In this brief vignette, common courtesy would expect Jesus to affirm the one who welcomes him and his followers into her home and prepares all that is needed to make them comfortable. Our instincts tell us that Mary should help her sister. Yet our instincts also tell us that Jesus should not chide his hostess for suggesting that her sister should help with the work of caring for the guests. If Martha is a bit distracted by her many tasks, should he add insult to injury by praising Mary for choosing “the better part?” Our primary inclination is to justify what Jesus does. Yet I’ve heard some women say that thought Jesus was just being a jerk.
Embracing Mary, Affirming Martha
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.”
In this brief vignette, common courtesy would expect Jesus to affirm the one who welcomes him and his followers into her home and prepares all that is needed to make them comfortable. Our instincts tell us that Mary should help her sister. Yet our instincts also tell us that Jesus should not chide his hostess for suggesting that her sister should help with the work of caring for the guests. If Martha is a bit distracted by her many tasks, should he add insult to injury by praising Mary for choosing “the better part?” Our primary inclination is to justify what Jesus does. Yet I’ve heard some women say that thought Jesus was just being a jerk. I’d prefer to think that the jerk was either Luke, the only one of the evangelists to include this story in his gospel, a story which had been passed down to him from others, or a copyists who, before the advent of the printing press miss-copied the material. His affirmation of one woman’s choice and criticism of the other seems out of character, especially because Jesus consistently emphasizes service and hospitality. But here Martha, according to the traditional wisdom, anxious about peripheral matters misses the point. Is there justification for his seeming dismissal of Martha’s attention to the care of her guests? Hospitality, sharing a meal in particular, is a prominent theme throughout Luke. What do women who are invested in traditional roles and this dismissal of Martha and her priorities take away from this story? Only five verses long, this little story has fueled divisiveness and resentment in the church. it has pitted women with different callings in the church against one another. Such an outcome has been especially prevalent in more conservative congregations as women have dared to explore possibilities for ministry and held up Mary as their model. In response others held the line for certain cherished beliefs and practices and produced a backlash whose staunchest supporters are themselves women. The narrative surprises us and provokes us to consider a different point of view. But perhaps this story is intended to disturb us.
Some understand this story to set out a clear demarcation between the ‘better’ part chosen by Mary and the obviously less than better part chosen by her sister. In any other circumstance wouldn’t Martha be commended for her diligence and her unrestrained hospitality. Do you think there was anything wrong with Martha’s choice?
I learned that there exists a bewildering variety of variant readings for this passage in the ancient material. The one most interesting to me is literally a pun in Jesus’ response in the 42nd verse. Luke has him using a Greek word that I’ll anglicize ‘merida’. It refers to a serving of food so when the RSV and Weymouth in their translations say that Mary chose a “goodly portion” it best preserves the pun in English That would shift the focus to whether the contrast being drawn is between an elaborate banquet of many offerings needed to properly entertain Jesus and his entourage or that there is ‘need of only one thing”, a simple meal. Martha need not worry about an elaborate meal, her contribution is essential and welcome.
Another alternate reading also preserved by Weymouth in his quite literal attempt at translation says, in speaking of Martha: “She had a sister called Mary, who also seated herself at the Lord’s feet and listened…” That suggests that Martha sat at Jesus’ feet as well, but she couldn’t just sit there, she was distracted from the conversation by the demands of the household. She got up in order to serve. We might well have a problem with her if she only served and didn’t listen. It raises an important point about our ministry as well as hers, whether ours is about serving at the expense of listening, or that we listen and listen and listen but never actually serve. Are we caught between hearing the word and feeding the hungry when both are needed? One way that the story can be read as affirming of Martha is that while Mary’s choice of her “portion” was good it doesn’t necessarily follow that Martha’s wasn’t. Choose your path Martha, one or the other and don’t worry about it, its your choice.
Two important approaches to hosting Jesus are portrayed in this little story, one a more spiritual approach, the other quite practical. They opened Evelyn Underhill to her understanding that in order to flourish, the church needs its mystics and mysticism needs the church.
Mysticism can tend to strangeness, vagueness, and sentimentality. Mystics who are not anchored in the church may drift into unintentional irrelevance. Underhill came to realize that church life “fostered group consciousness, gave a sense of unity, and offered both a ready-made discipline and a capacity to hand on a culture. ” By the same token, the church needs its mystics. Parochial, dogmatic, and conservative churches, she believed, had departed from their central mission, “to redeem the world by forming souls and fostering holiness among them.” Yet a vigorous and socially active church may not be much better, for “it spends so much time in running round the arc and rather takes the centre for granted …and it is at the centre that the real life of the spirit aims first; thence flowing out to the circumference—even to the most harsh, dark, difficult and rugged limits—in unbroken streams of generous love.” The mystics recall us to this loving center “where we are anchored in God.”
The experience of God is always a vocational experience. Evelyn Underhill believed that the mystical encounter with God “always impels to some sort of service: always awakens an energetic love. It never leaves the self where it found it. It forces (one involved in the experiment) the experient to try and do hard things.”
But when it’s all said and done, what if we and Martha have missed the biggest point of all? What if the real story is that Jesus doesn’t want to be treated as a guest but as a member of the family. What if what Jesus really wanted was face time with Martha – quality time. How would having Jesus in your life as a dear friend and not a guest change your relationship with him? A friend drops by and says: “Stop Martha. The dusting can wait. I don’t care that you can grow corn on the top of your refrigerator. Sit down Martha. I’ve had a hard couple of days and the only thing I need right now is your company. Tell me, Martha, how are things going with you and your sister?” For some of us that may the harder thing – to sit with a friend and pay attention to them while all the while wondering whether the baseboard behind the toilet needs scrubbing, getting those clothes out of the dryer before the wrinkles set in or putting a pie in the oven.
So imagine Jesus on Facebook asking to be your friend – would it give you pause? Would you accept or think – I’m not sure about this one.