PROPER 11, C
In bygone days I had the greatest admiration for Mary, because she did exactly what I would want to do. To heck with working in the kitchen. Here is this fabulous teacher in our very own living room and I want to hear what he has to say. I don’t care if women are supposed to be servers, or supposed to disappear when the men gather for learning. Like Yentl, I wanted to be in on the action, on the learning, on the discussion.
However, when I read the story of Martha and Mary this week, I was overcome with sympathy for Martha, because I suddenly remembered when I had been in her shoes. Some years ago the famous biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan was teaching a seminar here. The whole class gathered one night at my house for dinner and fellowship.
Everyone came bearing gifts of food, but I was stuck in the kitchen dealing with all of it and trying to get it ready and out for everyone. Meanwhile a large group were gathered around Dom out on the deck, listening.
As you can imagine, I was sorely torn between my duties as the hostess and my desire to hear everything he had to say. And I must admit that, like Martha, I felt resentful that I was stuck in the kitchen. Yet from a practical point of view, someone had to do the work. . . .
As I tried to understand this story in a way that didn’t seem unfair to Martha, to Mary, or to Jesus, I couldn’t help but notice that there are a lot of crucial details missing. For instance, was Martha preparing a meal just for Jesus or were the 12 disciples sitting there with him? There’s a big difference between cooking for three and cooking for fifteen!
While we get a good glimpse of Martha’s feelings, we have no clue about Mary’s. Did she just think that Martha could handle it alone? Or was she so engrossed in the words she was hearing that she lost track of time? Or did she just not care about her obligations as hostess because she cared so much more to hear what Jesus had to say?
If we look more closely at what we know about Martha, we may get some clues. “But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her than to help me.’”
So . . . if Martha just needed help wouldn’t she have said something quietly to Mary? How about getting her attention and just signally for her to come to the kitchen?
Instead, Martha goes to the Master and whines. This tells me that Martha didn’t just need help, she wanted to embarrass Mary, to get even with her for leaving Martha in the lurch. Yes, Martha probably did need help, but she also got worried and distracted – angry even, and so had to appeal to the authority figure in the room to solve the problem for her. She is playing the martyr.
Joel Green, as quoted by Cynthia Jarvis, says, "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” or to serve him.
And this helps to explain the rather sharp response Jesus gives her. “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.”
As James Wallace comments, “Is it possible that this story of two sisters offers us an ongoing plea from the Lord to focus on him, to give him some ‘prime time,’ some continuous full attention, just as we do for our close friends? At least, this is what we do, if we want to keep them as close friends. This same Lord calls us to focus on him when we gather on Sunday, to move from our place of being ‘worried and distracted by many things’ to one where we are in touch with the one thing needed, the good part that will not be taken away. There we will connect with the source that brings both peace and energy to all our undertakings.”
This story has often been interpreted to prioritize the contemplative life over the active life. I don’t think so at all. Martha is being chastised not for serving in an active way, but for not keeping her focus on the object of that service.
James Wallace comments, “It does not necessarily affirm the contemplative over the active life, and it should not be used to deny women their gifts and calls to ministry. Theologian John Shea observes that, while in English we hear that Mary has chosen ‘the better part,’ in Greek the word is translated as ‘good.’ Mary has chosen the ‘good’ part, meaning she has chosen ‘the connection to God who is good, the ground and energy of effective action.’ He sees the story not as reinforcing a Martha-Mary dichotomy but calling for a recognition that God is both inside and outside, sustaining us while summoning us to work and, through our service, to bring about a world of justice, mercy, and peace. It is not an either/or message but a both/and message.”
In other words, God is active and present in both a contemplative life and an active life, and in fact we need to live both kinds of life to live a fully Christian life. We need to study, meditate or pray, discuss, and consider. Then we need to go out into the world and act as God’s hands and feet and heart in the world.
God is present in our activities inside church and our activities outside church. We are called to be both thinkers and doers, both pray-ers and workers, both students and activists. While any of us may be more inclined to be one or the other, we need to develop both to have balance in our spiritual lives.
The same is true for our congregation. As Joel Green notes, “A community that is hospitable to Christ is a community marked by the attention the community gives to God’s word. A church that has been led to be ‘worried and distracted by many things’ inevitably will be a community that dwells in the shallows of frantic potlucks, anxious stewardship campaigns, and events designed simply to perpetuate the institution.
Whether working or worshipping, we all need to keep God as the central focus. That should keep us from turning into a Martha! AMEN