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 take one more step; one more glimpse into this text – 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, “Get in here NOW and help!” 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! 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? Marthas or Marys?” his answer would probably be “Yes.” [ii]
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, north of Jackson.
There was my Grandmother Josie Mae, and her sisters, my Great Aunts Willie Hines, Amy Lee, and Elene. There was my own mother Joanne, my Aunt Corinne; my Cousin Bobbie. Southern women are prodigious 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 the meal served at noontime, when everyone comes in to take a break and enjoy the central meal of the day.
And 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 offered exactly what they need.
In fact, 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; and a cast-iron skillet of cornbread 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. Our Kitchenaid dual fuel range with griddle and oven 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.[iii] 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 hummus, fish and pita. 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 apple sauce and canning the crab apples; by organizing the snacks and crafts before VBS; by spackling a ceiling for Appalachian Service Project; collecting backpacks and supplies for students in need and baking the meatloaf and cookies for Loaves & 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 World, apart from conversation with God,
- it will distract us and worry us, beat us down, and burn us out. [iv]
Do you know what I mean? We are sometimes so committed to the church and its mission that we burn out. Sometimes we throw ourselves into activity and become drained emotionally. Our balance gets lost, we don’t ask for help, and we tumble down the slippery slope of too much, too often, too far.
Sometimes our over-activity is a way to run from something. We may be too attached to finding our identity in the accolades we receive, the kudos we are given. It becomes quite seductive to be the one who can do it all, can shoulder huge responsibility, who receives admiration for over-doing, over-stretching, and over-performing. We detach from the substance of the Gospel and eat our weight in commitments.
All of this happens when we’ve not yet learned that our worth, is not attached to the do-ing, but the be-ing. That the greatest affirmation comes from living fully in the moment at the feet of Jesus.[v]
Perhaps Martha has not yet discovered the wisdom of living in the present moment. What Jesus wants for her when he says her name, not once, but twice, “O Martha, O Martha,” is for her to find the better portion, not this minute in the kitchen, but this minute beside him.
You see, Jesus’ call to Martha is not a rebuke: “O Martha!!!! Martha!!!” But they are words of compassion: “O Martha. Martha”
It’s a little like his word to the crowds, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” [vi] Or “Do not be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” [vii]
Martha’s hospitality is not a trifling; her homekeeping is 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 crayons and construction paper. Busy work? Worry work? Absolutely not.[viii]
But as we sit at Jesus’ feet today,
we remember there is a time to go and do;
there is a time to listen and reflect.
It’s a deep need,
and it is for both Mary and Martha,
and for each one of us,
to share in the better portion –
the better portion of Jesus himself.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV): Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Martha 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 portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
[ii] Fred B Craddock. Luke. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, 152.
[iv] Thomas G. Long. Sermon: “Mary and Martha.” Proper 11, Luke 10: 38-42. Broadcast on Day1 from Alliance for Christian Media, Chicago, IL, day1.org, July 2007.
[v] L’Arche. Community and Growth. Toronto: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1991, 177.
[vi] Matthew 11.
[vii] Matthew 6.
[viii] Thomas G. Long. Sermon: “Mary and Martha.” Proper 11, Luke 10: 38-42. Broadcast on Day 1 from Alliance for Christian Media, Chicago, IL, day1.org, July 2007.