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.”
Martha whines to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.” Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha”. Can you imagine Jesus shaking his head in bodily language telling her that she just doesn’t get it? He says “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” I can almost see Mary stick out her tongue at Jesus. The meaning is clear: don’t be distracted by the mundane tasks of everyday life; instead, sit with Jesus and listen to him, for he has the words that lead to eternal life. The problem is that the meaning sitting on the surface of this text can be an enabler for some of us who aren’t very rigorous in our personal discipline and can make us feel good about being just plain sloppy housekeepers. It can help us rationalize not being distracted by the everyday tasks like mowing the lawn, cleaning the bathroom that I use or helping with the laundry.
Is Jesus really calling people from their domestic duties in favor of a life of contemplation at his feet—to meditation on his words? That seems to me a reading for the privileged. A single parent, a subsistence farmer or a caregiver to a dependent loved one is very distracted by the work of everyday life. Not only distracted, but harried, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Someone has to feed the kids. Someone has to make sure there are clothes to wear. If you can just sit at Jesus’ feet and not worry about who is putting the meal on the table, that means someone else is doing it for you. I think Jesus must be responding to something else here.
What a contrast this is to the story which immediately precedes it in Luke’s Gospel. He tells the story of the good Samaritan. The preface to the good Samaritan story reads: Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
In this parable Jesus tells his followers that living the Gospel is all about doing. He castigates the religious and righteous for being so heavenly minded that they were of no earthly good when it came to caring for someone in need. And of course he is illustrating the point that the neighbor whom we are commissioned to love as ourselves is, as we sang last Sunday, “anyone who has a need”. And, of course, to make the pill even harder to swallow he makes the hero of the story an undocumented alien, a foreigner and immigrant traveling in Jewish territory.
So I’m convinced that the message of this Sunday’s gospel is not that study with a rabbi or minister always trumps housework. It’s not that women’s work is inferior to men’s. And, as one woman wrote of this passage, you’d have to be smoking something very potent and probably illegal to think that it’s that gender roles were established by God and are blurred at our spiritual peril. The message, I think, is that this spiritual pilgrimage we are on isn’t as simplistic as we are sometimes led to believe. There seems to be two pieces that have to be balanced, and we find it in Luke’s gospel immediately before the Good Samaritan story. He told his followers: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind” part and the “and your neighbor as yourself” part.
In this text Martha and Mary are being treated as disciples of Jesus. They are not two from the crowd of Jesus’ followers but part of his inner circle. I don’t find it any different than when Jesus was teaching James and John in private.
Just a couple of weeks ago we read something quite similar from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He wrote: “The only thing that matters is faith working through love.” I guess I’m saying that only things – one thing that always trumps another is a dangerous path to take.
At different times, in different circumstances we all may be and often are called to tryout different roles, identities, patterns of behavior some of which feel “tried and true” or even immutable not only for the sake of growing in our own discipleship, but to invite others — even or especially others who may seem perfectly happy with a privileged role they’ve got — to become more fully who they are in Christ, and to live more fully into the ministry to which Christ calls them.
How do we find a balance that embraces the needs of Mary and Martha? Two things brought that home to me this morning during unprogrammed worship. First there was a man calling from the back door “Is there anyone here?” He had the keys to the Family Promise van and needed to hand them off to someone. Then a bit later one of the worshipper’s phone must have vibrated – disturbing only its owner – but it required her to leave the Meeting Room for a few moments. Both incidents reminded me that as wonderful it is to be fully absorbed in worship, at times the world will break in and call us to respond to the need of another. For Martha the task was overwhelming, not so for Mary. But we need to find both the Martha and the Mary in ourselves.
A wonderful, shocking, life-giving truth is that flexibility in our discipleship often yields more blessings than we know how to gather — blessings so rich they must be shared.