"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. / Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat; / Lo, it is black already with the blood some Son of Martha spilled for that.”


The present unpleasantness—like other such social disruptions—made me think again about the people who make the infrastructure run: Both those who have set up the systems that make our lives possible (e.g., that let us work decently well from home and assure that the supermarkets remain, all things considered, remarkably well stocked), and those who are working overtime, and at personal risk, to keep those systems running under perilous conditions. And that of course reminded of one of my favorite poems, "The Sons of Martha," which I've blogged before but thought was worth reblogging.

The poem is a reference to a Bible passage from Luke 10:38-42. (The passage, it turns out, immediately follows the story of the Good Samaritan, which of course is a story triggered by question from a lawyer—but that's the end of any legal connection.) Indeed, I would say it's something of a criticism of the passage, which runs:

[38] Now it came to pass, as they went, that [Jesus] entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.
[39] And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word.
[40] But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.
[41] And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:
[42] But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

In this context, the word "careful," of course, means "full of cares." Here then is the poem by Rudyard Kipling; my favorite parts are the first two lines of each stanza (except the last), but of course you have to read it all:

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 the 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 removèd." They say to the lesser floods "Be dry."
Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd—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 matters 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's drouth.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not preach that His Pity allows them to drop their job 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 ways 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 the 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 blessèd—they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, 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!

We Sons of Mary—including in the secular sense, as people who are paid to opine and teach law and Think Deep Thoughts—indeed smile and are blessed; for us the Mercies are indeed multiplied. But it's worth remembering how much of that comes from the burden that Martha's Sons bear.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: March 22, 1957

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  1. One of my Kipling favorites.

    Thank a farmer, or a trucker, or the folks who stock the grocery shelves. Thank the people working double shifts to make face masks and testing kits. Thank nurses and EMTs. Thank the guy who comes to fix your fridge so your avocado toast won’t spoil.

    This is the time when you see who’s more important: the sports superstar, or the person who makes sure you get fed.

    1. Nice platitudes, but I don’t buy it. I really do believe in markets, and if people are willing to pay celebrities as much as they do, then they are worth that. Government meddling corrupts the calculation, of course, but it corrupts everything in different amounts.

      Now if you want to say truckers in the aggregate are more important, or farmers, or gravediggers, then tally up how much they make in the aggregate, compare that to celebrities in the aggregate, and we can have a discussion.

      Yes, the economy would grind to a halt without truckers or farmers, in ways it would not without celebrities. But enough people apparently like people famous for being famous, and perhaps they have just decided that a world without celebrities is not much fun. I wonder how well any economy would work if only utilitarian markets were allowed. Would we have, say, melons or strawberries, or video games, or different paint colors, or chess tournaments, or 23 kinds of deodorants, or any deodorants at all for that matter; the human race survived for a long time without deodorants.

      1. It is not a question of “only utilitarian markets being allowed”, for from his text (“take the buffet… cushion the shock… … gear engages… switches lock… wheels run truly…” etc.) it is very clear that Kipling was concerned with utilitarian issues – and not just transport. Engineers especially, running leading industries of his era, were intended. Kipling would have had no time for your suggestion that makers of deodorant, as distinct from (say) soap should be counted among the sons of Martha. Sure, the notion of free markets is useful and markets have their place; but no real market is efficient. Consequently, fatuous remarks about the necessity of luxuries are irrelevant to Kipling’s point. Human attitudes and failings have much stronger effects on civil life. Kipling well knew how inherited wealth and power capture markets, but even that is not his point. It is rather that makers, doers, and movers existed long before markets and marketeers, which would not exist without them. Society depends on makers, doers, and movers to a far greater degree than writers, marketers… or lawyers.
        Since Kipling is not around to rebuff your insistence on the primacy of markets, someone else must. Those of us whose ancestors dwelt in the British Isles at his time of writing well remember their tales of unearned privilege. One ancestor, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Engineers and railway engineer in civil life. There is no doubt his achievements in logistics contributed vastly more to the war effort than did most staff colonels in Chateaux even more distant from the front line. That maker, doer, and mover was awarded a military OBE for keeping locomotives running in WW1; he would say it stood for “Ordinary Bloody Engineer”, grumbling about that the rest of his life, feeling it should have been a knighthood. Looking at old photographs showing the scale of his works, his and Kipling’s attitude is understandable. America used to understand this, and revered its engineers in a way which today would be unthinkable. Now China is the workshop of the world. That society relies on Kipling’s “Sons of Martha”, engineers and 150 million migrant workers operating in a market which is far from free. A deindustrializing US will continue to lose power and influence as its nose is rubbed in the consequences of dogma.

      2. Yes, the economy would grind to a halt without truckers or farmers, in ways it would not without celebrities. But enough people apparently like people famous for being famous, and perhaps they have just decided that a world without celebrities is not much fun.

        Or, perhaps current celebrity compensation just reflects a population that as a whole had enough means to avoid having to make a lot of hard choices. People who chose to splash money around for entertainment in a time of plenty are likely to very rapidly recalibrate their values when basic needs are at stake. Markets don’t exist in a vacuum.

      3. I really do believe in markets, and if people are willing to pay celebrities as much as they do, then they are worth that.

        Yes and no. Celebrities command a higher price, the Sons of Martha deliver a higher value. Price and value are not the same thing. You buy something if its value to you is greater than its price. And not if not.

        This is the diamond / water value “paradox” to which the solution is that a diamond usually commands a higher price than a cup of water because its marginal utility to buyers is higher. But this is only so because most buyers of water already have a plentiful supply. An extra cup is not that useful.

        But the overall value of your entire consumption of water – ie that consumption at the margin, and that consumption well within the margin – exceeds the value of the diamond.

        In an emergency, the margin may shrink to the point where your essential needs of water, food etc may be threatened. Then water can command a higher price than diamonds.

        The Sons of Martha do not tend to be able to capitalise on their extra value in an emergency, as cultural forces mitigate against “taking advantage” of those in dire need. Ditto price “gougers.”

      4. But society does pay much more for truckers than celebrities. How much of your household budget goes to food? How much to entertainment? The difference is so few people are required to entertain you, thanks to efficiency of mass media and electronic distribution, that even the extremely small amount you pay for entertainment is more than enough to create millionaires.

  2. My first instinct, of course, is to say, “Amen” and note that not only is it a critique of the Bible passage, but possibly also the perfect riposte to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine: perhaps the “bargain” between the Eloi and the Morlocks was a just one.

    The passage from Luke is one of those “hard” ones that seems to defy our intuitive sense of justice, like the parable of the prodigal son, the birthright of Esau and, dare I say, the downfall of Saul. It’s part of Jesus’ design to wean people from voluntarily wearing the shackles of the material world (the “but” in verse 42 should be read as “only”), of a piece with his “lilies of the field” remark and the comment about rich people entering heaven.

    1. The message is pretty clear. Ain’t no bitch’in in the kitchen.

  3. Thanks, Prof. V.

    We know a couple. Hubby is one of 6 people qualified to run the control room for the electric utility that keeps the lights on in half of two states – and it takes two people to operate a shift. Getting trained is a multi year thing. They are talking about having all six stay at work continuously for the next few months. His wife has her own health problems, too.

    Of course, that’s SOP for military families – I was an Army brat. But my parents signed up knowing that would happen, they didn’t have it thrust upon them out of the blue.

  4. Generations of Christians have been afraid to say it, but Jesus was simply wrong here.

    1. No. I point back to the comment by vrkboston. Problems of the physical world, and the spiritual, are not opposed to one another, either to be carefully balanced in some way (which Martha might suggest) not utterly contrary as Good vs. Evil (a Manichean framework). Rather, they are metaphorically more like oil and water — they do no mix. Their effects and purposes are vary different. They cannot be counter-balanced but are both necessary. And I think the Professor is right that Kipling understood this.

      1. Maybe Jesus was trying to finish a thought and told Martha to can it. In any case, Jesus was very insulting to Martha. Jesus could have invited Martha to join him and Mary, but he did not. Instead he told Martha she passed up the wrong man and should go back to work.

      2. There’s also the fact that Martha could have talked to her own sister rather than try to get her guest to use his religious authority to make her work. I’d be annoyed, too.

    2. I agree. That story’s always struck me as odd. Jesus could’ve at least waited for Martha to finish serving before he continued on preaching. There was no reason why Mary’s only option was to listen to him OR help Martha.

    3. Or maybe the story was invented by some layabout first century επίσκοπος to rationalize his own indolence.

  5. I’m wondering what Mary did with all that wisdom she gained.

  6. Sheesh, for one day in the year Mary gets to listen to the visiting celebrity, and Kipling calls her lazy.

    I’d have to know what Mary did the rest of the year when Jesus *wasn’t* visiting, before saying she was lazy.

    Even nurses sometimes get days off.

    1. And I want to know how many times Mary kept the house running while Martha was gabbing on the phone about what a lazy chit Mary was.

  7. Here’s another fun message from Jesus:

    “But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”

    Luke 17:7-10 (KJV)

    1. Jesus may have washed his disciples’ feet, but I wonder how much he tipped the waiter at the Last Supper. Not much, judging from the foregoing passage.

  8. Jesus as HR director:

    “And the Lord said, “Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his master will make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of food [h]in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all that he has. But if that servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”

    Luke 12:42-48 (KJV)

  9. The lazy one in the family was Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus. He just lay around stinking up the place until Jesus told him to get up off his butt.

  10. The eagle suffers little birds to sing,
    And is not careful what they mean thereby,
    Knowing that with the shadow of his wings
    He can at pleasure stint their melody.
    — from _Titus Andronicus,_ by the Great Bard

  11. And I will curse unto the third and fourth generations the children of those who hate me. — from somewhere in the Old Testament, Exodus perhaps

    1. If it is Exodus, I think that striking it might lower the average ethical level of that book.

  12. When you have a guest in your home, sometimes it may be better to sit and engage that person on an intimate level, rather than scurry around with anxiety making sure the baseboards are sparkling clean.

    This is just one of many meanings of the passage.

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