Lauren J. McFeaters
July 3, 2016
As we travel this summer with Jesus, we meet two sisters at odds: Martha being upset she’s left alone in the kitchen, Mary freely spending her time at Jesus feet.
Martha is entirely focused on hospitality.
Mary is entirely focused on welcome.
But before we move forward, before we take one more step; one more glimpse – here’s the thing we don’t want to do – we don’t want to make this scripture a caricature, a cartoon, with an obsessive Martha up to her eyeballs in soapsuds and a virtuous Mary curled up in front of the fire and Jesus all the while giving a scriptural warrant for dishes piling up in the sink.
We may be tempted to draw a cartoon bubble over Martha’s head that reads, “Help! I can’t take this anymore!” Or a bubble over Mary’s head screaming, “Miss Bossy Pants is at it again!” Or a haloed and illuminated bubble over Jesus’ head proclaiming, “Chill, Martha, chill. Breathe! I am your non-anxious presence.”
Fred Craddock says if we criticize Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving all together, and if we praise Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter for our spiritual discernment. And if we were to ask Jesus, “Should we be Marys or Marthas? Should we be Marthas or Marys?” his answer would probably be, “Yes.”(1)
I was raised by Marthas, that is, I was raised by women for whom hospitality is an art form. They were all born in the South – Pickens, Mississippi, Savannah, Georgia, Lexington, Mississippi.
There was my grandmother, Josie Mae, and her sisters, my Aunt Willie Hines, Aunt Amy Lee, and Aunt Elene. There was my own mother, Joanne, my Auntie Corinne, my Cousin Bobbie. The next generation is Linda Lee, Lauren Joanne, and Susan Jane.
Southern women are great Marthas and proud of it. Having been raised by them, I know that dinner in a Southern kitchen is a wonder to behold. I say dinner because that’s at noontime when everyone comes in from the fields to take a break and enjoy the central meal of the day.
Those whose Southern hospitality is refined to an art never sit. They hover. They mysteriously glide around the table – as if on ice skates. Plates never go empty. Guests are continually asked if they need anything:
- Susie, you need more black-eyed peas, honey?
- Artie, you want some Taba’co with those mustard greens?
- Bobbie, looks like you’re runnin’ low on rhubbarb sauce.
- Jo, my love, please pass those butter beans.
- Linda Lee, darlin’, more sweet tea?
- Cora, let’s mosey that succotash down the table.
In fact, many times the Southern hostess will continue to cook all through the meal: the okra needs to be re-strained and served mid-way; corn must always be served straight out of the pot; dumplings require a last, oh-so-gentle fold-over before being ladled into the yellow Pyrex bowl; a cast-iron skillet of corn bread is delivered straight from the oven.
And somehow the prayer before the meal is timed so perfectly that the food doesn’t skip a beat.
I have never in all my life been able to time a meal in all of its glory like my grandmother and great-aunts. Their greens are still steaming as the limas are cooling. The biscuits are evenly brown even though there’s one oven stoked by a wood fire. The succotash is folded over and blended by threes. My new Maytag “Gemini Double Oven with Gas Range” has nothing on them. Nothing.
And when does the hostess eat? This is one of the great mysteries of the South. The hostess keeps working, scurrying around the table, stopping mid-stride only to wipe the steam from her glasses with a pristine apron. She gives herself totally to serving.(2) And we are all grateful.
But when you welcome Jesus to your house for a summer meal, things get upsetting. At Martha’s house Jesus has no need (as of yet) for collard greens and a relish tray. What he does need, and it’s a deep need, is for both Mary and Martha’s conversation and friendship.
And that moves us to the heart of the Mary and Martha story. Tom Long puts it like this: There is nothing wrong with Martha’s fixing the food. This is the way people show love and welcome, hospitality and care. In fact there is something absolutely essential about showing one’s love of God and neighbor by stirring the applesauce and canning the crab apples, by organizing the snacks and crafts before VBS, by spackling a ceiling for Appalachian Service Project, and by mixing and baking a meatloaf at Loaves and Fishes.
Martha is doing a good thing, a necessary thing, an act of service. But if we try to do this kind of service
- apart from the life-giving Word of the Gospel,
- apart from sitting at our Lord’s feet,
- apart from steeping ourselves in the Light of the Word,
- apart from conversation with God,
it will distract us and worry us, beat us down, and burn us out.(3)
Jean Vanier, the 2015 Templeton Prize winner, says it like this: I often hear of people committed to the church and social action who are burned out. Sometimes these people have been too generous; they have thrown themselves into activity which has finally destroyed them emotionally. They’ve not known how to relax and be refreshed.
Sometimes people in their over-activity are running from something. They may be too attached to their function, perhaps even finding all of their identity in it.
They’ve not yet learned how to live fully in God, to be freed to live, to discover the wisdom of the present moment, and to relax in body and in heart.(4)
Perhaps Martha has not yet discovered the wisdom of the present moment, nor learned to relax in body and heart. What Jesus wants for her when he says her name, not once, but twice — “Martha. Martha.” — is for her to find the better portion, not in the kitchen, but in him.
Martha’s hospitality is not a trifling. Her cooking was not trivial. Hospitality finally means that somebody has to snap the pole beans and stir the succotash. Someone has to arrive at church early on Sunday morning and put out the bottles of glue and scissors and construction paper. Busy work? Worry work? Absolutely not.(5)
But if we don’t stop and notice Jesus right there in our living rooms, or discover the wisdom of the present moment, or learn to relax in body and heart, then we’ll never hear our Lord beckon us to take a seat right here beside him at HIS table, for His meal, for His Supper.
For “this thing only” does he want for us:
- the better portion of Bread and Cup;
- the better portion of “Take and eat”;
- the better portion of “Do this in remembrance of me.”
That’s the portion that will never, ever be taken away.
Thanks be to the God of the pole bean and succotash.
(1) Fred B Craddock. Luke. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, 152.
(2) I am grateful for images and remembrances of Mary W. Anderson’s article, “Hospitality Theology.” The Christian Century (July 1, 1998).
(3) Thomas G. Long. Sermon: “Mary and Martha.” Proper 11, Luke 10:38-42. Day1, Alliance for Christian Media (Chicago, IL: July 2007).
(4) Jean Vanier. Community and Growth. Toronto: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1991, 177.
(5) Thomas G. Long. Sermon: “Mary and Martha.” Proper 11, Luke 10:38-42. Day1, Alliance for Christian Media (Chicago, IL: July 2007).
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