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Martha and Mary Part II: Hard Work, Contemplation and the Legacy of Eve

In the gospels, the sisters Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus provided hospitality and a time for conversation and reflection for Jesus and the disciples. Sometimes Martha would be especially pre-occupied with the work of organizing the food and serving and cleaning up. Mary found it especially easy to slow down and sit with Jesus and listen. Jesus was close to all three of them: to Martha, to Mary, and to Lazarus, who he raised from death.

In one story, Jesus suggests that Martha can slow down from all her work and sit and talk, like Mary does. This was not a criticism of Martha's hard work, but an invitation to allow herself to balance hard work with quieter contemplation.

The image of a woman busy with work is a familiar image.

It was Eve, the first woman, who brought hard work into the world.

The story in the book of Genesis describes a perfect garden in which Adam walked and talked with God, naming the animals, eating freely of the food of the garden. When Adam is lonely for companionship, God creates Eve. They have children; and we get the sense of a growing society.

We don't know how long it was before that state of innocence and simplicity changed. The story goes on to say that there was a tree in the garden called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Early on, Adam had been told that he shouldn't eat from this tree. This was different from the other trees and plants of the garden. It was not one of the sources of food to freely gather from and eat -- not an apple tree or pomegranate tree as in many retellings -- but a symbol of knowledge, of ambition, of a more sophisticated world that brings about both goodness and evil.

The story continues, "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves."

The result was a loss of the simplicity and innocence of the garden. God told them that "by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food" and "with painful labor you will give birth to children."

There are lots of myths and folktales around the world about how the first humans went from a condition of simplicity and innocence to the current world we live in. In many stories, it was an almost inevitable choice: humans chose the more difficult life in exchange for something that made us human.

Imagine living in ancient times, before Abraham, before Moses. You notice how hard men and women have to work to grow their food, to bear and raise children, and to deal with sickness and death. The wisest people in your village tell stories about how it came to be like this. In some of the stories the human condition came about randomly; the chance outcome of the activity of capricious gods or of random events. In other stories, as in the Genesis story, the human condition was the result of choices made.

How do these stories make you feel?

Do you picture Adam and Eve moving forward ambitiously after leaving the garden: inventing tools, sewing clothes, farming for food, building cities?

Do you think Adam and Eve had quiet times with God after they left the garden?

Do you think Eve knew what it was like to quietly sit and walk with God?

Does the story of Martha and Mary reveal anything about the balance between hard work and quiet reflection; maturity and innocence; complexity and simplicity? Does the balance between Martha's hard work and Mary's contemplativeness help understand and reclaim the legacy of hard work and quiet contemplation that Eve may have known?

July 2014