A New Look at Mary and MarthaA message given for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost on Luke 10:38-42 on July 21, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I apologize for the late postings--I have had computer trouble.

Women do not get a whole lot of PR in the Bible, so you would think I would be excited to have a Bible passage all about women—you would think. But there are a lot of issues with this passage making it a difficult one, especially for women.

What a bummer that one of the few passages where a woman actually speaks, she is complaining about another woman, her own sister, no less—really Luke? This is the one conversation that women had with Jesus that you felt compelled to record? Women were part of Jesus’ discipleship group doing important work, albeit in the background, like making sure they were fed, clothed, and had water. But no doubt they also prayed and listened and questioned Jesus as well, and of all the conversations that happened with women, this was the best Luke could do?
This passage also seems to set up dualism as if discipleship is a binary system—Mary’s good, Martha’s bad, listening to Jesus is good, service is bad, Mary’s silence is good, Martha’s assertiveness is bad, prayer is good, busy-ness is bad. But is that where this story is really going? Is this conversation really about a hierarchy of gifts and styles of discipleship?

I want us to turn this story around. Instead of dismissing Martha, let us see what she is doing right. The most significant aspect about Martha in this passage is that she is portrayed as the head of the household—not her brother Lazarus as in the Gospel of John.

Jesus and his disciples entered the village and verse 38 says, “Martha welcomed him into her home.” It doesn’t say, “Martha and Mary welcomed him”—it says, “Martha.” Martha’s the one in charge here, and she is offering this sacred gift of hospitality—a place to stay, to wash up, to rest, to be fed, cared for, and nourished. Hospitality was a crucial social obligation in the first century because without it, travelers would go hungry, and come to harm with now here to stay.

You know immediately when you are the home of someone who has the gift of hospitality. My mom had this gift—and she had a way of making everyone feel special. She thought of everything: decorations with a coordinating centerpiece and napkins, a detailed menu, delicious food, several sets of dishes so she could pick just the right one, guest towels in the bathroom, candles everywhere, my sisters and I learned to ‘serve a plate from the left and take it away from the right.’ From the moment you walked in the door for a dinner party, you knew my mom had the gift of hospitality.

I bet the same was true for Martha. I know she had water to wash the feet of Jesus and the disciples when the arrived, she had clean, folded towels at the ready, and then she escorted them to the sitting area. She had already collected water early that morning, had a fire already stoked, and had probably already ground the flour for bread. But she still had a lot of work to do.
Guess who did not have the gift of hospitality? Mary. I bet Mary loved learning and reading, ideas and stories, going to Temple and prayer. If she could have had a bat mitzvah (which did not start for girls in the Jewish tradition until 1922), she would have knocked it out of the park, but setting the table and kneading the bread? How tedious. And who cares if the silverware is lined up just so or if the towels are clean or folded, or if the bread is a little burnt? She just wants to get through dinner and get back to more interesting things like the ideas of this new rabbi, Jesus. Maybe after supper, he would have time to read the new prayer she wrote.

Martha and Mary have different spiritual gifts and different ways of serving. And they are both essential if Jesus’ gospel movement is going to thrive. It needed men and women who attended to spiritual issues and those who attended to temporal needs. The gospel movement needed both Marthas and Marys then, and it needs both Marthas and Marys now.

Then what is going on in this story if it is not to elevate Mary’s style of discipleship over Martha’s? The answer lies, not in Martha’s actions (which were essential—if she had not put out a spread, Mary would never have had the chance to listen to Jesus and everyone would have gone hungry)—rather the issue of this story lies in Martha’s attitude. Martha is mad because she feels burdened and unappreciated. Perhaps Martha decided that if she had a little more help with the preparations, she too, would have a chance to listen to Jesus’ new ideas.

We don’t always behave our best when we think our sister, brother, neighbor or fellow church member is being selfish instead of noticing when we so obviously could use help. So, Martha triangles Jesus and asks him to whip Mary into shape. I think there are two deeper messages behind Jesus’s comment about Martha being “worried and distracted by many things.”

First, Jesus real point is that Martha’s public resentment and frustration diminishes her own beautiful gift of hospitality which she is working so hard to share. How many times do we work hard to offer what we are good at in our homes, with our family, at work, or in church—and then our own resentment or anger at others gets in the way of people receiving what we are offering? If we can see ourselves in Martha, whether we are male or female, then Jesus invites us into better self-care, and the practice of asking for the help we need before resentment and anger set in.

How different this story would have been if Martha could have pulled Mary aside, and said, “it really is wonderful to hear all Jesus has to say. I would love to hear it, too. It would mean so much if you could help me for 15 minutes and then while the bread bakes, I would have a chance to sit down with you and listen too.”

Second, Martha wants Mary to have the same spiritual gift as she does, rather than accepting Mary for who she is and the spiritual gift she brings. Jesus says, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things,” and Martha’s thinking to herself, “yes, I am, I would like Mary to take up some of this worry and distraction! I would like Mary to do more of what I do! People are so annoying! It’s like they have a mind of their own. It’s like God made them unique, like their own person who is different from me with a different way of being and of serving—it’s so frustrating!” Jesus says to Martha, “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be take away from her.”

There is need of only one thing: be who YOU are, serve with YOUR gift—that’s what Mary is doing—stop telling Mary what her important work is, what her way of serving is, what her experience is. You, do YOU, Martha. And let Mary, be Mary.”

Luke included this difficult passage because he already experienced in the early church how challenging it can be to joyfully serve out of our own gift without resentment and control, while serving side by side with someone else offering a completely different gift or way of being. Our Colossians passage says that through Jesus, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha frees us from this comparison and control, and Jesus’ victory over death gives us peace over the fear that the gift we have to offer is better or is not enough in comparison to the person next to us. We are all reconciled to Christ and all the riches of God’s love are already ours no matter what our gifts are, freeing us to be ourselves and to serve with joy, and with love, and with self-care.

This church is blessed with a whole lot of Marthas and Marys and we need everyone for this ministry flourish. We have people who offer prayers, run the altar guild, teach, take care of the property, lead on Council, who are redesigning the website, offer music, are chairing new ministry teams, and the list goes on and on. The Christian Church would not have made it to 2019 without a whole lot of Marthas doing a whole lot of work and whole lot of Marys listening to Jesus and praying. It is false dichotomy to split the two because discipleship means we actively participate in the kingdom work AND we pray and deepen our relationship with Jesus. Both are necessary and our service lead us back to self-care and prayer and our prayer leads us back to service we are physically able to do, and back and forth again and again.

We are a community of gifts and the more we each joyfully serve with what God has given us, the more we can joyfully welcome others with new gifts to serve alongside us. Like Martha and Mary, you have a gift that matters to Jesus, that matters to us and that makes a difference in this church. Through Jesus we are freed to serve joyfully, accepting ourselves and each other’s talents with the same hospitable welcome that Christ gives to all of us.

 Image: He Qi

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