Luke 10:38-42 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Mary and Martha—much has been said and written about these two sisters. One is concerned about being the “proper host,” making sure that the meal is served promptly. The other sister seems unconcerned about such things. Instead of helping out in the kitchen, she simply sits at the feet of the teacher while her sister is hard at work in the kitchen. The one sister takes on the traditional female role, while the other takes a more traditional male role. Who are these two sisters and what can we learn from their story?
The Gospel of John also features two sisters named Mary and Martha (John 11), but they figure very differently in John’s Gospel. For one thing, John names the village in which they live—Bethany, near Jerusalem. What differentiates the two stories is the presence of a brother in John, a brother who is absent from John’s Gospel. You would think Luke would mention a brother. Of course, the stories differ in context. In John 11, Martha and Mary are grieving the death of their brother, whom Jesus seems to have a rather close relationship with. There are similarities, but many differences. It would be best, therefore, that we didn’t conflate the two stories, as difficult as that is for us!
Sticking only with Luke, we encounter two sisters who exhibit two different models of life. Martha seems to be a doer. There things that need to get done, especially when you have guests. Mary, on the other hand, seems to be the model of contemplative life. As I noted earlier, Martha fills a more traditional role than does Mary, for taking the role of the disciple is traditionally a male role. However, Luke does seem interested in lifting up women who take on the role of a disciple. The question is, who is making the right choice?
As a pastor I understand the need for making sure that the church building is a welcoming place. There is a need for teachers and caregivers for the children. Hopefully someone will set things up for the after-church-fellowship time. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. There just has to be something set out to facilitate fellowship—coffee and cookies is sufficient—so that people don’t leave too quickly. Of course, the Lord’s Table needs to be set. There’s lot that goes into getting ready for church. I find myself on Sunday morning getting distracted. I’m not all that concerned about coffee hour, but I do hope that the worship leader has arrived and the sound technician is at the desk. I get quite a few steps in on Sunday morning in the minutes before worship. That said, when it’s time for the service to start I would hope that everyone would be ready to worship God. We may need to be Martha before worship, but once worship starts, well then perhaps Mary should be our model.
Martha comes to Jesus, demanding that he tell Mary to join her in the kitchen. Maybe she thinks it’s unseemly for her sister to be hanging out with the men. Maybe she has too many items in the oven and needs assistance. We simply don’t know, except that she wants Jesus to intervene.
Jesus responds to Martha’s request by suggesting that she’s too distracted. She’s too worried about the “details,” and therefore she’s missing the point of his visit. Even if we understand, and I do, Martha’s concerns, what should we make of Jesus’ statement that Mary has made the better choice? It’s intriguing that this story follows immediately after the telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, wherein Jesus tells the lawyer to “go and do likewise.” That is, follow the lead of the Samaritan who stops and helps the person in need, something the priest and the Levite fail to do (Luke 10:25-37). We might want to try and merge the two persons into one, suggesting that perhaps both are needed. However, Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring offer a different take:
It is too facile to say something like “both are needed—sometimes we need to act, and sometimes we need to sit still and listen to the word of God.” Luke’s technique is more like that of the wisdom teachers of Israel, who placed opposing truths side by side without explanation, with the tension itself provoking the reader to deeper reflection [The People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 222].
Jesus offers us his take on what is most important, but what about that statement that allegedly comes from St. Francis of Assisi: “preach the Gospel at all times—if necessary use words.” I hear that a lot, especially in Mainline Protestant churches. I think we’re more comfortable with doing than with saying, or at least we think we’re doing enough good things that people should recognize Jesus in our deeds. What we need, we declare is “orthopraxy” (right actions) not “orthodoxy” (right beliefs). If this is true then, what should we make of Jesus’ commendation of Mary for taking the role of the learner over the role of the doer?
While actions are needed, so is contemplation. As theologian Douglas John Hall notes: “Activism without contemplation ends in aimless ‘doing’ that usually aggravates existing difficulties.” At the same time, “only the unthinking could fail to recognize the myriad ways in which thought—including very serious biblical, theological, and other scholarship—regularly serves the duplicitous purposes of those who, their rhetoric notwithstanding, simply do not wish to ‘get involved’” [Feasting on the Word, p. 264, 266]. It’s not that we’re to sometimes do and sometimes be, but doing and being are inter-related.
Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen wisely. In part there is an urgency here as Jesus heads toward Jerusalem. There’s little time left to learn the gospel. Nice dinner parties are not the need of the moment. Tending to Jesus’ words is the need of the moment. Besides that, as followers of Jesus, as his disciples, doesn’t he deserve our full attention when he is teaching us?
On Sunday morning I’m not the only person who gets worried and busy. Being up front, I notice a lot of movement here and there. People seem busy doing “stuff,” and seem distracted from worship. James A. Wallace catches something of this and offers some wisdom:
This same Lord calls us to focus on him when we gather on Sunday, to move from our place of being “worried and distracted by many things” to one where we are in touch with the one thing needed. The good part that will not be taken away. There we will connect with the source that brings both peace and energy to all our undertakings. [Feasting on the Word, p. 267].