Are you ever confused by Jesus?
And if not by Jesus himself, certainly by some of the stories told about him.
And if not by the stories themselves, certainly by the variety of interpretations they inspire.
So, today: Mary and Martha.
Is this a tale about sibling rivalry?
Or is it a story specifically about women, so perhaps not pertinent to, or of less interest to men?
Or is this about not two women but two disciples?
About the contemplative life being superior to the life of action?
As someone who has been described as “task-oriented” more than once, I read and understand this story with a measure of trepidation — anxiety about possibly or probably being judged by Jesus, or by this story (if a story can judge), or by…someone…anyone…even myself. Judged and found wanting.
As a deacon, I try to model my life around a different story about Jesus — you know, the one where he says, “I am among you as one who serves.”
And isn’t that what Martha is doing? Not only is she making the house presentable for the rabbi and his followers, she is following the example of her spiritual ancestor, Sarah. Sarah, who leapt into action to make cakes for three mysterious visitors, who stays in the tent while Abraham offers food to the guests. Now, decades and generations later, I imagine Martha cleaning, tidying, preparing food, going to the well to get water for thirsty travelers. Aren’t these commendable acts? Doesn’t she deserve some help?
Meanwhile, what is her sister, Mary, up to? She’s sitting down, perhaps a little starstruck, listening raptly to the teacher. A clean house, a welcoming meal, a cool drink of water are far from her thoughts.
Let’s pause here to recall the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan — we heard it just last week. A mortally wounded man lies in a ditch, ignored by passersby, until an unlikely stranger encounters him and “does mercy” – tends to his wounds, brings him to a safe place, covers the cost of his room and board, commends him to the care of a sympathetic (we hope) innkeeper.
To me, that approach sounds a whole lot more like Martha than Mary.
To me, when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” it sounds like he is encouraging his disciples to seek out those in need, no matter who they are, and serve them. Care for them. Help bring them healing and hope.
Certainly there’s precedent for this emphasis on serving elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel. For example, after Jesus heals her, Simon’s mother-in-law immediately gets up and begins to serve Jesus and his disciples. The Greek word here for serve is diakonei, the word from which we get deacon.
So today, I’m confused. By Jesus. By the story. By the interpretation, or interpretations.
When Martha asks for help in doing diakonei, her service, Jesus notes that she is “worried and distracted by many things….”
I believe here is the crux of the tale — not in action, or inaction, but in distraction.
Martha has become so absorbed in household tasks, as worthy as they may be, that her brain is jangling with all the items on her to-do list. You might say, she can’t see beyond the task at hand.
Again, we turn to the Greek: Luke says Martha is “pulled about through service” (diakonei); she is anxious and “turbid” (tyrbe) about many things. If you’re not familiar with the word turbid, it’s a good one, related to turmoil. In medicine, turbid means cloudy, opaque.
It’s fine to serve, in fact, it’s a gift, it’s wonderful, it’s a blessing. But it’s not fine to concentrate so intently on the work that needs to be done that the One being served, the One we serve, becomes peripheral. When that happens, we become turbid, opaque; we strain to see the light of Christ. We are trapped in our own turmoil.
I submit that there’s more than a little Martha in all of us, and that’s okay.
However, Jesus would also like to see more than a little Mary in us, and that’s okay, too.
If Jesus was just anyone, I doubt Martha would have been in such a tizzy. And I doubt Mary would have given just anyone her undivided attention.
I don’t believe that the story of Mary and Martha teaches that being busy, or serving people, or getting things done, or being task-oriented are, in themselves, a problem. After all, we know that Jesus himself did things — think, cleansing the temple — he served people — think food for thousands, when he told his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Think last supper — when he instructed his disciples to “do this.”
And he also took time to pray — think for example, Gethsemane — and to teach others to pray — think Lord’s prayer.
* * *
I wonder…if Mary and Martha lived now, nearby, and we looked in on them, what would we find? I imagine that each one would be reacting very differently — yet appropriately — to the cascade of violence and tragedy that threaten to overwhelm our world. Perhaps Martha would be getting ready to attend a gathering to promote social justice, or sending a petition around on her Facebook account, or writing to one of her elected representatives. Perhaps Mary would be sitting quietly, maybe with an icon lit by a candle’s soft gleam, praying fervently for mercy and peace. For healing and hope. And Jesus would be there with them. Jesus would be there.
* * *
So is the story of Mary and Martha, Martha and Mary, a confusing tale, or a cautionary one?
I come down on the side of cautionary: Jesus warns us not to let the distractions of daily life, even the life of faith, even those not-so-random acts of kindness, detract from the centrality of the One Holy and Living God, who became like us, that we might become like him.
“Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Clean houses and welcoming meals, even honored guests, come and go. Martha’s preparations have been done before, and will be done again — housework is like that, isn’t it?
What remains is exemplified by Mary, who listens to what Jesus is saying, who focuses on his presence in her house, in her life. Her eyes are fixed on the author of hope.
In this story, it is Martha, bustling and distracted and perhaps a little resentful, who is in greatest need of healing and hope. And that is what Jesus has come to bring her.
Jesus brings healing and hope to Martha, to you, to me, and to the whole world. And God knows we need it. God knows how desperately we need it. Amen.