Main Text: Luke 10:38-42
Whenever I hear this story of Martha and Mary hosting Jesus in their home, I always have this gut reaction of wanting to defend Martha. Having a guest takes work, hosting is not a passive activity, and yet Martha’s attention to these practical details gets trumped by Mary’s sitting and listening to Jesus. Jesus points out that Mary has chosen the better part, and Martha is left pulling the roast out of the oven wondering where she went wrong. So I feel like Martha deserves some props that.
Part of my motivation here no doubt comes out of my own experience. Growing up I always wondered how it was that most of us got to read in the living room while Mom was getting Sunday dinner around. I liked to read and wasn’t overly enthusiastic about being in the kitchen, but I had a great appreciation for the work Mom was doing, which I openly expressed by eating large quantities of food at every meal. If it would have been left to me, we all probably would have sat around reading until we were unbearably hungry and then eventually scrounged for some peanut butter and jelly. I’ve matured a little bit since those days, but whenever we are hosting and I find myself in the position of Mary, the one sitting, listening, reveling in the leisure of relationship, I’m mindful of what Martha – aka Abbie – is up to in getting things around and am grateful, convinced that it would be a pretty lousy party without her. And in the back of my mind I’m thinking that Martha has the more difficult task. Martha is the answer to that quote by journalist PJ O’Rourke which says: “Everybody wants to save the earth, but nobody wants to do the dishes.”
One way of reading this story is seeing Martha and Mary as archetypes of the two faces of Christian discipleship: action and contemplation. These could also be called doing and being, service and prayer, the outward and inward journey. These are the two sisters of a healthy spiritual life.
It’s Martha, Luke says, who initially invites Jesus into their home. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and is dependent on people like Martha to give him and his companions shelter and food. We quickly learn that Martha has a sister, Mary who, it says, “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” To sit at the feet of another was to submit yourself to their teaching. It’s an expression of being a learner, a student. A little earlier Jesus had cast evil spirits out of a crazed man who had lived at the edge of society. People are amazed when they come and see him “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” (Luke 8:35). In Acts Paul notes that he was educated at the feet of Gamaliel, a respected Jewish teacher. (Acts 22:3). For Mary to be sitting at the feet of Jesus, means that she is becoming a disciple.
But Martha is also engaged in discipleship. When it says in verse 40 that Martha was doing “many tasks,” the literal translation there is “much service.” She was doing much service, the same word Jesus later uses to characterize discipleship when he says, “the greatest among you must become like the one who serves.” At the final meal Jesus shares with his close followers, it is he who takes the towel and washes the feet of his companions, much to their consternation – the master stepping out of bounds and performing the work of a servant. Martha is doing much service. Both Martha and Mary are engaged in acts of discipleship.
I know that some of you are fans of the writings of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who leads the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Just the name of that Center is something to contemplate. Action and Contemplation have not always known what to do with each other. People of action – doers, practical minded people, activists, get things done. Or, at least in the case of activists, we try to get things done – giving time, talents, skills, energy for the making of a better world. The spirituality of action calls us to pray with our feet, pray with our hands in the dirt. Anabaptists are at home in this spirituality as we emphasize faith as a way of life, the true expression of belief being not what doctrines you subscribe to, but how you treat your neighbor. We are kindred spirits with Martha, drawn to the many tasks of hospitality, peacemaking, service.
Contemplative folks come at things from another angle. The focus is more on the inward journey. Study, thinking, reflection, silence, stillness. Sitting at Jesus’ feet and simply listening. Like Mary.
This potential tension between action and contemplation – should we be people of action, or people of contemplation? – is why Richard Rohr notes that the most important word in the name of his organization is AND. The Center for Action AND Contemplation. He and many others these days, including this congregation, are trying to chart out a path in which action and contemplation aren’t seen as rivals to one another, but essential complimentary elements in the only life that is fully alive, action and contemplation, sisters living together under one roof.
Ronald Rolheiser, not to be confused with Richard Rohr, but also a Catholic priest, has suggested that perhaps Martha and Mary can represent different stages of life. Those who find themselves in the middle portion of life – giving themselves to a career, raising a family, creating a home, are more heavily identified with Martha. Empty nesters, retired persons, might have more ability and freedom to identify with Mary. Because from what I hear once you retire your schedule completely opens up and you have all the time in the world! I think what Rolheiser means is that there is more discretionary time to pursue contemplation.
It took me several read-throughs to recognize the significance of where the Martha and Mary passage appears in Luke. Right before it comes the parable of the Good Samaritan, the ultimate story of discipleship as service, even when that service is performed by the least likely of disciples – a Samaritan. Incidentally, this past week I saw a posting that re-imagined that story in this way: “The lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A child was going out one evening to buy some Skittles…” (seen on Unvirtuous Abbey Facebook page) The parable continues to challenge our notions of discipleship, refusing to allow us to separate it from compassionate service to all humanity.
That’s what comes right before the Martha and Mary story. Right after the Martha and Mary story Jesus receives a different kind of question. His disciples come to him and say: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” What follows after that are the words that have come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father, a prayer Christians continue to pray regularly in their worship and private devotion settings.
So there we have it. The sisters of service and contemplation are sandwiched right in between passages which emphasize the importance of both. Martha and Mary.
This is all important, and we could end here, having made a point that both sisters are integral to a faithful life.
Without minimizing that point, it is worth noting that this isn’t quite how the story presents itself. There is that piece about Jesus’ words to our multi-tasking hero Martha, who wishes to recruit Jesus to her side to put her sister to work. “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?’” A slightly leading question! “’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.’”
If you ever want to ignite sibling rivalry, take a page out Jesus’ playbook and tell one sibling upset with the other one that the other has chosen the better part!
So is this another case similar to those sibling relationships in Genesis where God seems to be choosing one over the other?
Right off the bat in the Bible we are put on notice that sibling relationships can be ones of rivalry. Cain and Abel offer different sacrifices to God. Abel’s is chosen as the better offering, and Cain, famously, takes his brother Abel out to the field and murders him. A shaky and painful start to the human family. Later Ishmael and Isaac, half brothers, sons of Abraham through Hagar and Sarah, are cause for more conflict. God gives mixed signals in this case, declaring that Ishmael will become a great nation, while also declaring Isaac, the child through Sarah, to be the inheritor of the promise. The tension is too much and the brothers and their mothers part ways. With Jews and Christians telling the story from the perspective of Isaac, and Muslims tracing their lineage back through Ishmael, these siblings are still very much alive today, and we hold out hope that there are, and always have been, peaceful ways to live alongside one another.
Isaac marries Rebekah who becomes pregnant with twins. Genesis says, “The children struggled together within her,” followed by Rebekah crying out in an exasperation that every parent with fighting children can relate with, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” Jacob gets the better of Esau in two different situations, winning his birthright and a blessing from their father, to the point where Esau wishes to kill Jacob and Jacob must flee for his life.
Are we reliving Genesis sibling rivalry through Jesus’ words to Martha and Mary?
Or, is Jesus’ intention just the opposite? – to liberate these sisters from old, engrained patterns?
There’s an old rabbinic saying that goes: “Let thy house be a meeting-house for the Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst…(but) talk not much with womankind.” (M. ‘Abot 1.4-5, quoted in The New Interpreters Bible Commentary Vol. 9, p. 231)
Martha is working like crazy to give hospitality to Jesus, but she’s also playing out a fairly typical gender role. It’s her default mode of operating, perhaps not even considering what other options there might be for her. Mary, on the other hand, claims her right to sit at the feet of a sage, despite the social constraints. So when Martha comes out and says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me,” is she missing an opportunity for transformation, for liberation from a strict set of boundaries of who she can and can’t be? Martha is worried about hosting, but Jesus would invite her to a feast he has brought, which Mary is already enjoying, drinking in the words with thirst.
Whatever it is that’s going on here – the coming together of action and contemplation – the presence of sibling rivalry – an elevation of women in the discipleship community – whichever interpretive path one takes, we are still left with a tantalizing statement from Jesus that remains unresolved. After cautioning Martha about being worried and consumed with many things, Jesus says, “there is need of only one thing.” Not many things. Not two things. There is need of only one thing.
Jesus doesn’t say explicitly what that one thing is. He just says that there is need of only one thing, and kind of leaves it hanging. Mary was on her way to finding it while Martha was distracted from it, but one gets the sense that the one thing can be present whether one is sitting at the feet of the sage or engaged in service in the kitchen, on the road to Jericho, or wherever one finds oneself.
Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” This also doesn’t say what that one thing is, which, I believe, is probably the point.
Every day at Bible school this past week when we would all gather in the sanctuary we would have a time when someone would hold up the “Breath In…” sign, followed by the theme for the day. When each sign was held up, we were all supposed to say the words with lots of volume. A little bit into the week it became a running joke for the kids to pronounce the dot, dot, dot, at the end of Breathe In. Some witty kids here at CMC.
So, as a closing thought, we can imagine Jesus holding up a sign, “There is need of only one thing…” dot dot dot. What comes next? That’s the only sign there is at this point. And it’s that one thing – not yet fully named on known, but ever present – which drives us in our lives of discipleship.