(A sermon preached on Luke 10:38-42 at All Saints' Littleton, NH on 7/18/2010)
When if comes to Luke’s story of Mary and Martha, one cannot help taking sides: it’s just compelling to do so.
After all, even Jesus takes a side.
Most of us have a tendency to gravitate towards either Mary or Martha. We see Martha as the “doer.” To various people, Martha represents service...good works...and the one who does the work to make the evening possible. Mary is the “receiver.” To some, Mary represents contemplation...study...listening and learning.
The fact that Jesus sides with Mary over Martha does not keep some of us from sympathizing, or even siding with Martha’s way.
Chances are, one of these, doer or receiver, sounds more inviting to you, or perhaps just more like you.
I am not going to advocate one side, Martha the “doer” or Mary the “receiver”, over the other. Instead, I wish to address some of the particulars that are associated with this story.
Biblical scholars have placed this story in direct connection with the story that precedes it: The Good Samaritan. Most suggest that Mary & Martha’s placement is intended to lift up the importance of prayerful contemplation and faith, as the perfect complement to the service and action shown by the Samaritan being a good neighbor.
One can equally argue that it’s critical we remember the Good Samaritan’s service when Jesus, in the Mary and Martha passage, sides with Mary. “Mary has chosen the better part.”
Remembering the Good Samaritan’s service keeps us from assuming that Jesus’ siding with Mary means advocating contemplative life over service. Jesus claims, over and over again, that he comes as one who serves. In addition to being devoted to prayer, he is equally passionate about the active healing of people: sometimes with words, but sometimes with action.
Furthermore, there is the great story in the Gospel of Luke about the dinner party thrown by a Pharisee, where a woman comes in with an alabaster jar of ointment. The Pharisee gets angry, and demeans the woman. Jesus’ argues: “‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” (Luke 7:36-50)
In an apparent contrast to this morning’s story, he lifts up the woman’s service and hospitality over the Pharisee who was “just listening” to him.
Cynthia Jarvis suggests that in the world of the 1st century Christian, there were likely two primary ways of living out discipleship. Some lived it out in the details of the common life: preparing the meals, counting money, caring for the homebound, and organizing outreach to the poor. Others are disciples in service to the word: study and prayer, worship and preaching, evangelism and teaching. (Feasting On the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., p.262)
Upon reflection, life at All Saints’ isn’t so far off 1st century discipleship. One can see the seeds of Christian discipleship today in these lists. Each of us tends to gravitate to one of these descriptions as our favored way of living out our faith.
I think it is safe to say that Jesus would be pleased with either way of primary discipleship, although he likely would ask us to stretch ourselves into the other list to be more rounded. At the very least, we can conclude that both roles of the 1st century Christian would be seen as valid and needed.
Because of this, it is necessary to reassess Jesus’ siding with Mary over Martha. If Jesus is not lifting up one way of life over another, what is he really addressing in this story?
Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. She does what hospitality dictates: she prepares a meal. Mary, Martha’s sister, sits down at Jesus’ feet (the traditional sign of student to teacher) and listens to him.
We are told “Martha was distracted by her many tasks.”
Now, anyone who has a sibling, or an older child, or perhaps a spouse, likely knows this scenario oh to well.
What likely happened is that Martha assumed that Mary was going to help her with the preparations: perhaps fixing the drinks, getting out the appetizers, setting the table and the like. Instead, she just sits there, listening to Jesus.
Martha gets frustrated. Perhaps she is angry that Mary isn’t helping. Perhaps it’s that she would prefer to be sitting where Mary is, listening to Jesus.
Anyway, she starts banging pans around the kitchen. She starts muttering under her breath, and she makes little and not so little hints towards her sister; all the time, getting more frustrated.
Finally, she boils over: ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’
Now, I imagine that Jesus is a pretty perceptive, for a guy. He must have figured out what was going on here...the banging pots were pretty excessive, after all.
Jesus, however, also sees what is necessary:‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Now, as I’ve said, I don’t think Jesus is making a statement about contemplation versus service.
I also think that Jesus appreciates a good meal, and knows all of the hard work that goes into making one.
However, there are some additional things to consider...
You have a great teacher and prophet in the house: what does the situation call for? What action honors the person that Martha refers to as "Lord”? Is it service, in this case? Not necessarily…. Here, it is first listening and interacting. After all, Jesus’ model throughout the Gospel is first teaching and engaging people. Often, there was a common meal that followed: consisting of whatever someone has to offer, which Jesus then blesses, giving thanks to God. Sure, there were exceptions, but the primary response to Jesus is clearly engagement with him.
I remember a time where a new rector came to a church where I was serving. He invited the staff and the vestry to a dinner party at the house. He took the drink orders, brought out the appetizers, prepared the meal, got up from the table to get additional things, cleared the table and cleaned up...and spent almost the entire night in the kitchen. We all left that evening filled with good food and impressed by the mechanics of the evening, but none of us knew the new rector any better (or at least, we didn’t think that we did...).
Even in saying all of this, I don’t think that Jesus’ reaction to Martha is based on her choosing service that evening.
In the final analysis, Jesus siding with Mary has nothing to do with choosing “study” over “service”, or any other of our comparisons. It has to do with focus.
Mary, in her listening to Jesus, is completely focused on her guest.
Martha’s intent is likely to give the gift of a good meal and a relaxing evening to Jesus: a worthy gift to focus on. She gets thrown off, however, when Mary sits down with Jesus, instead of helping her. At that point, Martha had a bunch of choices. She could have decided to follow suit, and sit with Jesus as well. (They could have ordered pizza or something...) Martha could have also chosen to give a gift to her sister Mary, by graciously preparing things herself, allowing Mary the time to learn from Jesus. Or, it would have been fine to ask Mary to help her with a few things: a direct request instead of dancing around what she wanted.
However, Martha isn’t focused this way. She instead is focused on Mary’s lack of help, of her personal plight, on worrying over getting things right, and on making sure that Jesus notices that she is doing all of this work, and that Mary is doing “nothing.”
She was resenting the evening that should have been a blessing.
Joel Green writes, “The nature of hospitality for which Jesus seeks is realized in attending to one’s guest, yet Martha’s speech is centered on ‘me’ talk (3 times). Though she refers to Jesus as ‘Lord’ she is concerned to engage his assistance in her plans, not to learn from him.” (from Cynthia Jarvis in FOW, p. 266)
Humility is a necessary component for hospitality to remain focused on the interaction between people, and not on the self. After this awkward moment between Martha, Jesus, and Mary, I am hopeful that Martha came to understand what Jesus was saying to her, and that all was well with the rest of their evening.
As Cynthia Jarvis concludes: “No doubt that when dinner was finally served that night at Martha and Mary’s home, the guest was revealed, in the breaking of the bread, to be their hospitable, humble, hidden host.” (FOW, p. 266)