This particular story of Martha and Mary seems to show us, yet again, that things are not always as they seem. Let me explain.
This particular story used to really tick me off. Martha is clearly working hard to be a good host for a bunch of visitors, and would it really kill her sister to help out a little? Hospitality and hosting being as important as they are.
“…we expect Jesus to affirm the one who welcomes them into her home and prepares all that is needed to make them comfortable. Our instincts tell us that Mary should help her sister. Our instincts also tell us that Jesus should not chide his hostess for suggesting that her sister should help with the work of caring for the guests.”
But then Jesus says, “Martha, Martha… Mary has chosen the better part…”
It seems like every time I have been invited over to a house for a visit or a dinner, there is always at least one person in a flurry of activity in the kitchen while the guests visit. This was true in the home I grew up in. My mother would be in the kitchen busily created a wonderful meal, and occasionally she would call out for me or any of my siblings to come and help her with something. Could you imagine what the reaction would have been if we had responded: “Mother, Mother… clearly we have chosen the better part.”
This story has fuelled much resentment, hot debate, and inexplicable fighting: between women in the church with differing vocations; between those who are in favour or against the ordination of women; between clergy and deacons; between those who argue the benefits of doing versus the benefits of being. “Many who read or hear this story may cheer for Mary in her inversion of traditional roles. Many may also empathize with Martha’s resentment of her sister for leaving her to do all the work.”
When this story, as I have sadly heard it a number of times, becomes a treatise on the merits of a more introspective and devotional approach to following Jesus, à la Mary, it often does so with critical dismissal of those who have gifts for the work of hospitality, à la Martha. Those kinds of opinions fall flat with me because they insist on comparing the sisters and pitting them against each other.
And, frankly, I am tired of women being compared against each other. The problem with the logic of comparison is that it ignores that both forms of faithful being and living are equally valid. In fact, I would say that we all need a little of both: we all need a little Martha and Mary in each of us.
So, choosing to believe that serving is just as important as sitting meant that I had to find a different way to understand this story.
Martha welcomes Jesus and his entourage into her home. And she immediately falls into a panic attack, literally. The Greek word used and translated as ‘distracted’ is more carefully translated much differently. Within the Greek word, we find the root ‘spao’ which is where we derive the English word ‘spasm.’ It’s not so much that Martha was distracted in her work so much as all the work of managing expectations and welcoming Jesus and all of his entourage was overwhelming and incredibly challenging. “She’s a wreck because she is trying to respond well to what Jesus has put before her.” I think that’s a kind of stormy anxiety that we can all relate to.
And I think it is important to note that Jesus’ response to Martha’s demand that he “Tell her to help me,” is not criticism and berating for her behaviour. He plainly states that he will not stop Mary from doing what she is already doing.
I don’t think it’s as simple as serving or sitting. I think this story is really about two things.
Firstly, it’s not so much that the work of serving is distracting, so much as an acknowledgement that too many things to do can lead to a level of distraction that has the ability to remove our ability to see the good right in front of us.
Put another way: if you are too busy focusing on the work itself, you’ll miss the reason you were doing the work in the first place.
Put another way: if you are too busy serving the world to the detriment of sitting in your faith, you’ve missed the point. By the same token, if you are too busy sitting in your faith to the detriment of serving the world, you’ve still missed the point.
Because and secondly, Jesus isn’t holding the sisters in comparison against each other. In fact, this story is about the incredible possibilities God offers to the world through Christ Jesus.
Those whom we fall to the temptation of designating as unworthy are more than qualified in God’s eyes. Mary, who would have been deemed unworthy to be a disciple of Christ, is more than qualified. Those whom we fall to the temptation of limiting in role or assigning in value based on service rendered are more than qualified in God’s eyes. Martha, who has fallen victim to perceived expectations and is held captured to a troubled mind and soul, is more than qualified.
Both are rescued through Christ’s words and shown the best of serving and sitting: faithful lives held together by God’s love. Neither is better than the other, and both Martha and Mary matter in the eyes of Christ. He accepts both of them as they are and where they are in this particular moment.
I think that we, as a global people, have fallen prey to the cultural expectation of hectic schedules and this relentless drive for productivity, and also use it as a measurement of our faith. In that space we are easily tempted to measure our worth by how busy we are, by how much we accomplish, or by how well we meet the expectations of others. And all we get for our constant effort to keep us is, in fact, a whole lot of anxiety, worry, panic, and the distractions of the many.
Or, in an effort hold our faith in a space of that which is counter-cultural, we strive to do the complete opposite and measure our faith by our dedication to spiritual practices. In that space we are easily tempted to measure our worth by how far we can get from the social and cultural demands and expectations of the world. And perhaps all we get from that constant effort is a warped sense of comparison and categories of right and wrong, in and out, worthy and unworthy.
Our constant effort and dedication to action or to spend time at the Lord’s feet are in no way a measurement of our worth. Our worth isn’t self-described.
And that is the root of this story for me: we are all invited into the belief that we are all who God sees us to be. Precious children of God. Faithfully serving and sitting. Spiritually filling the every day with holiness, and working with dedication to share the holy out of love for a God who is before all things and through whom all things are held together. Breathing in and out – Sitting and Serving.
Let us pray:
We are thankful that you remain a constant presence when we fall prey to our sinfulness. You have blessed us with constant forgiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit to renew our lives. We ask that you would continue to work good within all of your children, however far from you and your love we have placed ourselves. Help us to know that our worth comes from you and not from our efforts, however well-intentioned and noble. We ask that you would remind us to gather at your feet from time to time, seeking respite from a world of expectations and hard work, finding renewal to serve you in a world that is desperate for your love. Inspire us to find faith in both being and doing, sitting and serving. Amen.
- Mark Davis. “Martha’s Anxiety: Struggling Against Many Things.” Left Behind and Loving It.
- Elizabeth Johnson. “Commentary on Luke 10:38-42, July 21, 2013.” Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
- Karoline Lewis. “No Comparison.” Dear Working Preacher, Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
- Marilyn Salmon. “Commentary on Luke 10:38-42, July 18, 2010.” Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
 Marilyn Salmon. “Commentary on Luke 10:38-42, July 18, 2010.” Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
 Elizabeth Johnson. “Commentary on Luke 10:38-42, July 21, 2013.” Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
 D. Mark Davis. “Martha’s Anxiety: Struggling Against Many Things.” Left Behind and Loving It.
This week’s image is entitled “Christ at the House of Mary and Martha” as painted by Vincenzo Campi in the 16th century. The image is public domain and is altered for this blog. You may find information about the image here, and information about the artist here.