A few words on Martha’s behalf

Martha_and_MaryAre you a Mary or a Martha? That’s the choice we generally get when faced with today’s Gospel reading–the moral of the story usually being that we should all try to honor our spiritual side and become more like Mary (and by default less like Martha). Or, at the very least, that we should concentrate on being less “worried and distracted” in a world which seems determined to keep us very worried and very distracted. (Again, less like Martha.)

The basics of the story are this: Jesus comes to visit Mary and Martha.  Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching while Martha fusses about in the kitchen.  When Martha in her housewifely frustration tells Jesus to send Mary into the kitchen to help, Jesus scolds Martha for being too worried and distracted by many things.  He says that Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her.

Perhaps many of you are like me. I have to confess that, when I hear this story, I tend to side with Martha.  I think we tend judge her a little too harshly.  After all, we don’t really know the full story about this encounter.

It might have happened this way:

Martha is preparing to host Jesus and his disciples at her house.  She plans a feast appropriate for an honored guest and on the day of his visit she ends up cooking all day. All day. Throughout the day, her plans for the meal continue to grow and grow and by the afternoon she is trying to make some sort of Martha-Stewart-type pastries that looked like they would be easy and of course were not.  Now the guests have arrived, the soup is getting burnt, the meat is starting to dry out, the little pastries are a disaster and Martha really feels like she needs another set of hands to help out.

Or another possibility is that Martha didn’t have much advance notice about Jesus’ visit.  He shows up late in the afternoon with a group of tired hungry disciples–a large group of tired hungry disciples–and she’s trying to scrape together something to feed everyone.  While the guests are talking in the living room, Martha is in the kitchen with that can of cream of chicken soup and a cup of rice, wondering how she is going to get a meal together with what’s available in the pantry.

If you are the primary cook in your household, you know what I’m talking about.  We have all been there. And it’s not just about cooking supper. There are many times at home or at work when you may feel like you are the one doing all the work–and it’s good, important work–and others are getting off scot free, apparently doing not much of anything. At the very least, perhaps Martha has been guilty of trying to show off her cooking skills or hostessing skills, but she meant well.  Does she really deserve to be rebuked by Jesus and left to fend by herself in the work?  

Is she wrong and is Mary right?  And is this what Jesus meant?

If we set these two options–action versus contemplation–as opposites and try to label one right and the other wrong, we quickly run into some problems.  There is nothing inherently wrong with action.  In fact, as Christians, we are called to action and to service.  There are needs all around us–locally and globally–and, while we can’t fill all of them neither are we exempt from the charge to do the good that is in our power to accomplish.

On the other hand, however well intended it might be, service alone without reflection and thought runs the risk of becoming “busy-ness,” activity for the sake of activity and not for the benefit of those we claim to want to help.

So maybe we need to take Mary and Martha’s story a step further.  Maybe this is not about choosing between listening and doing. Perhaps it is about discerning what response is needed at the moment.

For example, suppose you have a friend who has just gone through a personal crisis.  You may say, “I am here for you whenever you need me.” Most of us would immediately add: “How can I help?  What can I do?

Maybe the help your friend needs is not about doing.  Maybe you are being called to simply listen, to be present, to be.

That’s a hard choice for most of us and takes careful discernment.

And the wisdom of that true discernment grows out of our relationship with God.

When I read the conversations that Martha has with Jesus, here and in other Gospel stories, I see a very close relationship with Jesus.  I am also inclined to think that Jesus’ “rebuke” of Martha was much gentler than we sometimes interpret it.  I don’t think this was a “Get-behind-me-Satan” criticism, but just a loving reminder to Martha to stop and take a breath.

Perhaps the story of Mary & Martha is not an “either/or” sort of choice but instead a “both/and”. We are called to service  and to action in these days–perhaps more than ever.  But there are also times when we are called to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen.

May God grant that we have the wisdom and discernment to recognize and respond to both of these calls in our daily lives.

Luke 10:38-42

St Catherine’s Episcopal Church

Sunday, July 17, 2016


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