“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 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 then to help me.” But the Lord answered 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.”
Luke 10: 38-42
When you hear this story, is there someone you identify with?
Do you think of yourself as more of a Mary or a Martha?
I identify more with Martha than Mary, and as a Martha-type person I am kind of annoyed with Jesus for the rebuke. It is easy for me to sympathize with Martha wanting to be the good hostess. Dinner doesn’t just make itself, you know and we all have to eat. My instinct tells me to expect that Jesus would affirm the one who welcomed him into her home and prepared all that was needed to make him comfortable. It seems reasonable to think that Mary should help her sister. So why does Jesus say Mary has the better portion that will not be taken away form her? When I thought about it I could see that on the other hand, Jesus, yes, son of God, Lord and Savior Jesus, is in the house, and Martha wants to spend time in the kitchen? That does seem like she might need her priorities straightened out. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with God?
Every time I hear this story, I can’t help but think of my roommate during divinity school. She was named Martha and she was very bitter that she had ended up with that name. She felt like this biblical story gave all Marthas a bad reputation. She did not want to be known as the kind of person who Jesus criticized for being too distracted and making bad choices. In the same way that Martha struggled with her name, readers have struggled with this text and found it to be challenging to interpret for generations.
United Theological Seminary New Testament Professor Rev. Marilyn Salmon points out that “there are all sorts of risks in preaching this text, not the least of which is the possibility of offending the women and men in our churches who do the hands-on work of ministry, especially, but not only, in the kitchen! What would these stories sound like if they were told by those whose action often drives the story of our church from behind the scenes?” What would all the Rummage volunteers working hard to make sure things go smoothly this week think of this passage? How would Jose, preparing everything for coffee hour, feel about this scripture? In the interpretation I studied by Reverend Salmon she seems to see this story as an insult to those who work behind the scenes. At first I agreed with her. I thought maybe Jesus was wrong to say what he said because I believe that those who do the work behind the scenes are often more important than those who are out front getting all the credit. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off on my understanding of this passage.
I had to wonder, was Jesus straying from his role as champion of the underdog and the outcast? Throughout the Bible, Jesus frequently directs our attention to those behind the scenes. In the accounts of Jesus’ life, time and again he lifts up those who are on the margins and directs our attention to the unsung heroes. When I delved into this story more and learned about the historical context, I discovered that Jesus may in fact have still been striving for social justice and spiritual enlightenment in a different way.
It is actually quite radical and affirming that Jesus embraced the idea that women, like Mary, were capable of more than domestic service. We read that instead of doing housework, Mary sat attentively at Jesus’ feet and listened to him. This is significant because during the time period when this was written, Jewish male students usually sat at the feet of their rabbis but women were not permitted to study the scriptures with rabbis. First century Rabbi Eleazer said, “Better to burn the Torah than to teach it to women.” Contrary to this, Jesus insisted that the responsibility of listening to the word of God must not be taken away from Mary. He may have been using Martha’s complaints as a way of illustrating and giving voice to the traditional arguments against women becoming disciples and religious students. This brief vignette can be seen as a call for more equality in a time when women faced many prejudices. Through this exchange
with Martha he emphasized that it is most important to listen to his teachings and here he was teaching that women have as much of a right to the better portion of being with and learning from Jesus.
Writer Mary Cartledge-Hayes in her book Loving Delilah: Claiming the Women of the Bible states that Jesus ”was asserting women’s worth in a society that considered women property and on a par with camels when it comes to brains. Jesus was not trying to dismiss Martha’s hospitality, but rather he was defending Mary’s right to be his student and disciple and affirming that those who wanted to learn from and follow him needed to first and foremost listen to his messages.” Jesus’ messages centered on love and unity. Prejudices are distractions that separate us from God. Both men and women need to make listening to the Word of God a priority to more fully experience the Spirit of God which does not discriminate but lives in all of us. I see this biblical passage, as a social critique against discrimination and as a call to all to embrace Jesus’ presence in their lives.
I found an elegant explanation of this passage from Professor David Lose of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. He writes: “Sometimes you need to forget all about yourself and your limitations– forget all the stuff you usually worry about and just be. I think that’s the “better part” Jesus is talking about. He’s not favoring Mary over Martha, and he’s not lifting up one way of living the Christian life over another. Rather the invitation Jesus makes to Martha is to get caught up in the joy of being in his presence such that we forget, if only for a little while, all the usual things that hold us back, all the usual worries and concerns, and simply be, as the Apostle Paul often put it, “in Christ.” It is easier said than done, but Jesus knew that life would be full and more meaningful if we could embrace his presence and learn from him.
There is so much we can learn from Jesus and many of his messages may challenge us and our perspective on the world and the society in which we live. He was an amazing teacher who taught powerful lessons about immense love that defied social norms. He valued and taught women in a time when that was taboo. We see more of his radical love in the biblical story that precedes the one from this morning. Right before the Mary and Martha story in Luke is the well known story of the Good Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews generally despised each other, but the Samaritan helps the injured Jew. Portraying a Samaritan in a positive light would have come as a shock to his listeners. Both stories are examples of Jesus’ provocative words turning conventional expectations upside down.
What I hope you will remember most is that ultimately this story is not just about Mary, Martha and Jesus. This story is about us. Jesus, the incredibly loving, patient, forgiving, God incarnate longs for each of us to spend time with him, listen to him and follow in his ways. We can be released from the anxieties and distractions that keep us from experiencing the fullness of life when we open up to recognize God is with us. God is with each and every one of us. God invites all of us, women and men, adults and children, Samaritan and Jew, all of us, to sit by his side and know that we are loved. May you come to know this truth, each and every one of you, all the days of your life. Amen.