When we talk about how easy it is for us to see Mary and Martha as one-dimensional caricatures, it's important to admit that I think we actually got this idea from the Bible itself. Not specifically about Mary and Martha, but about biblical characters in general.
These characters in our bibles show up for a scene, and then they are gone. Some get a whole life story (like David, for example, or Joseph), but most get just a scene. Noah builds an Ark. Solomon builds a Temple. Zacchaeus climbs a tree. Jael drives a stake. Gideon defeats the Midianites in a single battle. Philip talks to Simon and to the eunuch, and then, he's gone. Thomas doubts. Judas betrays.
There are so many characters in God's story that we hear about once, maybe twice, and not again. Thus, they become to us just characters in a story, like any number of characters in a fable - meant to prove a point, to show us something, and then be gone. We aren't supposed to think we can get to know them, not as if they were a protagonist or something. Not as if they were meant to be a main character.
But neither can we reduce them to a caricature. Because while it's true that we don't get to know a whole lot about many of them, what we know for certain is this: they are not just characters. They are real persons. Human beings. Dynamic in their existence and in their relationship with God.
And while, yes, they are there to show us maybe one thing, that one thing that each of these characters is meant to show us...is not about themselves. It is about God. And somehow, we lose that when we get all wrapped up in who is in the kitchen.
We get distracted trying to define Martha. We lose focus when we try to figure out who Mary is. Sure, we can say something, but the more we talk about Mary and Martha, the easier it is for us to forget that the main character in the story is still Jesus. Always has been, always will be. Every single human being that we meet in the Bible is there to tell us something about God, not about themselves.
So we read the story of Mary and Martha when Jesus comes to their house, and we figure out that Martha is the "type" of person who stays in the kitchen and busies herself and misses out on everything and that Mary is the "type" of person who gives up her earthly life to sit at the feet of Jesus and choose the better thing and what we miss is that Jesus is the type of God who goes into the house and talks with both of them.
Oh, I'm sorry. Did you miss that?
And then, we read the story of Martha rushing out to meet Jesus as He's on His way to her brother's dead body and we try to fit this into the "type" of person that Martha is while we know that Mary is at home with all the other mourners, and we're trying to fit this into the "type" of person that Mary is and all the while, we're missing that Jesus is the type of God who travels to see His friend's dead body, who weeps, who comforts His brother's sisters.
Oh, I'm sorry. Did you miss that, too?
We get so distracted by our caricatures that we miss the heart of the Gospel for it, far too often. We are so busy trying to figure out Mary and Martha - because they are, after all, the human beings and we think the point of the story is to tell us what "type" of human beings we should be - that we read right past Jesus - who is, in fact, our God and the actual point of the story is to tell us what kind of God He is.
And actually, if we'd stop having Mary and Martha be caricatures and let them be dynamic human beings, we'd be better off because it would help us to see how Jesus is God in relationship to our own dynamic humanity - to the multi-dimensional reality of who we really are, a people who sometimes run out to meet Jesus on the road and sometimes stay in the kitchen. A people who sometimes sit at His feet and sometimes stay home with the mourners.
Stop seeing caricatures in your Bible. They aren't there.
Start seeing God. He is on every page.