38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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 then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38–42)
I’m always surprised by people who think that the Bible is a book for rules about all matters sexual, because, actually, sex is not discussed much. What DOES get a lot of play in Scripture is hospitality—especially as it relates to food. What to eat and with whom and how, as well as how food is to be grown, distributed, and shared, is the vast majority of Scripture. So it’s not surprising that today two out of three of our readings are about food-related hospitality.
It’s important to remember that in Biblical days in the Middle East, being hospitable to strangers was the norm. Still is, to a large extent. Whether it is friends or strangers who show up at your doorstep, it is your duty to serve them food and drink, to wash their feet, to make them feel welcome. What Abraham does when three strange men show up at his tent—asking his wife to bake cakes and his servants to cook one of his calves—is not a sign that he is an unusually gracious host. He is merely doing what is expected. And when Jesus shows up at Martha and Mary’s house, he would have every reason to expect that the women would fix dinner for him. On the surface, it appears that both Abraham and Martha do the same thing—rush around getting things organized to serve a meal to their guests.
But one significant difference that stands out for me is that Abraham has help. He asks his wife to fix cakes and a servant to prepare the meat. From what Luke shares, it sounds like Martha first WARMLY welcomes Jesus, but then bustles away to prepare the meal on her own. How can we blame her for asking Jesus to tell Mary to give her a hand with serving? Though it is frustrating that she doesn’t ask Mary directly, but in a passive-aggressive way triangulates Jesus into the mix.
It seems clear that the hearers/readers of this story are supposed to admire Mary for choosing to learn from Jesus and also to join Jesus in being frustrated with Martha. But I find it so easy to identify with Martha—and I think a lot of people—especially women–do. We can identify with being so busy—juggling calendars and phone calls, and work and errands, and commitments and expectations—that we lose track of relationships, including our relationship with God. I am guessing that many of us join with Martha in being anxious and worried about many things.
Or am I the only one who feels sorry for her and a bit annoyed with Jesus? After all, Jesus doesn’t send Mary in to help Martha, nor does he get up himself and offer to chop carrots or set the table. Instead, he not only denies Martha’s request for help, but he also chides her for being preoccupied with ordinary but necessary things like food. Doesn’t it occur to Jesus that maybe Martha WANTS to be sitting with him, listening to his stories, but that SOMEONE has to cook– especially if Jesus has brought his entourage of 12 or more disciples with him? Even his repetition of her name when he’s addressing her (“Martha, Martha”) sounds kind of patronizing and belittling–as if Jesus is exasperated with her, and wishes she would sit down and shut up like Mary.
When I get all worked up about a Bible story like this, it is helpful for me to remember that there are two thousand years separating me from this text, and that Mary and Martha’s context is not my own. This is not a dinner party in Madison in 2013. Their story is NOT my story, though it can (and does) inform it. For one thing, I have the advantage of reading this story. I mean literally. The women in Jesus’ life would not have been able to do so, since women were not taught to read. Nor, if they could, would they have imagined reading a story about a woman sitting at the feet of the rabbi, listening to him teach the Scriptures. It simply wasn’t done.
If I get too hung up on Jesus’ dismissal of Martha’s hostessing style, I miss the radical act of hospitality that Jesus shows in this story! Jesus encourages Mary to listen and learn the Word of God, just as men were allowed to do. That’s big news! After all, a first century rabbi named Eliazer wrote, “Better to burn the Torah than teach it to women.” But clearly Jesus doesn’t buy into that idea. Jesus doesn’t want women to see themselves merely as servants, but also as his disciples. Now THAT is hospitality!
So, maybe I’m a little too hard on Jesus. Maybe it was a gift he was offering to Martha, and not a scolding, when he suggested she join him and Mary for the one thing that is needful. Maybe Jesus wishes that Martha could sometimes receive hospitality rather than always being the one providing it. Maybe the message here is that Martha is so busy serving Jesus that she has forgotten to be connected to him in a relational way. That can happen, you know. Have you ever been so busy making sure that your family gets to the next doctor’s appointment or class or onto the next step of a project that you forget to look into their eyes and see the glory of God there? Do you ever get so caught up in the daily-ness of your living that you lose track of the fact that you are sitting across the table from a miracle, a living, breathing person made in the image and likeness of God? I can’t remember who said it, but someone wise once suggested, “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Try it. Take a breath. Look. See. Taste. Feel.
That is why this story is so much more meaningful if we look at where it fits in Luke’s Gospel. It comes directly after Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in answer to a question about how to love God and neighbor. The message Jesus gives in that situation is “Go and do likewise.” But here Jesus seems to be addressing people who get so busy in their “going and doing” that they neglect (or forget) to spend time just resting and sitting with Jesus, building relationship. Fred Craddock, a theology professor from Candler School of Theology cautions us to hold the two sisters together to get the message of this text: “If we censure Martha too profusely, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to sit and reflect.” So which example are we to follow—the Good Samaritan or Mary? I think, as is often the case, the answer is “YES.”
But because this story about Martha and Mary frustrates me still, it also helps to look at where Jesus interacts with these sisters in other Biblical stories. This is not the only dinner Jesus ever has at their house, and it may not be typical. Unlike Abraham who in today’s reading from Genesis serves three strangers, Jesus and Mary and Martha are good friends, and he apparently ate at their house a lot. Other than his mother, no women are mentioned more frequently as Jesus’ companions than these two.
The next time we see Martha is in the 11th chapter of John’s gospel, where John writes “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Interesting who gets top billing, isn’t it? In John 11, Lazarus has died, and when Jesus gets near the house, it is Martha who runs out to meet Jesus on the road before he even arrives at the house! She says that she knows Jesus could have prevented her brother’s death, adding, “even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She goes on to proclaim that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, the first person in John’s Gospel to recognize Jesus as the Messiah! Obviously she hadn’t spent all her time in the kitchen when Jesus was around, because she has not only heard but internalized the heart of the Gospel truth.
Meanwhile, in Luke’s story today we see Jesus teaching Mary so that she is prepared to go out and witness to the Good News just as his male disciples were prepared, but when we see her in John 11, she is not running to Jesus. She is weeping at her brother’s tomb. She is not declaring resurrection is possible through Christ. In the very next chapter, John 12, however, we see her annoint Jesus with oil, a task which in the Old Testament would have been done by prophets to mark a chosen person. She has been a hearer of God’s word, and now she is responding as a doer of God’s word, even taking on the mantle of leadership.
Both sisters have learned from Jesus that there are times to hear the truth, times to speak it, and times to enact it. Discernment is all about figuring out which one is needed at the moment. Our spiritual lives are healthiest when we keep a dynamic tension between action and reflection. Like a Slinky, which can only move if it has some momentum, we don’t want to get stuck too long in the “go and do” mode or too long in the “sit and listen” mode. We have to keep moving back and forth between action and reflection, reflection and action.
As a postscript, another little plug for the sometimes-maligned Martha: Martha learns from Jesus, but maybe Jesus learns from her too. When he prepares for his last night among the people he loves, he invites them to a dinner party. Isn’t it possible that he is thinking of her when he arranges that kind of hospitality? The food’s not much—a little bread and a little wine. But it’s not about the food. It’s about the host and the guests. It’s about being present. Jesus washes their feet. He serves them. I wonder who showed him how to do that.
And today, my friends, we, too, are invited to share a meal. It’s not elaborate—just a little bitty crumb of bread and a teeny sip of wine. The point is not the food so much as the companionship. Jesus the Host is dying for you to come. To be united together with him and with all those he loves. To honor one another, and to honor him. And when we leave this meal, we are invited to follow in the footsteps of Martha and Mary: to reflect and to act, to listen and to set our tables for others. Most of all, as those whom God has loved and served, we are called to recognize and honor the people God sends our way.
~Pastor Susan Schneider