Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Instead of beginning by unpacking what Luke is trying to say in today’s Gospel lesson, I feel like I need to begin by saying what I don’t think the story of Mary and Martha is about. Because I had begun to really dislike this story, until I realized that what I disliked was the overly simplistic way the story has often been interpreted. Too often I’ve heard this story explained as Jesus criticizing Martha for letting her busy-ness distract her and prevent her from being his disciple. And that understanding also elevates Mary’s choice of sitting at Jesus feet being contemplative to being the “right” and “holy” path, even though it meant Martha got stuck doing all the work, while Mary got to visit with Jesus.
If that’s the set up, how could I fail to take Martha’s side? Not only do I sympathize with her for trying to get dinner together for Jesus (and probably a dozen of his friends) by herself, I also sympathize with her because of the way Jesus talks to her. He doesn’t honor Martha’s request to send Mary in to help her, nor does he get up himself and offer to chop carrots or even set the table. Instead, he chides Martha for being preoccupied with ordinary but necessary things like food while ignoring “the better part,” which Mary has chosen. Doesn’t it occur to Jesus that maybe Martha WANTS to be sitting with him and Mary, listening to his stories, but that SOMEONE has to cook? And to make matters worse, Jesus plays into Martha’s unhelpful triangulating, so that neither of them is actually speaking to Mary, but both of them are speaking about her? Such a bad idea!
All of this stuff comes up for me when I hear this story, and none of it is Good News. Too often this story has been used as a way of pitting women against one another unnecessarily, making us question one another’s choices while doubting our own. Too often this story makes me question my own worth, and I bet I’m not the only one. None of that forwards the Gospel message that the kingdom of God has come near.
So let me say again that I don’t think that any of that is what Luke was writing about. It’s not about Mary being the “good sister” and Martha being the “bad” one. It’s not about disciples choosing the opportunity to learn over the opportunity to serve. It’s not about making us feel guilty for not being sure if we’ve chosen the “better part”—a term which Jesus never explains anyway. It’s not about comparing ourselves with others, trying to figure out who’s getting it right, who’s living most faithfully.
In order to grasp what this text is really about, I think we have to come at it as Lutherans, and embrace paradox. I propose we think of ourselves not as Mary or Martha, but as simul Mary et Martha, simultaneously both sisters. The question is not who is living better, but when and how to imitate which sister. Fred Craddock, theology professor at Candler School of Theology, invites us to hold the two sisters together, saying: “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.” The Good News for us, I believe, is that we are both sisters, and that Jesus loves coming over to our house!
This is not the only Bible story where Jesus visits Mary and Martha. Other than his mother, no women are mentioned more frequently as Jesus’ companions than these two. My favorite story about them is from the 11th chapter of John’s Gospel. John begins the story by saying, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” (Isn’t interesting who gets top billing?) Jesus has gotten word that Lazarus has just died, and he is coming to mourn with his sisters. Before he even arrives at the house, Martha rushes out to meet Jesus on the road! She says that she knows Jesus could have prevented her brother’s death, and adds, “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,” making her 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! Clearly she has not only heard, but internalized the heart of the Gospel truth!
Meanwhile, Mary didn’t run to Jesus in that story. She stayed weeping at her brother’s tomb. She does not declare resurrection to be possible through Jesus Christ. However, in the very next chapter, John 12, Mary anoints Jesus with oil, a task which in the Old Testament would have been done by prophets to mark a chosen person. Luke’s story shows her being a silent hearer of God’s word, but in this John’s story, she is a doer of God’s word—even taking on the mantle of leadership.
Over the course of their friendship, 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 any given moment. Our spiritual lives are healthiest when we keep a dynamic tension between our inner Mary and Martha.
This message becomes even more clear when we examine how today’s story fits in Luke’s Gospel. It comes right after two big stories. The first we heard 2 weeks ago, when Jesus sent out 70 disciples to prepare the way for his arrival in neighboring towns and villages. He told the disciples to pack light, and to depend utterly on the hospitality of strangers along the way. In other words, he told them to look for the Marthas while they were out serving like Martha themselves.
That story was followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan, an all-time-greatest-hits story about serving our neighbors. After Jesus finishes telling that story, his instruction to his followers is, “Go and do likewise.” Clearly Luke is not trying to show us a Jesus who wants his followers to be Marys all the time, sitting quietly and listening.
But if we ignore Mary’s role in this story, we miss the radical act of hospitality that Jesus shows! 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. In a world where only men could attend school, Jesus does not chastise Mary for sitting at his fit listening. He encourages Mary to learn the Word of God, just like the men did. Jesus doesn’t want women to see themselves merely as servers, but also as learners. Perhaps his concern for Martha is that she doesn’t see herself as able or worthy of sitting at his feet. But Jesus wants her to recognize that she is just as worthy as his male disciples. She belongs in his company, not just to help and nurture him, but also to be nurtured BY him, to be strengthened and empowered for ministry.
Both sisters have learned from Jesus that there are times to hear the truth, times to speak it, and times to enact it. There is no need for us to compete with each other to win the “Best Disciple” award. Mary and Martha and all of us are invited and empowered to embody all of those different ways of being. We are God’s beloved, in all our contradictions and complexities, and God has plans for us. You may wonder at that, but is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
In this way, Luke’s story echoes today’s Old Testament story about Abraham and Sarah (and the off-stage character of Hagar).
By the time we see Abraham greeting three strangers under the trees, he is an old man, who has been living for decades with God’s promise that he and Sarah would be the parents of a new nation. Yet, they remain childless—or at least Sarah does. After waiting for a long time for God’s promise to be fulfilled, she suggests that Abraham sleep with her maid Hagar in order to conceive. Abraham does, and Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Both Abraham and Sarah are convinced that this is how God’s promise to them will come true.
So when the strangers come by and suggest that no, the promise wasn’t just to Abraham but also to Sarah, she laughs a bitter laugh. She can’t believe that God’s plans include her as well. She doesn’t consider herself an important part of the story. But God does. God’s promise was not only to Abraham but also to Sarah, and however unlikely it seems, God will fulfill that promise. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
I wonder if Jesus was remembering that story, or his visits to Mary and Martha’s when he prepares for his last night among the people he loves. Jesus invites his friends to a dinner party. Isn’t it possible that he is thinking of the sisters 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 with the people he loves in all their multi-faceted splendor. Jesus does not sit at the head of the table, but kneels down to wash his friends’ feet, and gives a final lesson on the subject of love.
Soon we too gather for a meal at Jesus’ invitation. The food’s not much—a little crumb of bread, a little sip of wine. But the company is spectacular! Here is a collection of people Jesus loves beyond any telling of it. Each one as precious as the next. Each one gifted with the ability to listen and learn. Each one capable of acts of kindness and humility. Each one forgiven and empowered to be themselves and no one else. Marys and Marthas and Abrahams and Sarahs are all fed this table, all brought into the circle of God’s promises kept, enabling us to laugh deeply and joyfully. This sharing strengthens us to go out into our broken, bleeding world where people out there who doubt their own worth need us to share what we know about God’s promises and love. We may wonder at God choosing us to be God’s messengers, but so it is. There is no competition; we are all called. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
~Pastor Susan Schneider