Martha should be the patron saint of the distracted, the overworked and perhaps the misunderstood. Think of Masterchef, and the competitors pushed to their limits serving sophisticated meals they've never prepared before, in a tight time line, and with VIP guests. Luke uses a rare word to describe Martha being "pulled in several directions at once". Being distracted means trying to do too much; sometimes multi-tasking leads to nothing being done well, or exhaustion. Excessive activity is either the sign or the cause of overanxiety, trying too hard to please, having too high expectations of ourselves, or even misreading other people's expectations of us. All of this helps to understand Martha who is "worried and distracted by many things".
Some commentators have suggested that the "many things" refers to Martha preparing an elaborate menu, when a simple meal would have done. Back to Masterchef again. But Jesus is not a demanding guest in relation to cuisine; he is a demanding guest whose word is to be heard, whose presence is to be attended to, because the words he speak are God's word. Earlier Luke told of the Transfiguration, and the voice from heaven saying, "This is my beloved Son, listen to him." Mary is doing that, while Martha makes food to feed Jesus. Mary is being nourished by Jesus, Martha wants to nourish Jesus after his long journey. Mary hears what Jesus wants to say; Martha tells Jesus what to say, to her sister. Attentive listening and preparing food are both aspects of hospitality. But more than hospitality is going on here.
One lesser known painting shows how Jesus words to Martha, "you are distracted and worried by many things" suggest she was far too extravagant and ambitious in her menu. The culinary energy and expertise required to make a banquet was simply over the top. The painting is by Georg Friedrich Stettner, (d.1639) and the foreground is of a kitchen with enough food to feed an entire village. And of course it is food for the rich 17th Century German nobility rather than the food available in a first century Palestinian village.There is a good, clear image of this painting over here
However, this painting is about more than the food in the foreground, and much more is going on than a display of supermarket scale meal ingredients. Mary sits in her finery reading a text of scripture in her lap, while looking at Jesus. The light from the window falls on the pages, and on her face; Martha's colour is dull by comparison, and her apron is soiled, her sleeves rolled up and she is on her knees, not praying, but plucking various poultry. In the background three disciples are talking; further back still, other men are sitting at a table talking. In other words, Jesus is sitting in the kitchen! The last place it is reasonable to expect peace and quiet; and a guest sitting talking about holy things is the last thing a chief cook needs when her kitchen is in full swing.
But behind Jesus is the cover of the book on Mary's lap, and behind it another text; the kitchen table is also a place for holy things. In this picture Martha is a busy hostess exasperated by Mary's total disregard of the kirchen and the jobs needing done, while Mary is dressed for visitors not for the kitchen and she is clearly familiar with the book on her lap. Jesus has a hand on the table and another extended towards Mary but is looking at Martha. The dynamics are intense, and the picture viewed in the light of a careful reading of Luke's text is a powerful representation of the central tension between contemplative listening and energy consuming busyness. And I wonder about the window at the very back of the painting with its cruciform frame, and Jesus clothed in a red robe. These are familiar codes in artistic interpretations of biblical scenes.
It's interesting to ponder this picture, read the story again a couple of times, and look again at the picture. The contrast of busyness and overprovision and domestic activity, with the two people at the centre is a clever illustration of the contrast between being worried and distracted by many things, and the one thing necessary, and choosing the good part.