This week a preacher is presented with an embarrassment of riches. We have the great Old Testament story of Abraham’s hospitality to the Lord in the form of three travelers, a famous proof-text for the doctrine of the Trinity. We have the reading from Colossians, which begins with an awe-inspiring hymn about the Cosmic Christ. And we have the familiar, but disturbing, story of Martha and Mary, found in Luke’s Gospel. Well, taking into account the overwork that I regularly witness in this parish, I have decided to focus on those five verses from Luke.
The story is short. The details are sparse. And most annoyingly, the point of the story is not readily apparent. The result is that biblical exegetes throughout the last two millennia have offered a wide variety of interpretations.
Our early Christian ancestors were fond of so-called “spiritual” interpretations. One Church Father by the name of Origen explained the story of Martha and Mary as an allegory contrasting the contemplative life (represented by Mary) with active life in the world (represented by Martha). While not excluding some value to a more literal interpretation, he thought that this story was included in the New Testament to encourage Christians who wanted to advance in spiritual attainment to abandon the world for either life in a monastery or life in a cave. St. Augustine, another advocate of allegorical interpretation, taught that Martha represented our current life in this world, where we suffer worry and distraction, and that Mary represented life in the Kingdom of God, where our carefree life will be focused solely on God.
My sense is that we here today might benefit more from a literal interpretation of this story. So let’s take a closer look at this story of a dinner party gone wrong.
Jesus arrives at an unnamed village and is welcomed by Martha into her home. Already, we have a puzzle, for according to the etiquette of the day, Jesus should have been welcomed by a male family member, such as her brother Lazarus. So Martha violates custom in the very act of welcoming Jesus. Perhaps, she did so out of her great love for the Master. Mary, her sister, also violates custom by sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to the Master teach. As a woman, she should have been in another room, away from the men folk, and sitting at the feet of a teacher indicates that she considered herself a full-fledged disciple, another violation of the customs of the day. Then we are informed that there is a problem. Martha is being pulled every which way trying to prepare a feast for her distinguished guest. And she is getting more and more resentful that her sister Mary is sitting with the men folk instead of helping out in the kitchen. Up to now, Martha has been focused on providing hospitality to Jesus, but now she violates the demands of hospitality by attempting to pull a guest into a family dispute. (Nowadays, we call such a practice triangulation.) As is often the case, Jesus does not respond the way we expect. Instead of acquiescing to Martha’s demand that he order her sister to help, he comments on Martha’s state of mind and then affirms Mary’s choice to sit and listen. He tells her, and us, “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.”
We are left with the feeling that Martha is being chided, albeit gently, for doing something wrong and that Mary is being commended for doing something right. The problem is that Jesus never tells us precisely what Martha is doing wrong and what Mary is doing right! And there are many possibilities.
Perhaps the issue is true hospitality. And Jesus is saying that Martha’s fixation on preparing a fancy meal is not true hospitality, because what the guest in this case really wants is for his disciples to listen to his teaching, not to serve him.
Perhaps the issue is discipleship. In that case, Jesus is contrasting Martha’s frenzied activity, divorced from any greater purpose, with the conscious decision of Mary to focus on learning from the Master, so as to advance in discipleship.
Perhaps the issue is salvation by faith versus salvation by good works. In that case, Mary’s choice to act as a disciple is being contrasted with Martha’s attempt to curry favor with the Lord by her work in the kitchen.
Perhaps the issue is duty versus delight. Mary follows her delight in listening to Jesus, even at the risk of angering her sister. While Martha prefers duty to spiritual delight, with resentment being the ultimate fruit of her labors.
Perhaps the issue is one of mindfulness versus distraction. Mary has chosen to focus her attention on one valuable thing, no matter the cost. While Martha is being pulled here and there by the competing demands of her attempt to multitask.
All of these interpretations are possible. And all of them have been proposed by someone or other. But what disturbs me about them all is how they set up an exaggerated contrast between the two sisters. The key point missed by these interpretations is that Jesus never condemns the actions of Martha. Let’s face it: when Jesus doesn’t like what someone is doing, he doesn’t pull his punches. In my opinion, Jesus is not chiding Martha, so much as he is consoling her. He is not saying that her work in the kitchen is not appreciated. He is not saying the her preparations for the meal are not valuable. He doesn’t even chide her for her breach of hospitality or for her evident resentment toward her sister. What he does is gently acknowledge her state of mind. He notes that she is worried and distracted by many things. He then goes on to say that there is need of only one thing and that Mary has rightly chosen that one thing.
Now, what if that “one thing” is nothing other than to allow oneself to stop for a moment and rest, to allow both one’s body and one’s soul to be refreshed? I don’t for one moment imagine that Mary will never get up off the floor, that the rest of her life will consist of sitting and listening to Jesus. My guess is that Jesus perceived that Mary had reached her limits. She needed to sit down for a time. She needed to get away from peeling potatoes for 10 minutes. And when Martha comes in the room in a high dudgeon, he notes her distress and then invites her to join Mary in a few minutes of Sabbath time. Dinner can wait!
Today’s Gospel story is particularly apt for the people of Incarnation. This parish is jam-packed with Marthas! I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “This is my last book sale ever!” or “This will be the last annual bazaar for me!” As we all know, there is too much to do and too few people to do it. The result is that folks get burnt out physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Quite understandably, resentment rears its ugly head when one asks for help but doesn’t get it. And on rare occasions, I have seen tempers flare. Well, none of this is surprising or unexpected—that’s how families act when they are stressed out.
As much as I personally appreciate all that you guys and gals do for this parish, I am going to invite you to take some time off, if you need it, to rest your body and refresh your soul. Yes, we come to church each Sunday for refreshment and for strength, but sometimes we need more. So I hereby release your from all guilt attached to your church duties. If you are tired of preparing snacks for the Sunday coffee hour, I would encourage you to stop doing it for a while. No one here is going to starve as a result. If you feel like you can’t do one more Sunset Music & Arts reception, I urge you to take a break. If you truly can’t stand the thought of one more book sale or one more bazaar, let it be known that you need some time off.
In truth, we are all Marthas more often than not. We are all worried and distracted by many things, both here at church and in our personal lives. In American society today, it is nigh on impossible not to be a Martha. What Jesus is telling us, I think, is to remember to be Marys. It’s OK to let go of your duties for a while, no matter how important they are, when you sense that you have reached the end of your rope. And when that time comes, let yourself enjoy the respite without any hint of guilt, knowing that Jesus himself invites you to be refreshed and relaxed, happy and whole.