One of my clergy colleagues likes to refer to this gospel story as an homage to “Mary and Martha, The Patron Saints of Perpetual Triangulation”.
Jesus seems to be setting up the two women in a classic triangle relationship with him. “Martha, Martha,” sighs Jesus, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” Then, turning to her sister, he says, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
Forgive me, but if Jesus were in MY house, I’d be feisty enough to say, “Yo! Jesus! Pick up a broom, would ya? Here, take this dishcloth. You wash. I’ll wipe and put away. You’ll talk. I’ll listen. You’ll teach. I’ll learn. Women have been doing this for centuries. Wanna be a real radical? Try doing women’s work!”
Actually, I’m not sure the story went down in exactly the way it is reported. Oh, I have no doubt that Jesus didn’t pick up a broom or a dishcloth – that would have been unheard of in his day and in that culture. But, I’m not sure Jesus set up the two women like that. I think that was St. Luke.
Luke, I think, is trying to teach something to the early church about discipleship and I suspect he is using this story of Mary and Martha and the story of the Good Samaritan as companion pieces, apart from concerns about gender or ethnicity, to pave the way.
Both stories relate to the Shema – the Great Law - "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."
The story of the Good Samaritan teaches us how to love our neighbor.
The story of Mary and Martha teaches us how to love God.
There is a radical edge to this story, however, that you could miss if you get stuck in your frustration about gender stereotype.
Luke’s choice of female characters is designed to grab the attention of his listeners. We can allow ourselves to get so caught up in the rebuke of Martha that we miss the radical nature of the call to Mary.
Yes, says Jesus, it’s okay for Mary, a woman to sit at my feet and learn from me. You may not see the radical nature of that statement because we understand that, in that culture and in that time, sitting at the feet of men was the proper place for women.
What we may overlook is the fact that sitting at the feet of the Master was a place of honor reserved for his disciples. Everyone else who wasn’t a disciple sat farther away. Women were not even allowed near Jesus.
Hear this and hear this clearly: Mary is being allowed a place accorded only to disciples – the inner circle of male privilege. (Somebody call the Vatican hotline.)
Talk about radical social transformation! I can only imagine how the disciples must have heard this invitation. Or, perhaps more accurately, how the early church must have heard this story.
There must have been outrage – which may well be why it’s so easy to hear this story as two women squabbling and complaining about housework.
If we get caught up in gender roles, however, we miss not only the invitation to Mary but the mild rebuke to Martha. Those two actions contain important instructions about discipleship.
Yes, Luke opens the way for women to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn—not at Martha's expense, and not because she's female, but for Martha's benefit! It is also for the benefit of a community needing liberation from singular, closed-system thinking – then and now.
Yes, Martha is mildly admonished for giving in to the distractions of the world and losing her concentration on Jesus – who is the better portion.
Again, Luke is teaching us about how to follow the Shema, the Law, to . . .” love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind . . .”
We know Martha’s chastisement. We understand her predicament. Today's Martha could be any one of us – male or female, black or white or Asian, gay or lesbian or straight.
We’ve seen her sitting on the bench outside the library, on her Blackberry or talking on her cell phone or iPhone 4 while eating lunch.
She is sometimes found at the Madison Y on a treadmill while making appointments for the next day.
She could have a baby in one arm and a textbook for night class on the other.
There are Marthas at the Elementary School, grading papers at her desk, holding her phone between her face and shoulder, checking in with family about coming home late.
She could be multitasking on a computer, checking email while researching a piece of information, while planning tonight's dinner.
She’s at the outpatient clinic, receiving chemotherapy on her lunch hour so no one will know and miss her at the office so she can save her job.
Martha, like so many of us, is overscheduled, overbooked and overwhelmed. The pace of our lives can make us snap. The urgent demands of life collide with the urgent demands of the gospel—and anyone's trigger can be tripped.
Martha, Martha. We know you well.
This gospel message is for the Marthas and Marys and Lukes and Johns and all the other disciples sitting at the feet of Jesus this morning. There are two things, really.
The first is this: For those of us caught in a never-ending swirl of priority setting with too much to do and too little time, drowning in commitment fatigue, swamped with busyness overload, Jesus offers the way. Gospel trumps busy. Gospel trumps worry. Gospel trumps distractions.
There is relief, thanks be to God.
The second is like unto it. There are two great prophets of scripture: Moses and Jesus. Moses gave us ten commandments. Jesus gave us only one commandment, which he built upon the Shema, the Great Law. “Love one another,” he said, “as I have loved you.”
The difficulty of that love and that Gospel is that it requires both intense listening and learning as well as direct action. Faith without works is dead, says St. Paul. And, works without faith is, well, work. Work which, without faith, can become drudgery.
We need Marthas and Marys in our midst. In our lives. Individually and as a community.
Pray and study, listen and learn – and wash dishes.
Jesus didn’t just talk about love, he put his love into action – teaching, healing, curing, feeding, and yes, when necessary, chastising and rebuking. His love is sometimes tough love.
That being said, his message is clear: if you don’t want to be worried and distracted by many things, if you want to know joy, take a risk or two for the sake of the gospel.
It is the way to love one another as Jesus loved us. He’s showing us as plainly as God showed Amos a basket of summer fruit.
I know. I know. It’s a scary thought when you really hear the message and take in the fullness of the meaning of the gospel.
Makes staying in the kitchen doing dishes seem like a day at the beach, right?
Here’s the thing: whether we are working in the kitchen or sitting on the floor, Jesus beckons us to come forward, to come to Him. He is "the better portion."
The Good News is for you, no matter who you are – or who you think you are. There is need of only one thing – to love one another as Jesus loves us and make that love real.
Not necessarily ‘nice’ or ‘warm and fuzzy’, but real.
It’s time now, as it was then, to get our priorities in order and choose the better part.