Martha speaks up for unnecessary kindness

My daughter Justine “Bibi” sent me a t-shirt and a mask with the names of characters from the Netflix series “Money Heist” (Casa de Papel) to which we were both addicted.  As I mentioned before, she also sent me Amor Towles’ new novel The Lincoln Highway.  It is proving to be a good yarn.  They don’t get on the road until page 111, but we meet some great characters in the lead up.

The central character Emmett Watson has just been released from a youth detention center.  He returns home to pick up his younger brother Billy and head off to Texas for a new start, now that their father has died.  He finds their house cleaned and stocked with food.  Sally Ransom, the daughter of a neighbor, is Emmett’s age and has prepared everything for his return, including leaving a casserole for the boys’ supper.  Emmett wakes up the next morning to the smell of bacon cooking.  Sally has skipped church and come to make breakfast, complete with homemade biscuits and fruit preserves.  Emmett says more than once that she didn’t have to do that.  When Sally goes upstairs to make their beds, Emmett follows.  Even a dense young man can sense when a woman is angry at him.  Sally feels that Emmett does not recognize all that she’s doing for him.  Even more, she’s upset because some of Emmett’s friends from the detention center have shown up and told her about Emmett’s travel plans, which he had not shared with Sally.

All this leads to a magnificent chapter, a soliloquy by Sally, which begins with her recollection of the story their pastor read at church the previous Sunday, Jesus’ visit to the sisters Martha and Mary.  Here’s the short passage from Luke Chapter 10.

Now it came to pass as they went, that he entered into a certain town: and a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord’s feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving. Who stood and said: Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? speak to her therefore, that she help me. And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her

In Sally’s retelling, Martha says “can’t you see that my idler of a sister has left me to do all the work?”  She responds to the gospel story, “Well, I’m sorry. But if ever you needed proof that the Bible was written by a man, there you have it.”  She doesn’t blame Jesus.  No, the fault lies with “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and every other man who’s served as priest or preacher since.”

Sally then starts riffing on all the negatives she’s been hearing from Emmett.  Canning one’s own preserves is too time consuming when they can be bought in the store.  It’s old-fashioned.  And unnecessary.  So why does she do it?

I do it because it’s time-consuming. …

I do it because it’s old-fashioned. …

And I do it because it’s unnecessary.

For what is kindness but the performance of an act that is both beneficial to another and unrequired? There is no kindness in paying a bill. There is no kindness in getting up at dawn to slop the pigs, or milk the cows, or gather the eggs from the henhouse. For that matter, there is no kindness in making dinner, or in cleaning the kitchen after your father heads upstairs without so much as a word of thanks. There is no kindness in latching the doors and turning out the lights, or in picking up the clothes from the bathroom floor in order to put them in the hamper. There is no kindness in taking care of a household because your only sister had the good sense to get herself married and move to Pensacola. Nope, I said to myself while climbing into bed and switching off the light, there is no kindness in any of that.

For kindness begins where necessity ends.

In some ways I find that last line even more exciting than Vasily Grossman’s praise of “senseless kindness” in his World War II epic Life and Fate, which I’ve blogged about repeatedly.

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