Sons of Martha

I found Rudyard Kipling's "Sons of Martha" last week while reading about the dangers of electricity. I can't quite tell whether the poem is Kipling's jab at Jesus' seemingly unbalanced response to Mary and Martha, or a celebration of work. Either way, it's an interesting take on Luke 10:38-42.

In the story, Mary sits at the Guest's feet to listen while Martha (not unlike a Martha Stewart, I imagine) stays busy with the preparations. Kipling has us realize the true importance of Martha's work. He sides with the laborer. He elevates those who keep the world oiled and moving (read: for the Sons of Mary, those spoiled brats).

Who doesn't feel a little bitterness when team members or office mates or siblings drop the ball and leave us with the weight? Resentment is a common by-product, and this is precisely Martha's problem.

Then she lets it slip. It gets to her enough that she actually tattles to Jesus. Compulsively, she levels the field, and it backfires on her. If only it weren't about fairness and keeping score, Martha and her sons might recognize the special call to work, the risks involved, and the joys it pays out. Maybe then Jesus would say, "Mary and Martha, you have both chosen the good part."

Here's the poem from 1907. See if you can find the electricity reference:

The Sons of Martha

The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

They say to mountains, 'Be ye removed'. They say to the lesser floods, 'Be dry'.
Under their rods are the rocks reproved - they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit - then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

They finger death at their gloves' end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.
Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.

To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matter hidden - under the earthline their altars are;
The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city drouth.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not teach that His Pity allows them to leave their work when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand.
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren's days may be long in the land.

Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat:
Lo, it is black already with blood some Son of Martha spilled for that:
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.

And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessed - they know the angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessed, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the Feet - they hear the Word - they see how truly the Promise Runs:
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and - the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons.

~ Rudyard Kipling

Labor in lunette, by Charles Sprague Pearce. Public Domain.


David Rupert November 23, 2010 at 2:29 PM  

"Cushion the shock" ? that sounds electric!

Marcus Goodyear November 23, 2010 at 2:33 PM  

"They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not teach that His Pity allows them to leave their work when they damn-well choose."

I LOVE this poem! I think it is poking fun at the church's interpretation of Mary and Martha, more so than the story itself. There is a lot to think about here!

Sam Van Eman November 23, 2010 at 5:58 PM  

Good try, David, but that's not it.

Marcus, a lot to talk about too.

Laura November 24, 2010 at 6:42 PM  

This is so fascinating, Sam. Thanks for sharing it. I've been tempted to side with Martha a time or two myself (usually when in the kitchen).

Just popping in to wish you a very blessed Thanksgiving. Sending blessings from West Virginia. :)

Sam Van Eman November 24, 2010 at 7:09 PM  

Happy Thanksgiving to you, Laura. I hope all goes well in that kitchen if you'll be there over the next couple of days.

Bob Gorinski November 26, 2010 at 11:17 PM  

they finger death at gloves' end where they piece and repiece the living wires.

I love the part about "she lost her temper ONCE." Martha and everyone else loses it about 10 times a day, but poor Martha's mistake is forever brought up every time mom asks for help in the kitchen.

Sam Van Eman November 27, 2010 at 10:38 AM  

That's it, Bob. Like early professional football, there were a lot of deaths in electrical work.

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