This week’s lectionary text is from Luke chapter 10:38-42 (Year C, Proper 11), the story of Mary and Martha. Preachers around the world will be preaching from that text on Sunday.
10:38 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."
I like the story of Mary and Martha. For one thing, I like it when there is a significant story about women, particularly ones with moxie who dare to sneak in an education at the feet of a renowned teacher in a time when not many families would waste an education on a woman.
I also like the story because I feel a great deal of compassion for both Mary and Martha. Martha is mostly cast as a nagging shrew, which I think is a shame. I imagine Martha as the older sister who has spent her life feeling like she has to carry her sister’s weight as well as her own. I imagine that she is bone tired and resentful that all the work of entertaining guests has fallen to her, and the only help she might have had, her sister, has abandoned her yet again, left her to clean up all the messes. I have heard this exact sentiment from my older daughter in reference to my younger daughter: Mommy, she’s not helping pick up toys! We are both supposed to help! And I myself have felt this way; left alone to deal with a slew of messes, the weighty responsibility of keeping everyone happy and fed.
I imagine Mary as a would-be intellectual. I imagine that she’s spent her life yearning to learn, but was never deemed worthy because she was a lowly girl, purposed to serve and birth. I imagine that she sees in Jesus a new regard, a glimmer of life possibility, and she just can’t let it pass her by, her one shot at understanding, her one shot at something bigger than housework. You’ll never be a rabbi, Mary. You’ll never go to seminary. You’ll never teach or preach. But you can sit at Jesus’ feet and listen right now.
I imagine the mess in the kitchen as the other character in the story. It's behind the scenes, the result of the privilege that a bunch of folks got, which was to eat a nice hearty meal for free that someone else prepared. I imagine that they didn’t care what happened in the kitchen so long as their bellies were full. The kitchen was invisible to them. The dirty dishes were not their problem to solve. I imagine that Martha’s love language is Acts of Service and she is getting no love despite the fact that God Himself is preaching the gospel in the next room. She is so overwhelmed by the enormity of her tasks that she can’t hear Jesus speaking, and doesn’t feel free to.
And here we are two millenia later, hearing the story of the woman who had a hard time swallowing the fate of the dirty dishes, and the fact that she got left out of the conversation because she was too busy dealing with her nemesis: the messy kitchen.
I also feel a little peeved at Jesus in the story, and if I were there I don’t think I could resist shoving my elbow into his side and saying, Look at that pile of dishes, they all enjoyed that meal, why aren’t these bozos helping, tell them many hands make short work!! Better yet, if he’s so humble why doesn’t he go help wash up himself?
I understand that the answer is that the dishes aren’t nearly as important as the gospel of the kingdom of God and the presence of Jesus. I get that. I’m just saying I see how Martha might feel. How can we be expected to listen well when things are such a mess?
No really, how can we be expected to listen well when things are such a mess?
'Cause things are a mess and there are a lot of problems to solve. A lot of dirty dishes, if you will. Our national problem of racism comes to mind, but other issues of injustice also. And we have a lot of Marthas who are feeling resentful and abandoned and overwhelmed and left to fend for themselves with the odds against them. And rightly so.
Let’s pray that, like Mary, we can bask in the presence of Jesus and the good news and allow it to get into our bones and inform our hearts, but let's also help the Marthas so they can hear it too.
God of grace and peace, give us perspective on our national problems in light of the gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Give us grace and peace.
Grant that we may have the heart of Martha, understanding our responsibility and calling to peacemaking;
Willing to work hard to set things right.
Grant that we may have the heart of Mary, understanding that the presence of Jesus in our midst is the most important thing to seek;
Willing to seek first your kingdom.
Grant that we may have patience with the mess we are in, understanding that transformation is a process,
Willing to take the first steps.
Jesus, we invite you among us now
That we may sit at your feet.
We say to the worried and distracted,
The Kingdom of God is at hand.
We say to the spiritually hungry,
The Kingdom of God is near.
May we know the treasure of the presence of Christ,
The peace of the presence of God;
God among us,
God with us.
And may we set our distractions aside, making space to hear your voice, and only then setting about our work,
To be the hands and feet of Christ in a worried world.