This story of Mary & Martha’s dinner party is guaranteed to stir up an argument. The story itself contains an argument. On top of that, down through the centuries, there have been countless arguments about the story.
As Luke tells it, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when he stops in a village where two sisters live, Mary and Martha. Martha takes the initiative, welcomes Jesus into her home, and begins preparing as fancy a meal as she can. There is nothing unusual about this – showing hospitality, welcoming guests, feeding them well- these were important virtues in that culture. Martha is doing her best to show Jesus hospitality and to make him feel at home.
But while she is busily working away on the food, Mary does something unusual. Normally in the ancient world, all of the adult women would have shared in the preparation of the meal. Mary chooses not to help out. Instead she sits quietly at Jesus’ feet, like a student or a disciple would, and listens intently to what Jesus is saying.
As you can imagine, Martha reaches a breaking point, and here is where the argument starts. She is tired of doing all the work while Mary sits, and she lets it out. We might have expected her to hiss at Mary through the kitchen door, “Hey sis, I could use a hand with this, you now.” But she doesn’t say anything to Mary. She instead softly reprimands Jesus and tries to get him to tell Mary to get to work. “Lord, don’t you care?” she protests. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”
Imagine Jesus’ predicament. There he is in the middle of an argument between sisters. Mary is sitting at his feet listening to him while an irritated Martha, wet bread dough on her hands, is politely telling him off- that he is uncaring and that if he has any sense of what is right, he’ll order Mary to get up off the floor and get busy preparing the lamb and rice.
So what should Jesus do? Should he defend himself? Should he reassure Martha that he does, in fact, care? Should he recognize that Martha has a good point? Or maybe he should pull a Jesus-like surprise and get up and prepare the meal himself and let Martha take a rest. Or should he play the role of peacemaker and say, “No Martha…Mary, let’s cool this off; we can work this out.” What should Jesus do?
Well he gently scolds Martha right back as he apparently takes Mary’s side. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “you are worried and distracted by many things, but there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen it; Mary has chosen the better part.”
To understand what this story is saying to us today, we have to wrestle with this troublesome response by Jesus. Why does Jesus praise Mary over against hardworking, worn out Martha? Why does he say that Mary, who simply sits and listens, has chosen a better part than Martha, who is sweating away preparing a meal and trying to provide some hospitality?
Some people have argued that Luke has a hidden agenda. That he is critiquing women in the early church for exercising too much leadership. He critiques Martha who is active, working, verbal and in charge, and praises Mary who is passive and silent. But this does not really square with Jesus’ view of women, or the stories Luke shares in the gospel and Acts about the leadership of women.
Other folks have argued that Jesus is criticizing what we might call “busy work Christianity.” They see Martha as preoccupied with trivial chores and has missed the larger, more spiritual point. She is, they say, like so many religious people who spend all their time organizing stewardship drives, or baking pies for the church picnic or going to committee meetings or gathering food for the pantry, busy, busy, busy, but who lack a profound devotional life. For them, Jesus is saying, “Martha, stop being so busily religious and start being more spiritual, like Mary.”
Well, we might understand that point. Lots of folks today say, “You know I’m not into organized religion. I don’t’ believe in institutional Christianity. That’s just playing church. I’m spiritual but not religious.”
Yet I don’t think that argument holds water either. The institutional church is not perfect, that’s true; but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Christian faith is never an abstract, disembodied purely spiritualized thing. It always takes on solid, embodied active form. After all, God did not write a dreamy Valentine in the clouds, “Hello world. I love you.”
No, God’s love came in the fleshly form of Jesus, who dwelled among us and got involved in the messy details of everyday life, who taught and healed, touched and ate, died and rose in bodily form. The incarnation means that the place to find God is not in otherworldly thoughts but in earthly details. Martha was not being hospitable in the abstract and her cooking the meal that day was not trivial; hospitality finally means that somebody has to boil the water and slice the onions.
What does it mean, for example, for a parent to love a child? It’s more than just a feeling or sentiment. Loving a child means teaching her how to tie her sneakers and gently wiping the blood away from the boo-boo, and going to him in the middle of the night when he has a nightmare and driving her to soccer practice.
Or, I think about the church school teachers who arrive early every Sunday so they can get out the glue bottles and the scissors and construction paper for the morning’s class. I think about the woman who sees it as her ministry to buy groceries and stock the food pantry, or the man who drives folks to their doctors appointments, the folks who show up to rake a yard every fall Saturday, the guys fixing to move a fellow from one care facility to another. Or teams that revel in preparing good meals for Grace Café.
Busy work? I don’t think so. It’s the form that love and faith take. I cannot imagine Jesus saying to Christians who are emptying bed pans at an AIDS clinic, or chopping onions for Tuesday’s dinner, “You people are preoccupied with busy work. Leave the children, the needy, the ill, the lonely behind. Come sit and meditate for a whole. Be spiritual but not religious. This is the better part.”
Some of you could say I’m making a mountain out of molehill. You could note that Mary-Martha comes right after the Good Samaritan in the gospel and Luke is illustrating that we should love God with all our heart and neighbor as ourselves. The Good Samaritan is about loving neighbor, and this story is about loving God.
The problem is the two are not so neatly separated, on the one side, love neighbor, on the other, love God. In the Christian life they are intertwined, mixed together; you can hardly tell where one ends and the other begins. We show love of God by loving our neighbor, and the true love of neighbor grows out of our love of God. They’re two sides of the same coin.
And that gets us close to the heart of this story. There is nothing wrong with Martha’s fixing the food. This is how people show welcome, hospitality and care. In fact, it is absolutely essential, as it shows one’s love of God and neighbor by baking the bread and washing the olives, by getting out the glue for church schools and making the potato latkes for Grace Café. Martha, preparing that meal of hospitality, is doing a good thing, a necessary thing, an act of service.
But if we try to do this kind of service apart from the life-giving Word of the gospel, apart from the vision that comes only from God, it will distract us and finally wear us down. Mary has chosen to listen to the Word. Jesus, the living Word, is present, right in her house, and if she is going to love God and love neighbor, if she is going to show hospitality to the stranger and care for the lost, then everything depends on hearing and trusting that word. Frankly, there are two right answers.
A friend tells the story of sitting on a university board tasked with advising the school’s chaplains. At one meeting a member of the board asked the chaplains, “What are the university students like morally these days?” The chaplains looked at each other wondering how to answer the question. Finally one of them took a stab: “Well,” she said, “I think you’d be pleased. The students are pretty ambitious in terms of their careers, but that’s not all they are. A lot of them tutor kids after school. Some work in a night shelter and in a soup kitchen for the homeless. Last week a group of students protested racism…”
As she talked, the Jewish chaplain who was listening to her began to grin. The more she talked, the bigger he grinned, until finally it became distracting. “Am I saying something funny?” she said to the Jewish chaplain.
“No, no, I’m sorry,” he replied. “I was just sitting here thinking. You are saying that the university students are good people, and you’re right. And you’re saying that they are involved in social causes, and they are. But what I was thinking is that the one thing they lack is a vision of salvation.”
Everyone looked at the Jewish chaplain. “No, it’s true,” he said. “If you do not have some vision of what God is doing to repair the whole creation, you can’t get up every day and work in a soup kitchen. It finally beats you down.”
If you don’t have some vision of what God is doing, it finally beats you down. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his Word, listens to that vision, and without that Word, we cannot go on, like Martha, preparing meals of hospitality for the world. It will finally worry us, distract us, anger us, exhaust us, and beat us down. With that Word, though, we can prepare meals for the hungry, care tenderly for the sick, show hospitality to the stranger and keep on loving and living in the name of Christ.
What did Mary hear at Jesus’ feet? What is the Word we hear from Jesus? Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Peace be with you. Do not be afraid.
What we hear from Jesus is that our lives are gathered into God’s life, that God is out there in the world healing and feeding and restoring and therefore what we do for others counts, really counts, and we can trust God and hope for a new creation.