Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But 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.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Sometimes Jesus really annoys me. As a matter of fact, when I read Luke’s story of the sibling conflict between Mary and Martha, I feel as if Jesus is tap dancing on my last nerve. Granted, Martha was the one who invited Jesus to insert himself into the ongoing dispute with her sister in the first place. But did Jesus have to be so short with Martha? Did he have to shame her in front of her friends and family? Didn’t he understand that she had worn herself out trying to prepare a nice meal for Jesus and his pack of followers who just dropped in for lunch? As an eldest child who honored the rules, Martha took the cultural expectations around hospitality seriously. But here, in this passage, that doesn’t seem to count for much.
And then there’s the complicated dynamic between Martha and her sister. Jesus dares to disrupt the subtle balance between two sisters, bolding going where no man has gone before. As the song puts it, “Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister.”
But even though Jesus annoys me, I do tend to trust his instincts toward freedom, and so I persevere. I also know that when Jesus makes a move that is counter-cultural, then I need to sit up and take notice, because it usually means that the province of God is breaking through into the ordinary. When Jesus pushes back against the culture, it usually has implicaitons for us on both a personal and collective level.
The first clue that something counter-cultural is going on in this passage is that we are told that this is Martha’s home. This is not the home of her brother Lazarus, but Martha, a woman, is unusually the head of this household. In setting this story in Martha’s home, Luke alerts us that cherished cultural values are being poked at.
Mary could tell that Martha was upset by the way she was slamming things around in the kitchen. At first Mary was annoyed, distracted by the clanging and banging in the kitchen and by the tug of sister-guilt in her heart. But after awhile, the noises began to develop a rhythm that worked its way into the conversation she was having with Jesus. Jesus would say something, see the quizzical expressions on the disciples faces, know that they didn’t get it, say the same thing in a different way, and then wait to see if it would sink in. In the slow silence of the moment, understanding would finally creep into their eyes, their eyebrows would lift in the instant it clicked in their brain, and then as if on cue: SLAM!!! Went a pan, as if adding an exclamation point to Jesus’ idea. “The kingdom of God is like this…” CLATTER, CLATTER BANG! Came the drum roll from the kitchen, announcing another profound idea.
Mary began to smile to herself as she noticed the kitchen symphony that backed Jesus’ tutorial. But she swallowed her smile when Martha finally huffed her way into the living room, her face red and sweat streaked, wisps of hair loosed from her bun flying around her neck, her eyes dark with unvoiced anger. Martha was angry with Mary, but instead of speaking directly to Mary, Martha triangles Jesus in: “Lord! Do you not care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand!” (The Message) And then she exhaled a big puff of air straight up, blowing a stray hair out of her eyes.
Jesus’ response stunned and probably even hurt Martha: “Martha, you’re fussing too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.” (The Message) He offers her a sharp reprimand instead of the support she seeks. This is the part of Jesus’ response to Martha that bugs me. The problem here is much larger than Martha complaining about her lazy sister. The deeper problem is a social structure that both men and women have bought into. Paradoxically, Martha both speaks for and critiques the whole system that relegates roles for men and women and keeps them all in those rigid social structures whether they are suited for those roles or not. Mary and Martha lay bare the conflict that women have engaged in for generations as they try to balance societal roles and expectations with their own gifts and deep inner callings. Often, women find themselves pitted against other women as they try to sort it all out. In Mary and Martha, the personal has become political.
On the one hand, Jesus is offering Martha a way out. But on the other hand, we don’t really know how Martha experiences that offer of help, as shaming or liberating. Nor do we know if Jesus fully comprehends the bind that Martha finds herself in, or if he adds to her burden in ways we can not see. Add to that the complex family dynamics around the over-functioning/ under-functioning reciprocity that Martha and Mary hold in balance, and you have a very sticky situation.
Perhaps I feel sorry for Martha because I so identify with her. In many ways, I too have bought into the cultural expectations that the home and its upkeep is ultimarely my responsibility. And if that isn’t enough, I am also a supreme over-functioner, who takes on way too many things that are not my responsibility in the first place, and end up feeling resentful about being so overburdened. It reminds me of the refridgerator magnet I have at home: a 50’s woman is all dressed up, holding a platter of food and smiling a tight smile. The caption reads: “The secret ingredient is resentment.”
Who is there to help Martha sort through her burdens, whether they be real or imagined? Who is there to help me, or you, or others who relate to this complex tale?
Jesus? Well, before I get back to Jesus, I need to say that I also relate to Mary. Mary is curious. As the younger of the two sisters, Mary is in the sibling position of the one most likely to depart from the rules and expectations. The youngest is the one who takes risks and leaps, who tends to be a bit defiant and rebellious, who is less likely to allow themselves to be hampered by societal roles and expectations. (I should know, I’m the youngest of two sisters.) I’m with Mary too in the other room. Mary wants to follow her curiosity, she wants to explore, to learn, to grow, to experience new things, to break out of the mold. Jesus sees something in Mary that he wishes to support and encourage. And in the end, when Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil in preparation for his burial, it is clear that she is one of the few who actually got what Jesus was trying to say. Mary knew how to think outside of the box. You go girl!
No wonder this passage makes me crazy, it mirrors my own inner conflict: Mary and Martha dwell within and drive my search to figure out what it means to live with one foot in two camps: a life that fits within the norm, and an unexpected life. I am the minister who is a mom obsessed with baking the ultimate loaf of artisan bread and setting the perfect Martha Stewart table. Mary and Martha are my own personal bind. I am of two minds, two hearts. I am living in two, or more, worlds. And Jesus gets right in the middle of my own personal struggle and says: “Get a grip. Lighten up.” And that really irritates me. But it also really frees me.
Am I the only one who resonates with the Mary/Martha bind? I suspect not, but this bind means different things to different people. Classically, Mary and Martha have stood as an object lesson about the dangers of too much busyness: the proverbial juxtaposition of doing over being. They remind us that there are endless things to do in this world, and that there are endless things to reflect upon.
Mary was the contemplative, Martha the activist. Both are necessary. And we are called to the task of discernment, so that we may sort out the particular activities we are called to engage in. If we say Yes to everything we think we should be doing, then there is no time left for Sabbath and contemplation.
If we think Jesus is irritating on a personal level, it is clear there is more going on in this passage than the personal challenge to each of us to find a balance between being and doing. The Mary-Martha story is set against the cultural assumption of hospitality. A biblical notion rooted in the earliest aspects of Israel’s identity, hospitality was one of the highest religious and cultural values. The first story we read today from Genesis tells of the three “strangers,” we assume they are angels, or God’s messengers, who visit Abram and Sarai. They greet the strangers as honored guests, in keeping with the ancient law of hospitality in the desert. Welcoming the stranger in that arid climate could be a matter of life and death. A person could die in the desert heat if turned away. Instead of treating the stranger as a threat, the passing men are welcomed with kindness and generosity, an abundant feast being prepared for them. The tradition suggested that you welcomed the stranger because they may be angels from God in disguise.
In the household of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, Jesus is, of course, God in disguise. The sibling squabble distracts us from the deeper question: who is responsible for extending hospitality to the stranger? They debate who welcomes Jesus in the best way, when in fact, Martha and Mary both welcome Jesus in their own way: Martha through her careful, if not frantic, preparation of a meal, and Mary through her attentive listening and astute theological understanding. But there is a larger cultural critique going on here. It is not just a challenge of the role of women in ancient Patriarchial culture. The fact that this family welcomes Jesus, each in their own way, stands in sharp contrast to those who will reject him in his crucifixion. God calls the world to radical hospitality but receives hostility instead.
The consequences of the lack of hospitality in our world has been in the front of our minds this week. The verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, where George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of an unarmed, black teenaged boy, has served as a painful reminder of what happens when we choose hostility over hospitality in this world. Perhaps you’ve seen the quote going around the Internet attributed to an Episcopal Bishop: “I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.” Oh, that Zimmerman would have chosen radical hospitality over hostility. Hospitality is always risky, there is no guarantee that the stranger we welcome will be a kind one. But how many times have we turned away angels unaware or missed an opportunity to participate in God’s transforming love because we failed to see God in the stranger? Like Mary and Martha we may struggle with how to be welcoming of God in the “right” way, through service or through attentive contemplation, but at least we are moving in the direction of embracing hospitality, an openness to God.
Our world is full of stories of missed opportunities to welcome God. But it is also full of stories of those who have perservered and modeled a hospitality that changes history. Nelson Mandela’s …”concept of ‘ubuntu,’ a word from the Bantu languages of southern Africa, roughtly translated ‘I am because we are,’ the philosophy behind the Truth and Reconcilliation Commissions,” an expression of hospitality: welcome and forgiveness of the enemy. The stranger is welcomed because we are incomplete without one another.
“Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.” Ubuntu is hospitality, an abundant, generous table spread before the stranger, a table there everyone is valued, welcome and necessary.
The sisters Mary and Martha will forever be caught in the squabble about who got it right, we may always struggle internally with finding a balanced way to extend hospitality to Christ. We may always find Jesus’ hospitality irritating, but let it be known, that no matter how badly we fail to be hospitable, that God’s generosity never fails, it extends to us all, forever more. God can help us to “wring the bias out of ourselves” so that we become more welcoming. And one day, the Trayvon Martins and George Zimmerman’s of the world will sit down together at God’s table, and mercy and peace will kiss one another, and God’s Ubuntu will draw us all together with the cords of love as they replace the tangled knots of our lives. AMEN.