Proper 11C; Luke 10:38-42
Mary and Martha are interesting characters in the gospels. They only appear in three places: here and twice in John – at the death of their brother Lazarus and when Mary anoints the feet of Jesus. Even though few in numbers, these three stories are memorable.
The two stories in John show a devotion to Jesus we don't normally see. Martha runs out to greet Jesus as he arrives after Lazarus dies with, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary is denigrated by Judas after she anoints Jesus' feet with costly perfume because “the money could've been given to the poor.” Despite the devotion to Jesus the two sisters show, today's story often comes across as petty Martha whining about not receiving any help from her sister, and the goody-two-shoes Mary who sits quietly at the feet of Jesus hanging on his every word doing nothing.
The interesting thing about this story is that it isn't a parable, there is no miraculous healing, there is no confrontation with Pharisees or lawyers. There is only Jesus and the disciples on their way to Jerusalem, stopping for a rest at the home of Martha. And yet this brief pause in the journey to Jerusalem has created a plethora of interpretations.
Probably at the top of that list are those interpretations vilifying Martha for her anxious preoccupation with housework and exalting Mary for her singular focus on Jesus. We've all heard something along these lines when a person is overly-focused on their tasks by saying or hearing, “Don't be such a Martha.” The reality, though, is that Martha and Mary should not be seen as either/or, but as both/and.
Let me start with Martha. Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. This was an open act of hospitality. Her tasks are often portrayed as preparing a meal. If that's the case, then she's preparing a meal for at least thirteen people who just showed up at her house. It's no wonder she's distracted by her many tasks.
Putting a positive spin on Martha, it's in those tasks and in her hospitality that she plays the role of a deacon – someone who serves others. Her service to those people who were hungry and thirsty was necessary as they all needed physical nourishment.
Saint Augustine says that Martha prepared food and drink for Jesus and his disciples with deep concern. Ephram the Syrian argued that Martha had a greater devotion to Christ since she was busy preparing the meal before he even arrived, as well as in the fact that she was the first to greet Jesus when he arrived after the death of Lazarus. Ambrose and Cassian point out that Martha is not being rebuked for her good service, and we should in no way read this as a criticism by Jesus.
Turning to Mary, why is she labeled as choosing the better part for simply sitting at Jesus' feet? Martha's distractions could be labeled as worry or anxiety. Jesus has told his disciples to not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink. He's said to not worry about our life spans, or our clothes, he has told us to not worry about tomorrow. Instead of worrying about these things, we should instead seek first the kingdom of God. And in Paul's letter to the Philippians, one written while he was in jail, he says that we should not be anxious about anything, but let our request be made known to God through prayer and supplication. This is what Mary is doing – not being distracted by worldly concerns.
This is choosing the better part. This is not letting anxiety, or those distractions of many tasks, rule over us. It's easy to get distracted by many tasks. I'm scheduled for surgery on August 3 – 2-1/2 weeks from now. That's not much time to prepare for all that needs to be done. Additionally I'm going on a retreat this week, effectively giving me 1-1/2 weeks to prepare for my absence. I am anxious and distracted. I need to slow down and choose the better part.
But choosing the better part doesn't mean ignoring our many tasks. All of us need to eat and drink to sustain our bodies. But our bodies and this life we are living are transitory. We will not always need to eat and drink. As we follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and his eventual crucifixion and death, we would do well to remember the words of the Proper Preface to the Burial service: for to us, God's faithful people, life is changed, not ended.
We should be concerned for, and care for, our earthly bodies, just as Martha was; but we should also be concerned with and provide care for our spiritual bodies. As both the song and scripture say, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.” The desire for wisdom and to feast on the Word of God are things which cannot be taken from us.
The story of Martha and Mary is not an either/or but a both/and. It's a both/and in our personal lives as we understand there are things we must attend to, but also recognizing there are spiritual aspects we need to cultivate. When organizing our home budget, do we prioritize all of our earthly bills before offering our support to the church, or do we pay the church first from our first fruits? In our daily lives, do we flit from one task to another, or do we carve out an intentional time to pray and meditate on God's word? These are things for which we can choose the better part.
This both/and is also true of our communal church life. There are many tasks which can distract us. Everything from building maintenance and grounds upkeep, to any number of programs under the SOC umbrella, to the variety of worship ministries, and so much more that I can't name have the ability to distract us. We may wonder how SOC activities might distract us, but the question of why we are doing these things should always revolve around God. We can get so distracted by the DOING of these things that we forget WHY we are doing these things. In the doing, we must not lose sight of our mission to proclaim the good news of the gospel.
We need to serve, but it must be with the Word of God as its foundation. We also need to practice spirituality, but we must remember that God calls us to a mission of service.
Let us do the good works of God. Let us serve those in need, provide nourishment to the hungry, and aid to those who are struggling. But let us also remember to follow Christ as disciples, to nourish ourselves and others with the Body and Blood of Christ, and to be a spiritual refuge for those battered by the storms of life.
Martha and Mary are both needed. Service and discipleship are both needed. Let us endeavor to do these things in ways that do not distract us, but in ways that keep the kingdom of God as our primary focus.