I treasure the story of Martha and Mary welcoming Jesus into their home. All of scripture may be a revelation, but this story in particular feels like a revelation of my heart. In these few verses, Luke tells an expansive tale of our own struggles. Busy Martha. Serene Mary. It’s hard not to identify with one and long to be like the other.
Many of us are Marthas wishing to be Marys. Yet I don’t think this story can be reduced to the simplicity of Martha worked, Mary lounged, go and do likewise.
And that’s because, as often as I read this story, I trip over the enigmatic lines of Jesus, “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” What was the better part? What was the one thing needed?
Sometimes people interpret the story of Martha and Mary as if it contrasts grunt work and prayerful contemplation. We do this on our Board of Deacons: the Deacons talk about their “Martha” tasks like making communion bread and Easter breakfast and their “Mary” questions like, “How do we express our care for one another?”
It’s easy to think of the story this way. Martha did; Mary listened. Sometimes people say, “We’re human beings, not human doings.” And thus reinforce the idea that contemplation and listening and reflection are our higher purposes.
Which may be true, but it leaves those of us in the kitchen with a pile of work and little motivation. Not much would happen without the Marthas.
This opposition of work and reflection doesn’t ring true to God’s spirit. In the Book of Acts, there’s a story about the early church and how they sought to settle this question of work and reflection. The community gathered for meals every day because many were poor and it gave them at least one good meal. But the meals became contentious: people complained that the apostles gave more food to people from their own ethnic group instead of sharing it equally.
Peter decided to separate the work of feeding people from what he saw as his more important work. He said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing [for] this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” Basically: I’m too important to be a busboy.
And yet, just as soon as he gave the Martha work to someone else, God’s Spirit intervened. Over the next several chapters in the Book of Acts, the Deacons remake Christianity into an expansive community. Not content to just pass out bread, they start giving communion to eunuchs and Samaritans and all sorts of outsiders. God’s spirit didn’t accept the simple split between doing tasks and being thoughtful. God’s spirit moved with those doing the work.
In my own life too, I find this a false choice. One of my favorite writers on prayer once gave advice for dealing with distractions while praying. He suggested we “throw a bone to our brain so that our dog-like imagination can chew on it while our soul truly prays.” He outlined a number of techniques. But I find some of the daily tasks of life are some of the best bones for my mind. Every night I take my dog Duchess out on a walk. It’s a chore. It’s a task. And yet, as I walk her, doing my family job, I reflect on my day, share it with God, and sometimes tell Duchess about it too. Work - any kind of work - can become a thoughtful, contemplative, reflective time.
Knowing this, I don’t think Martha and Mary represent the difference between work and prayer; theirs is not the contrast of human doing versus human being.
What then separated Martha and Mary? When I’m puzzled by something in scripture, then I start to read the surrounding stories and thereby appreciate the context of Jesus’ comment. Two important stories came before Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary.
First, at the beginning of this chapter, Jesus sent the Seventy out into the region. The Seventy were given a clear charge: don’t take anything with you but instead rely on the kindness of the strangers you meet. If they welcome you, then they will be blessed. If they don’t help you, then leave, even shaking the dust of their town out of your shoes, and God will curse them.” Jesus went so far as to say, “It will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town [who doesn’t welcome you].” How people served his disciples mattered to Jesus.
I often hear Biblical commentators talk about the culture of hospitality during Biblical times. Expectations of hospitality certainly affected Martha’s work. But, even more, Jesus had just sent his disciples out with instructions about who would be blessed and who would be cursed based on hospitality. And now Jesus came to visit her. The stakes more than doubled; if poor service to a disciple could get your town destroyed then what happens if you spill coffee on Jesus; no wonder Martha got concerned.
And then came the teaching story about the Greatest Commandment and the parable of the Good Samaritan. We heard again this week the reading of the Greatest Commandment: Jesus wanted people to fully love God and to love their neighbor as themselves. As an example of what that meant, Jesus told the Good Samaritan parable: thieves mugged a traveler, left him for dead; a Priest and a Levite hustled by him without stopping to help; a Samaritan came to his aid, brought him to safety, paid for his lodging, and checked on his health.
That commandment and parable can be read many ways. But certainly Martha could have heard it as the Priest and the Levite were distracted by many things when only one thing was needed: service.
Between the commissioning of the Seventy and the parable of the Samaritan, it seemed like Jesus’ teaching emphasized acts of service expressed in everyday ways. In particular, acts of service as extravagant hospitality to people traveling.
One can understand why Martha would be particularly focused on hospitality. It mattered. Not just in her culture but it seemed to deeply matter to Jesus.
So what did she get wrong? And what did Mary get right? I think the answer lies back in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story, the Priest saw the man in the ditch and he walked on by. Undoubtedly he was distracted by many things and had to get to the Temple to pray. And the Levite - a particularly dedicated religious person - had to get to prayer too.
The Priest and the Levite gave a greater priority to prayer than to service. And in that they were wrong. But Martha put a greater priority on service than on prayer. And in that she was wrong too.
I think we need to wonder: how is Martha in the kitchen like the Priest on the way to the Temple? And how is Mary listening to Jesus like the Samaritan who does acts of service?
The Priest and Martha didn’t see the person right in front of them; the Samaritan and Mary did. Just think of it: the Priest was too busy to see the man in the ditch; Martha too busy to see Jesus in her house. And of course the opposite is true for the Samaritan and Mary: the Samaritan focused on the man in the ditch; Mary focused on Jesus.
Read this way, Martha and Mary, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, become a question of about attention. Who do we pay attention to? When you serve, who do you pay attention to? When you pray, who do you pay attention to? The Good Samaritan paid attention to the person right in front of him. Mary did too.
It's a quality Jesus often demonstrated: he paid attention to the people in front of him. This winter some of us read a book by Martin Copenhaver on the questions of Jesus. Jesus asked a lot of questions - 307 according to Martin. Those questions took seriously the people before him. Just think of his healing stories, like the time Jesus healed a blind person. When the man came to Jesus, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
The man asked to be healed. But of course he could have asked for anything - help with his love life, more patience in his relationships, anything. By asking instead of assuming, Jesus paid attention, listened, the man in front of him.
In a similar way, I think the Samaritan and Mary listened to the people in front of them; the Samaritan heard what the man in the ditch needed, Mary listened to Jesus.
Jesus made the Greatest Commandment a call to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strengthen - to give God our everything - and to love our neighbor just as completely too.
Mary, like the Good Samaritan, demonstrated a focus of attention, a fullness of concentration on the person in front of her. It was the better part.
Can we make that choice in our lives? Who can we listen too? Where can we focus? For whether we give it in service or in prayer, our full attention is the better part. Alleluia and Amen.