This wonderful story about Jesus and the sisters Mary and Martha has led to many theological interpretations in the history of the church. I remember hearing, to my dismay, that the Roman Catholic Church, during the Middle Ages, used this passage to rank the contribution of women. It was evident, they declared, that the contemplative life was of more value than the life of women in general – women charged (by culture and tradition) with the tasks of keeping their households.
When the reformers interpreted the passage, some viewed it as proof that we are justified by faith – not by what we do. Mary, they said, demonstrated great faith by sitting at Jesus’ feet. Therefore, she was justified. Martha’s sin was trying to earn her acceptance by doing all those tasks to welcome Jesus.
I went to seminary as Women's lib was making an impact on the church (and society). I read an interpretation (from a woman) that said, "Martha should have shoved a casserole in the oven and been done with it!”
Scholars noted that the the original Greek speaks of Martha’s service (a designation not readily evident in the New Revised Standard.). Moreover, the word used is the same word used frequently to describe what Jesus did – how he served God and in serving God, served others.
“Jesus didn’t do us any favors!” one scholar said. “He set us up to pit these two sisters against each other, praising one and criticizing the other!” Another asked, “Why is it Jesus can serve, but Martha can’t?”
What is happening in this semi-familiar story?
The Rev. M. Thomas Norwood, Jr., took note of where Luke placed this story. It follows the story of the Good Samaritan. Luke, again, had a story about men and balanced it by relating a story about women. Furthermore, it is a story about women that, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, challenged the conventions of his day – cultural and theological conventions.
Martha had welcomed Jesus into her home. She had extended a hospitality not always shown to Jesus. Martha was doing what was expected of her, what was expected of all women. Actually, she was doing what was expected of all hosts. Jesus had critiqued the Pharisee Simon when his hospitality had fallen short. We might expect, therefore, that Jesus would praise Martha.
The real surprise in this story is what Mary did. Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” It was astounding that Jesus would allow a woman to sit at his feet, as a disciples would sit at a teacher’s feet. The rabbis had declared, “It is better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman,” and, “It is better to teach a daughter to be a prostitute than to teach her the Torah.” The parable of the Good Samaritan, according to Norwood, upset their notions of who should be considered a neighbor. Here, Jesus challenged their understanding of the place of women.
So, what's Jesus' problem with Martha?
She was distracted! She was distracted. She missed the very thing that Jesus was offering her by coming to her house. He offered her the chance, the opportunity, to sit at his feet – to be a disciple. But she focused on other things. Current scholars agree with that woman who said, “Martha needed to make a casserole, stick it in the oven, and be done with it!” She became so focused on the details of hospitality that she forgot the most important part – being present for and with her guest. I can picture a Martha Stewart spread – the perfect place settings, napkins folded in fancy designs – crystal and silver – and a meal that makes mouths water. But instead of being there, with her guest, this Martha was busy making sure everything was just right.
I loved the reflection from one scholar who said that the church where he grew up honored Martha, not Mary. They honored the one who served. We know that the church can’t exist without our Marthas, both male and female. We are dependent on those who make sure that what needs to happen, happens. And the church is called into service – to reach out to the world with ministries of compassion and mercy – with works for justice and peace. We need Marthas.
So, what do we do with this story?
One of the primary issues with the way that we have traditionally heard this story is that we hear it as an either/or choice. One person is right. One person is wrong. Mary chose the better portion. Therefore, Martha’s “serving” has to be considered a bad choice.
This is the way we hear things in our world. People assert “Black lives matter.” Think of the responses to that statement. Some leaders have suggested that the very statement led to the shootings in Dallas because by saying “Black lives matter” a declaration was being made that Police do not. We’ve also heard those who respond negatively saying that the statement “Black lives matter” lessens the value of other racial/ethnic groups.
On an NPR program, this past week, a commentator reflected that the aftermath of the shootings in Dallas seemed to give us a little reprieve from the competing narratives in our country. He suggested that, at least for a moment, we moved beyond thinking that the only way to have justice was to have a particular narrative become the dominant one. On another program, a commentator noted our national history of turmoil when a particular group felt that its dominance was being threatened – particularly White Protestants. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century the fear was directed toward the Irish and Roman Catholics. Did you know that the Irish were not even considered white when census counts were taken? You had a choice, white or Irish.
Some years ago, as part of my coach training, I had a phone coaching session with an experienced coach. She was listening as I talked about some ideas. At some point I said that I needed to make a choice between two options. “What a minute,” she said. “You’ve fallen into that trap that says there’s only either/or, not both/and.”
The assertion "Black lives matter” does not diminish the value of others. Rather, it calls attention to the practices in our own society that have said, many times without words, that Black lives do not matter. We see it in our own area – in the stories about the schools that have perpetuated inequality by providing sub-standard education. Someone from the movement said, “It’s not a war cry. It’s a plea. Please see us!” We need to hear the cries of those who are on the edges of our society – because of race, religion, sexual orientation, illnesses and addictions – and know that hearing them does not threaten our own value in God’s eyes.
We need to learn that we live in a both/and world, not an either/or world -- at least when it comes to seeking justice. Justice that is available only for a limited group of people is not really justice. God’s call is for justice that transcends our divisions, justice that brings diverse groups into peaceful, fruitful, energetic and creative co-existence.
Norwood says of this gospel lesson that "Luke is not forcing his readers to choose between service and worship. Thus, this is not the time to criticize church or social activists, nor is it the time to give approval to those who reject such activism. Rather the text speaks a needed word to a church that has too often tried to educate without Bible study and serve without worship.”
Jesus truly challenged this dear friend of his, Martha. One scholar said that the church would do well to hear his words, for the church, too often, is distracted. We get caught up in our own busy-ness, our own churchy things. In today’s changing world, we get distracted by the question of what the future will bring – and how we can ensure our existence in that future. Somehow, in the midst of that, we forget to sit at Jesus’ feet and be nourished. We forget that our call comes first, to be disciples, and then to go where we are led.
Martha left no room in her serving to sit at Jesus’ feet and be nourished by his friendship and his teaching. She was so focused on the meal, so focused on “nourishing” that she missed the opportunity to be nourished, to partake of the meal that was God’s presence in and through the Christ. The choice isn’t to be Mary or Martha. We’re, each of us and all of us, to be Mary and Martha, seeking the balance that gives faith and ministry life.
This world, this society needs those who refuse to accept the narratives that say we are safe only when another’s voice has been denied. This world, this society needs the service of those who are grounded in the ways of the Christ who welcomed unexpected folks into discipleship and chose unlikely heroes for his stories. We gather to worship because we are invited to sit at Jesus’ feet, to hear the word, to be nourished by his loving presence as we break bread together. This is our Mary time. The Martha time is outside these doors.