38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
In the familiar story of Mary and Martha, I think that most of us relate to the hard working Martha. In an article I read this week in the paper, it was reported that Americans work more hours per year than any other major industrial nation. The Germans work an annual average of 1,421 hours per year, the French 1,564, the Japanese 1,784, and Americans 1,804. All of these nations have cut their annual hours by 16 to 20 percent over the last 40 years. The exception is the United States, which has remained more or less static. This is not a recent phenomenon. As long ago as 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the “feverish ardor” with which “Americans pursue their own welfare,” and “this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance” (Bk 2, chp. 13). A recent academic paper from professors from the University of Texas and the University of Michigan argues that working long hours for many may be “an addiction, akin to alcoholism and smoking.” The paper is titled “The Economics of Workaholism.” The guilty subtitle is “We should not Have Worked on this Paper.”
The brief story (only 5 verses) of Mary and Martha that we read this morning has become something of a Rorschach Test. Interpreters down through the ages have taken sides with one or the other. Some see Mary as a model of the contemplative life. She was taking the role of a male disciple, so she is the darling of Feminist interpreters today. She has become the role model for women in seminaries pursuing a theological education.
As uncomfortable as many people are with Mary, she is rarely attacked directly because the Lord commended her. Still, by the very nature of the story, we seemed to be drawn into the dispute and called to take sides. We resonate with the justice of Martha’s complaint against Mary: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” We would be much more comfortable with this story if Jesus had responded, “Say, Mary, I think that Martha has a point. Why don’t you help her out now and we’ll continue our conversation over dinner.”
Mary is implicitly attacked every time Martha is praised. During the days of the women’s emancipation movement in England, there was a Martha Movement that supported the traditional role of women. There are also churches named after Martha that are attached to hospitals – Martha being seen as a model of activism. Fra Angelico has given us a painting of Gethsemane in which Martha and Mary are present. The male disciples are asleep, but Mary and Martha are wide awake. Mary is reading a book, her head bowed in concentration. Martha’s head is raised, her hands are clasped together in prayer – she is in fact in the same posture as Jesus. For Angelico, Martha is the truer female model of Jesus.
We should also note that though in Luke’s gospel Martha is gently rebuked by Jesus, in John’s Gospel the situation is reversed. When Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, is very ill, Jesus comes on the scene too late to prevent his death. When he is still a ways off, Mary stays at home but Martha boldly goes out to confront Jesus on the road. “Lord,” she said, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus then assures her that her brother will rise again, and that he is the resurrection and the life, and that believers in him will never die. Then Martha makes a statement of faith that only Peter’s statement rivals: “Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (John 11:25). So in John’s Gospel, Martha is seen as a bold strong woman, unafraid to confront Jesus, and she is also a woman of spiritual insight.
So what are we to make of these two women? Is Martha a model of activism or, as one writer put it, an “edgy Hausfrau?” Is Mary a meek contemplative or is she a bold learner? Should we even be juxtaposing these two women as though they were competitors? Rather, should we be seeing them as partners, or perhaps two halves of the ideal woman. A Reformation-era pastor made this point with a bit of doggerel verse: “Martha and Mary in one life/Make up the perfect vicar’s wife.”
Context of Luke’s Gospel
First of all, we need to see this story in its context in Luke’s Gospel. It comes immediately after and it is paired with the story of the Good Samaritan. The two stories together are making complimentary points. Mary is following the first great commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” The Good Samaritan is following the second great commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To the lawyer in the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” In other words, be an activist. In the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus praises Mary for just sitting at his feet and listening. In other words, be a quite contemplative. We shouldn’t say that one is right and the other is wrong. They are both right. Both stories also have a radical edge to them. They are meant to challenge us to think about the social rules that our society adheres to and the scripts that we are all supposed to be following. Samaritans were the half-blood enemies to be despised and avoided. Women were not to be disciples; they were not to have an active intellectual life; they were not to interact with men outside of their families; and they certainly were not to sit at the feet of a famous rabbi when the dinner needed to be prepared. The Good Samaritan and Mary were not following the scripts that society had written for them. And Jesus commends them both. The first lesson of the story, then, is that the rules of the Kingdom and the rules of our society are not the same. There is an equality, a justice, a fairness in the Kingdom that does not yet exist in our society.
But this takes us to the question of fairness in the story of Mary and Martha. Shouldn’t Mary have been helping her sister in the kitchen to prepare the meal? Here, I think, we have to read between the lines a little to see what is really going on. Martha was probably bustling about the house preparing an elaborate meal for her distinguished guest. She probably thought that a simple meal would not do on this occasion. Jesus had been traveling from Galilee and had come all the way to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. So he surely would enjoy a lavish meal. But would he? Jesus was approaching the final period of his ministry; and he anticipated a tumultuous time in Jerusalem and a painful and bitter death on the cross. If I were him, I would not want all the hustle and bustle of preparing a large and impressive meal. I’d want some quiet time. Perhaps some time just talking with my friend, Mary.
There is an important lesson here: We need to help people in the way that they want to be helped, not necessarily in the way that we want to help them. Kurt Vonnegut in his famous novel Slaughterhouse Five describes a man who has been unhinged by the war and years later, when his wife dies, his insanity becomes apparent. His daughter comes to help him from time to time, but her visits are not appreciated. She is constantly berating him: how could you go out looking like this? Why is the house in such a mess? What were you thinking about? She is very helpful to her father, but her kindness is delivered in such a way as to demean him. Her help is given at the price of his dignity. So the reader is left wondering, is she really trying to help her father, or is she giving her time and effort for some ulterior motive. Perhaps she wants to assuage some guilt, or to be able to say that she did her part, to avoid some of the shame that might come to her if her father embarrasses himself?
The Jewish Mishna describes eight levels of “charity” – or ways of helping others. Each one is a little bit better that the next. The lowest level is to begrudgingly give a gift of a coat to a man who is shivering in the cold, who has asked for the gift. And it is given in the presence of witnesses with the expectation of being thanked. As the Mishna works through the levels, the man gives the gift without waiting to be thanked, then he gives it openheartedly, then he does it in private, and so forth. Finally the man gives gifts to a person whom he doesn’t know, and the person who receives it does not know who sent it. Rachel Remen tells this story, concluding that we have to learn to give in a way that doesn’t “diminish others, stripping them of their dignity and self-worth;” we have to learn “how to give without taking something away.” But this is not easy, and we learn by actually doing it. And finally, she says, “it is better to bless life badly than not to bless it at all.” (87)
In the case of Martha, we suspect that her busyness in preparing the meal may have had more to do with her sense of what is right and proper, what was expected of her on this occasion, than about meeting any need that Jesus may have had. Martha was an activist, busy, take-charge kind of person. Jesus doesn’t fault her for this. This may just be a matter of temperament, and her temperament was neither right nor wrong; it was just who she was. Also, Jesus doesn’t fault her for “the many things” that she has undertaken. There is no critique here of the energetic worker or the multitasker. The church has its dynamos of activity, and it has its more meditative, contemplative types as well – such as Mary.
People often read this story as if Jesus was pitting one against the other. But this is not so. What Jesus faults Martha for is being “worried and upset about many things.” And Luke says that she was “distracted by all the preparations.” Earlier in Luke’s gospel Jesus spoke of the good seed that fell among the thorns – meaning those who do not receive the word because they are preoccupied with “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (8:14). Martha is a good example of this. She comes to Jesus all keyed up and frustrated, and she presumes to tell Jesus what to do and she tries to shame Mary into getting caught up in the whirlwind of her anxiety. But Jesus won’t let this happen. Mary has made her choice; she has chosen the better part; and Jesus will not let it be taken from her. And by implication, Martha has also made her choice; and Jesus is not taking it from her either. What he won’t do is let Martha make Mary’s choice – that would truly be unfair.
In Jesus’ firm but gentle rebuke of Martha, he tells her that she is worried and upset about many things but only one thing is needed. What is that one thing? Some years ago a film came out staring Billy Crystal entitled City Slickers. It was the story of three men approaching middle age for whom life in the city had lost much of its charm. In fact, the three men all seemed to be approaching midlife crises. Things were not going well in their professional lives or in their marriages; in fact, one has been fired and the other divorced. And so they were asking some basic questions about their lives. Is this really what I want to be doing with my life? I’ve made some mistakes, but do I need a minor course correction, or do I need to seriously rethink my destination? So, to give themselves a break from their button-down city lives, they decide to go on a cattle drive with a group of rough-hewn cowboys, out under an open sky and a backdrop of rugged mountains. One of the cowboys, played by Jack Palance, is a tough old hand named Curly. He’s good with a knife and a rope and a horse, and he knows how to boss the other cowboys. In one of the serious scenes of the movie, Curly and the character played by Billy Crystal ride alongside each other talking quietly.
Crystal turns to Curly and says, “Your life makes sense to you.”
Curly replies, “You city folk. You worry a lot. How old are you? 38?”
“39,” says Crystal.
“You all come up here about the same age. You spend fifty weeks getting knots in your rope and you think two weeks up here will untie them for you. None of you get it.” Curly is a tough old cowboy, but he’s also a close observer of humanity, and he has some innate wisdom. He asks, “You know what the secret to life is?”
“No, what,” says Crystal.
Curly says, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean nothing.”
“That’s great,” says Crystal, “but what’s the one thing?”
Curly looks at him for a minute, and says, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”
Need for God
Jesus has given this same advice to Martha: “You are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is needed.” But what is that one thing?
Some would say that the one thing that Martha needs – and by extension all busy people – is time. In other words, Jesus is saying slow down Martha and smell the roses. In your busyness you are missing out on life. The problem is not so much that you’re busy, but that you’re frazzled. People, after all, have different capacities for work, but Martha had clearly exceeded hers. I think that that is a message that might resonate with our world of two-career marriages, three-car families, soccer moms, sixty hour work weeks, fast food, and all the rest. It is busy Martha, not contemplative Mary, that most of us identify with. I think that we all see the need for times when we should slow down in order to be rather than to do. We all recognize the need for more quality time in our lives – with spouses, parents, children, and friends. This is not a bad interpretation, but I’m not sure that this is what Jesus meant.
Some would say that that the one thing that Jesus referred to was discernment. In the story of Mary and Martha we see a clash of temperaments. The temperaments of both women are good; both reflective and activist people are necessary for the church – and world – to function well. To the extent that we have choices in these matters, this story is teaching us to be discerning about when to be one or the other. Martha’s fault in this story is that she failed to discern that all her bustling activity was out of place at that particular time. What Jesus needed was something else – perhaps a quiet meal and time with non-anxious friends. And Martha was missing out on an opportunity to sit at the master’s feet. Mary, though, was getting it just right, and Jesus affirms her and all reflective people: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” This is also a likely interpretation, but I don’t think it cuts deeply enough.
In the context of the story of Mary and Martha, I think that the “one thing needed” that Jesus is referring to is not quality time or discernment, but … God. The lesson is not just that busy people are too busy and should slow down; or that busy people can get so disoriented that they make bad decisions. The lesson is one of priorities. One thing is needed, and when we get that right, all the other things follow. That one thing is surely God. When God is our priority, then quality time with others, and discernment about when to act and when to be will naturally follow. Martha chose the many parts, but Mary chose the one part that is best of all. By setting aside everything else to sit at the master’s feet and listen, Mary exemplifies what it means to love the Lord will all your heart, soul, strength and mind.
The folks who set up the lectionary reading for today would agree with this interpretation. The other lessons remind us of the need to set aside time to listen to God through the study of His word. Amos speaks of the end of the world as a time when God “will send a famine through the land – not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. Men [people] will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it” (8:11-12). The Apostle Paul, in the lectionary passage of Colossians 1, spoke of the absolute centrality of Christ, through whom and for whom “all things were created,” and of our need to continue in the faith, established and firm, not moving from the hope held out in the gospel. In other words, these writers are all saying that to get God right in our lives, we have to put Him first and keep Him there.
To all the busy Marthas in the world – which is probably most of us – Jesus has a word for us that was intended to make us stop in our tracks and think: you are upset and frazzled and distracted by many things, but remember, only one thing is needed.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Michael Parker at the United Parish of Bowie.
© 2008 Michael T. Parker