As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 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? 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.”
Have you ever had one of those days when absolutely nothing went right, a day best described as a waste of good make up? It’s one of those days when your first discovery is finding your slippers mysteriously moved out of reach under the bed. You spill coffee, burn toast and find nothing in your closet that suits you. No matter what is in your hands, you don’t like it, you’re destined to break it, burn it, or just downright trash it. And when you do, you’re going to catch flack. Somebody is going to say something and you are not going to like it.
In our story for today, Mary and Martha had just one of those days. It started off well enough. They are at home, enjoying the peace and quiet when there’s a knock on the door. Things are getting better: a knock means company. When they open the door, their day breaks into indescribable brightness. Standing before them is Jesus.
Mary and Martha were more than just acquaintances of Jesus. They loved and honored him, so you can only imagine their delight when he came to their home. Being good Jewish women, they knew the things that needed to be done to make Jesus feel welcome and comfortable. They slipped into gear and started getting things ready.
But then something happened. We don’t know what it was. We don’t know if Jesus had a serious look to him that morning. Maybe it was his demeanor or a change in his tone of voice, more intense perhaps. Of course what Mary and Martha could not have known, was that Jesus had set his face to Jerusalem. Knowing what lay ahead, Jesus was bound to have had a sense of urgency about him. Whatever it was, it took Mary to her knees and she sat, distracted from the tasks at hand, spellbound at his feet. And she caught flack for it.
Her sister, not distracted from the work to be done, was distressed at having been left with the full responsibility for their important guest’s wellbeing. Although irritated with Mary, she spoke directly to Jesus because obviously it was going to take a Jewish man to tell this woman to stop sitting around and get to work. Instead, Martha caught flack!
Jesus’ words started compassionately enough: “Martha, I know you’re worried and distracted. I know you’re stressed and tense. It’s ok.” So far, so good, but watch out Martha, here it comes. Jesus continued, “But, you see, right now there is one thing that is important, and Mary has picked it.” There it is! It was one of those days when whatever you do, someone will have something to say about it.
It seems to me that we hear way too many sermons on this scripture, sermons about Martha’s failure and Mary’s inside line to Christ. The sermons inevitably conclude with the admonition-like question, “Are you a Martha or a Mary?” The question leaves no doubt as to the approved answer!
Of course there are no more sermons on the Mary/Martha scripture than on any other scripture in our lectionary. It just feels like it to me because at heart, I know that I am guilty. Through and through, I am a Martha. I know that if no one gets up and prepares a meal, no one will eat! I can assure you that if Jesus came to my door, tired and hungry, the first thing I would do is make sure he had a cold drink and food on the table before I sat down for a chat. So what is this stigma associated with Martha? Surely I can’t be the only one confused.
There are Biblical scholars who look at this recorded moment in history for what it is, a day in the life of three friends 2000 years ago. Other Biblical scholars go a step farther. They study this reading as an allegory, addressing a dual nature in people called to Christ. These scholars would say that there exists a Martha and a Mary inside each one of us. They would draw our attention to the times our Mary within is summoned just as it was that day 2000 years ago when Jesus summoned Mary to sit quietly and listen. They would note that on another day, Jesus would be calling upon the Martha within: The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few. Get on with it! Feed and clothe the poor. Visit the imprisoned. On those days, Martha is absolutely stigma-free! And Mary standing idly by would catch well-deserved flack.
As if that’s not enough, Amos, in chapter 8 of his book takes us to another level of self-examination. The prophet addresses the complexity of the Mary/Martha dilemma in his own audience, accusing them of deception, “Listen, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land, who say, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain and the Sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?’” At first glance, here are people immersing themselves in the word, right? They are in worship, sitting at the feet of God, if you will. But Amos understands that worship must extend even to their thoughts. Are they thinking Sabbath thoughts, or are they thinking business? When we are in church on a Sunday, are we focused on worship, immersing ourselves in the word? Or are we composing a mental grocery list for after church shopping? Or a check list of all of the errands we still have to run before returning home?
How do we maintain the purity of our Mary and Martha? Do we act like a Mary living a contemplative life to avoid getting our hands dirty with the work of the world? Or do we work like a Martha with a martyr’s joyless resentment when we get no credit for what we have done? Just as Amos’s audience didn’t like what he had to say, we find these not easy questions to ask ourselves, much less coming up with a solution. Paul offers some help. In the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians he suggests that we divert our focus from ourselves to Christ if we are to live fully these two entities. “Christ himself is before all things. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the first born from the dead. Why? So, that he might come to have first place in everything.”
Paul reminds us it’s not about Mary. It’s not about Martha. It’s about Christ calling on us. When he calls us to work, let’s do what we can even if it is not what we once did, or less than we would have wanted. And when he calls upon us to slow down and pick up our devotional, or Bible, or this blog to read, study, worship and pray, we will be able to do so with Jesus as our head and center guiding our focus.
The way I see it, we have two questions to consider. The first, “How can I live to the fullest my Martha and my Mary?” Paul gave us the formula. Take the time to immerse yourself in Christ’s presence so that you are up to the task of doing the work he calls you to do. Keep Christ at the head of everything, and you cannot fail.
The second question is about timing. How will we know when it is time for our Martha to be in high gear or when it is time for our Mary to be in quiet focus? This one is up to us. To avoid mistakes, we must pay attention to what is going on around us. Be present. Is there someone in your life who could use a moment of your Martha time to hold open a door, cook a meal, or offer a gentle touch? Are there opportunities before you when someone simply needs your Mary to listen quietly and lovingly? Do you have times of spiritual burnout or lethargy when you need to sit quietly at Jesus’s feet like Mary, and simply take in his light and power? At the end of the day, we can only hope to do the right thing at the right time, and to do it with singleness of heart, with Christ as our head.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Serenity Prayer. It is a prayer about being present, paying attention, and making decisions. Let me read the familiar first lines. “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The Reverend Dr. Niebuhr composed the Serenity prayer back in 1934 and it’s been prayed repeatedly in many different contexts and circumstances. I don’t think he’ll mind if I change it up just a little bit to sharpen our listening skills for the times Jesus calls to us.
“Dearest God, grant us the health, energy and drive to do the work that you have given us to do.
Grant us the serenity to sit quietly and patiently in your presence and in the presence of those who need us.
And grant us the wisdom to know the time and place for each. Amen.”