Luke 10:38-42 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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.”
Sisters. I’ve got one. Same parents. Raised in same household. Very different people. We also share a brother who is between us in ages. This is a story about two sisters who also share a brother, although he doesn’t play a significant part in this particular story. The narration of this story makes me believe it is Jesus’ first encounter with the two in their home.
The one who welcomed him was Martha. The one who sat at his feet was Mary. One is anxious about having this important guest in her home and hoping to, maybe not make so much a good impression on him, but to make him feel welcome and at home. Hospitality, after all, is very important. Martha has a very long to do list and very little help as Mary has abandoned her to go and listen to what Jesus has to say. Two sisters. One household. Two very different people.
I’ve got to confess that I have struggled over Jesus’ rebuke of Martha. She only wanted to do her best and she is told that Mary has chosen the better part, and that Martha should not be worried about such mundane things as preparing a meal. But, here’s the question I have often thought to ask: if both Mary and Martha had chosen to sit with Jesus, who would have cleaned the food, prepared it, served it and cleaned up afterwards? Would Jesus have thought that Mary had chosen the better part if he went away hungry?
Then, on the other hand, when I stand back and reread this passage, I am in awe of the fact that Jesus supports women’s intelligence and that he protects her curiosity and desire to learn from him. We know Jesus had women followers, and we know that Jesus protected these women and viewed women as children of God. The common view of women during that time in history was that women were considered to be property of their fathers, then their husbands. Widows were often left to their own means to survive if there were no males to take them into their own households. Through this story we understand Jesus is breaking stereotypes in his time. Women, he understands, are multidimensional and it’s ok if women do not fit the role society has placed on them.
So, here we have Martha the doer, and Mary the curious listener-the thinker. While this is a story about two sisters and two women, I would hope that everyone present this morning can also see themselves in these roles: the doers and the listeners; the activists and the contemplative, the servants and the prayerful.
In my life I know I have been both Mary and Martha – and that is true just this morning – and I would hope not to be rebuked when the practical needs of life overshadow the need for deeper reflection. We need the integration of both in our lives and in the world in which we live without demeaning one or the other. We need a Mary heart in a Martha world and we also need a Martha heart in a Mary world. How do we find that balance of activism and contemplation, of doing and being in our own lives? Douglas John Hall speaks to that dualism: “What is needed is the sensitivity to recognize when it is Martha, and when it is Mary, who ought to be reminded of the dangers implicit in [one’s] posture. New occasions teach new duties.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 3)
In the tradition of the Jewish midrash of commentary and interpretive writings, a UCC colleague and poet, Maren Tirabassi, wrote a skit entitled Martha and Mary of Bethany – 15 years later – a dialogue. The setting is in the garden. To help flush out this story, Martha and Mary are asked to come to the garden. (Sandy Weber and Sherry Woods play these roles.) As they come forward I invite you to think of the times when you have been Martha and the times you have been Mary – stop being and do; stop doing and be – the need for the balance and integration of both.
Later, in the garden — fifteen years later
(Two elderly women sit down on chairs and set down their trowels. By each chair is a full wine glass. Not necessary to have first century clothing or props.)
Martha: Your flowers are beautiful, Mary.
Mary: Your vegetables are delicious, Martha.
Martha: The wine we make together is the best.
Mary: The wine we drink
together, two sisters under one roof, is, indeed, the very best.
(they lift glasses and drink)
Martha: You know, Mary, that story still follows us — all these fifteen years later. I am forever the “do-er,” the worker … and the cranky one, the impatient one, the trying-to-be- pretentious-one, the bossy one.
Mary: Well …?
Martha: Never mind!
Mary: And me? I am the mousy one, the slacker, the navel-gazer, the teacher’s pet — yep, story doesn’t work so well for me either.
Martha: Do you think that is all anyone will remember about us?
Mary: Surely not. John tells the story of you going out into the road to meet Jesus when he came after Lazarus’ death and, in the midst of the threat from Jerusalem only five miles away, you called Jesus the “Christ, the Child of God, the One for whom we wait.” No one else spoke with such faith, during Jesus’ life. Your faith is born of heart-searching, not doing the dishes.
Martha: And you are not just noted for listening and weeping, but you poured perfume on his feet, just when Lazarus’ miracle had made us already notorious, already targets. That’s no meditative self-enlightenment — that’s risky, that’s troublemaking pure and simple.
Mary: (remembering) Maybe drying his feet with my hair was a little over the top, huh?
Martha: It certainly got Judas all twisted up. He had a “vision” of spilling money.
Mary: What a look on his face! And on yours Marty, … how proud you were.
Martha: Jesus did love us both so much, didn’t he, Mary?
Mary: That’s what they wrote. And, I guess it was true, though I also think he loved everyone.
Martha: … even Judas, walking out our door that Sunday night — the dinner after the palms in the road and trashing the temple. I will never forget the anger and tears in his eyes.
But I will tell you what’s even more important — to me, at least.
Mary: More important than Jesus loving us?
Martha: Yes. More important than Jesus loving us, is how much we loved him.
Mary: I do hope they remember that. Meanwhile, is it going to be forever that I will be remembered as too lazy to get up and chop basil?
Martha: (laughing) As long as I am remembered as a whiner … and a great cook.
Mary: I just hope no one remembers my cooking!
Martha: Trust me they won’t. Or my long prayers.
Mary: You mean, “Dear God, bless dinner. Amen?”
Martha: Yes, that one.
Mary: There is one story they won’t remember unless we tell them.
Martha: Which story is that?
Mary: Well, everyone down the centuries will remember the joy on your face and mine and the folks we called in to roll the stone and good friends who unbound him, when our brother Lazarus was raised from death. That’s public.
Martha: Yes, but they won’t know, unless we tell the private story, that the same look of joy was on Lazarus’ face just before he died again, the second time …
Mary: … yes, when he knew he was “coming forth” to his real home.
Doing and being – we come to the end of today’s story. It reminds me of a photograph – a snapshot in time – frozen forever. One’s story, however, is never fully captured there because life goes on from that moment and hopefully our moments help us to continue to grow to be who God calls us to be. And maybe like Martha and Mary we come to realize that more important than how much God loves us, is how much we love God and that is reflected in our doing and being. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2019