As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him., She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked. "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." -- Luke 10: 38-42
When I lay with my head on the pillow at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay and received my diagnosis of Acute Lymphoblastic Lukemia in November, 2009, the Mary and Martha story in the bible came to mind often. One of the ways that I made sense of what was happening to me was to consider the necessary transition from being a Martha-type busy in the kitchen (and all else) to a Mary-type sitting at the feet of Jesus. I remember being grateful that I was at the feet of Jesus, in the arms of Jesus and the busyness had quit. Cancer quit the rattle of pots. Cancer re-wrote the agenda.
When I was still in the hospital bed at St. Vincent, I set a goal of one day preaching the Mary and Martha text. I'm taking the chance now. With my clergy stole hanging from the closet door in room 7212 at University of Washington Hospital, Sunday coming tomorrow and the hospital bed and laptop contributing to a bully pulpit indeed.
First, I was wrong about Martha and Mary. From where I'm reclining now, I don't think the story is about the grander merits of piety over works. For years, this bible passage and the way I heard it preached contributed to my thinking that house work can stall and home management be abandoned while communion with Jesus retains centerpiece. Now, I'm more willing to explore that the passage is not a treatise for contemplative life. While I have a bible verse displayed in my hospital room that says "Be Still and know that I am God," I have also heard "What God gives your hand to do, do it with all your might."
I used to walk to Bread & Water before dawn to make pies. My activity and task did not preclude communion with the Savior. Can you wash dishes while singing hymns to the Risen One? Can you diaper babies while praising Jesus? Can you hoe the garden while more thoroughly knowing the glory of the kingdom? Activity level does not determine communion nor presuppose piety.
Placement of the text may increase our understanding. The Mary and Martha story follows the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke. Service ministry is celebrated in the Samaritan story. The problem with Martha is not her service ministry. Martha's problem appears in relationship with Christ. Martha tries to manipulate. She tells Jesus what to do and expresses affront when it isn't done. Did Martha ruin her own party or is she giving us a great example of how an authentic relationship with Jesus is forged?
If this scripture passage was scripted as a rock opera, I would cast Tina Turner as Martha. Tina would march out of the kitchen in a short skirt with white apron, high heels and black stockings waving a wooden soup spoon at Jesus. She would be be ranting with her plea. "Don't you care? Don't you care for me?" If we cast Tina as Martha then maybe no one would ever think that Martha could be you and me. I hear that Martha woman railing on Jesus: "Lord, don't you care?" Can you see that wooden spoon waggeling? But, you know what is absolutely wonderful about that picture? Martha is engaging Jesus. She is coming right out him instead of running away. Jesus doesn't cave. Martha's pleading in whatever guise sounds like temptation to me. If Martha were talking to me that way, it would be so easy to dip into temptation and fall all over myself so that my caring could be recognized and beyond reproach. It would be so easy to give into the put down wail and want to save the day as the big shot and solve the woman's problems. But, Jesus doesn't give in and doesn't submit to temptation when his integrity of caring is questioned.
Martha is not subtle. She doesn't even use an "I" statement, like "Lord, I don't feel cared for." Her words, though a question sound like an accusation or bait. "Lord, don't you care?" We don't know if myriad frustrations have led to this day and if Mary has more than once been deemed lazy. Whatever the baggage, Martha is going in with the big guns of her expectations and willing the Lord to be cop.
"Lord, don't you care?" What a put down. I wouldn't care what Martha was serving for dinner at that moment. I would want out of there. Or, maybe I would just be stunned to watch what was coming down. God is love. Jesus is God's perfect love and Martha is accusing Jesus in the no-care zone. What an ice breaker.
Twice in the passage, we are told to look at a bigger picture. One the scripture sets the context, the second time, Jesus explains the backddrop. Verse 40 outlines Martha's behavior by explaining "Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made." Jesus, by his own words conveys his acknowledgement of her situation. A housewife overwhelmed. Could she have planned ahead and just pulled a ready-dish out of the freezer. Maybe her choices were too ambitious in her effort to be special. What can we squeeze out of this passage about self-care?
Martha is a hero in the story for me. While Mary cozied at the feet of Jesus, from my reading sort of moon-faced muppet style, Martha "opened her home to him." Whatever her limitations. Whatever her vulnerability as her behavior is revealed, Martha opened her home in the midst of swirling questions and the danger of persecution for harboring this Jesus. Martha got Jesus in the door and may have wiped the dust from his feet. Jesus was traveling with the disciples but Martha let Jesus in. Face-to-face intimate with no t.v. nor radio blaring to believe we could get distracted from the people gathered there. The territory of letting in is what happens in this story because Martha doesn't hide behind a hostess mask. She bares the primordal and messy stuff of anger, jealously, frustration and betrayal. Martha shares her ground truth with Jesus. What does that tell you about what is fair in relationship with Jesus?
Martha doesn't stop there. She isn't done being real. Her brand of welcome is to marshal the guest. She complains. "My sister has left me to do the work by myself." Martha exhorts. "Tell her to help me!" Martha is honest enough to reveal where she is stuck. She trusted relationship with Jesus enough to rattle the cage and be herself right where she was at the moment.
I studied years in a spiritual direction internship to be able to notice, avoid and disentangle being triangulated. Jesus responds to the ploy for triangulation (take sides and get stuck in the middle) with love that is more than textbook perfect.
Jesus is able. Listen and watch what he does. Jesus does not play two ends against the middle. Jesus does not try to compliment the hostess nor further her case.
"Martha, Martha," Jesus calls her name twice. I can almost hear his voice speaking her name, inviting, non-threatening, accepting, calm and not willing to be used. "You are worried and upset about many things." Jesus heard Martha. He acknowledges and affirms that she has a lot on her plate. He does not discount her.
"But, only one thing is needed." What is that one thing Lord. We are now hanging on every word. "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.
The better is chosen and will not be taken away from her. I hear Jesus saying that when this meal is over it won't be like one more meal made, one more guest served, one more day gone by and the dishes washed in the sink before bed. Jesus promises that endless Ground Hog Day is a myth. What Mary demonstrates at the feet of Jesus is something that Martha can have too. Mary models the focus on relationship. No matter if she is in the dishpan, mowing the lawn or fighting cancer there is security and peace in relationship with Jesus.
Invite Jesus in. When you invite Jesus into your house be curious. What will you reveal and learn about yourself? . Beware the temptation of pushing Jesus around for your own purpose. He won't move past who he is. Being with Jesus, we have the great opportunity, privilege and call for being changed.
Back at the Mary and Martha house with Jesus inside, the action is quieting. I realize that I have tried to put myself in the place of Martha and Mary and tried to pysch out what is happening for them but now I'm wondering what can we learn about Jesus in this passage text? I have to read the text again and try and put myself inside the house too. Verse 38 says that Jesus and his disciples were on their way.... a woman named Martha opened her home to him." Opened her home to him. There is no crowd. Jesus is with the two women and the disciples are no where to be seen. Verse 39 reports that "Mary sat the the Lord's feet listening to what he said." I am drawn to sit at his feet also. Mary gives me room.