
I change the channel again and watch an entire room transform with only two people, two days, and two hundred dollars. But I know that room would take me the rest of my life to complete.
Yet, we watch the shows and buy the magazines, and think that we ought to have the perfect home, when there are just so many hours in a day.
Plus, we need to realize that the household duties are making a big difference for women.
Right now, a man with a family is the most successful person in our society. Oddly enough, men who have sons get paid more than men who have daughters. Coming in second, is the single male. Third, the single female. Finally, dragging into fourth place, the married woman.
What makes the difference? We know from our educational institutions that women are just as smart and hard working. The disparity is the domestic labor. When men get married, they do less housework. When women get married, they do much more housework. (I didn’t make this stuff up, there are actual studies on this).
When I was in graduate school, stressed out about my domestic duties, I complained to Cindy Rigby, a theologian friend of mine. She gave me a wonderful gift. She echoed the words of Jesus. She said, “You’ve got to get over it. You don’t have time. If you and I have an extra hour in our day, then we ought to be reading about theories of atonement, not worrying about the housework. You’ve got to let the dust settle, and let it stay there.”
I changed after that. I took the advice of Jesus and Cindy, and have learned to ignore certain things.
But we can’t ignore everything. So, my husband and I took Martha’s suggestion too. We began working together, each doing our fair share. Now household labor is parceled out in excruciating detail in our family. After a decade of negotiating, my husband and I have figured out what we’re willing to do, what we enjoy doing, and what we have to do.
We’re intentional about making everything as close to fifty/fifty as possible. I’m responsible for childcare on Mondays and Thursdays. He’s responsible for Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We split Fridays.
Even after all of our effort, it’s not always equal. At the beginning when we thought this through, we realized that we work in an economy and in occupations that require relocation. We figured that I would get the first job, he would get the second job, and I would get the third job. But it hasn’t worked out that way, and Brian has moved three times for my career. And he stayed home to take care of our daughter for a couple of years. Thank God, this last move was good for both of us.
Negotiating all of this is very difficult, but it has to be done. If women are going to thrive in the workplace, if we’re going to have equality in our society, we will need to figure out what to do about the household labor. We’ll need sort it out at home.
This is a very exciting time. Right now, in our culture, we are at the cusp of making a real difference. But the difference will not just need to happen in the boardroom, it will need to happen in the bedroom too. It will not just happen with women complaining to each other, it will happen with all of us talking about these things.
It will happen when we learn to hear the teachings of Jesus, when we learn what the better part is. When we stop beating ourselves up because we have weeds in our garden and a cluttered garage.
It will happen when we stand up for ourselves like Martha did. When we start the excruciating and tedious negotiations of ensuring a fair household.
Now there are huge issues that I stepped around and avoided in all of this, mainly because of the time. I didn’t talk about the people who feel drawn to keeping the house. There are many, many men and women like my sister, who find great fulfillment in cleaning, sorting, and doing dishes. There are many people who love a well-kept garden and a sumptuous meal. And it is an art to do it well, and I hope that art never dies.
I also didn’t talk about childcare, which I see as a much different issue than housework.
And I didn’t talk about the army of women who do the domestic labor in our homes. They’re the ones who are not thinking about upward mobility, because they’re often not even getting basic medical care. We can always think about them when we speak of women’s issues.
But, this conversation will not doubt continue, in our society, in our churches, and in our homes. For Gustavo Gutierrez reminds us that the work of Jesus involves liberating all of us from those things that limit our capacity to develop ourselves freely and in dignity.
And may the work of Jesus continue in this place.
To the glory of God, our Creator,
God, our Liberator,
And God, our Sustainer. Amen.