Sermon for February 27th, 2022
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
The Only Thing You Need
Today's scripture passage--the story of Martha, Mary, and Jesus--is all about priorities, and putting the really important things first. I'm reminded of the story about the frustrated wife whose husband was an avid sports fan. One day she reached the end of her rope and blurted out to him, "You'd probably miss my funeral to go to a stupid ball game!" The husband looked at her in disbelief and asked, "What makes you think I'd schedule your funeral on the day of a game?" Priorities...putting the really important things first.
If you're not already familiar with this story, Martha and Mary are two sisters who show up several times in the gospels, along with their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus raises from the dead. Biblical scholars believe these three siblings were part of Jesus' innermost circle: At one point, in John chapter 11, we are told that "Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus." And of course, when Lazarus dies, the scriptures relate that Jesus was overcome with emotion, hence the shortest (and perhaps most poignant) verse in the Bible: "Jesus wept."
So all in all, this is a pretty important family, close to Jesus. Some scholars speculate that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were wealthy, or at least part of what we would call the "upper middle class" of their society, because they own their own family tomb. Mary in another part of the gospels, uses expensive perfume to wash Jesus' feet. Martha, in today's scripture passage, apparently owns her own home, and judging by her "many tasks" and need for help, we might imagine it to be a fairly large home.
Those are some things we know...or can reasonably guess, about Martha and Mary. But there are also a few things I'd like to de-bunk--some stereotypes and shallow assumptions that people often make in connection with this story. There's an interpretation of the story that goes something like this: Martha, the busybody, is working, working, working. Mary--the pious, passive, devout and worshipful Mary--is sitting at Jesus' feet, hanging on his every word. Martha tries to get a little help, a little relief, and Jesus says, "No, Martha. Mary is right and you're wrong. It's better to sit quietly and listen to me, than to run around like crazy trying to get everything done." Mary wins. Martha loses. Game over. The end.
I have a problem with this version of the story. First, it's not very fair to Martha. Based on just one episode--three verses out of the entire gospels--Martha is pigeonholed as an obsessive-compulsive busybody, or a workaholic. Mary is stereotyped on the opposite extreme--meek, calm, reverent, and spiritual. While the two sisters may have been some of these things, there's no way to prove that on such limited evidence. People in general are far more three-dimensional than this. And it's worth remembering that in the Gospel of John, it is Martha--not Mary--who is the first to acknowledge and worship Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."
The second problem I have with the usual interpretation of the story is that it seems to make Jesus favor passive contemplation, prayer and worship over and above active labor, hard work, and service to others. That's exactly how this passage was interpreted in Medieval Monasteries, where some monks who dedicated their lives to prayer, fasting, and study of the scriptures were held in higher esteem than other monks who cleaned the monastery, worked in the fields, and put food on the table for the praying monks.
John Calvin--the founding father of both our Presbyterian denomination and a little thing called the "Protestant Work Ethic" disagreed with that interpretation. Calvin taught that all people--rich and poor alike--must work, because all vocations, all work is a divine calling from God. Through our labor and toil, we develop the resources God has given us in order to be a benefit to our neighbors and to the common good.
And yet...Jesus tells Martha, in verse 42, "Mary has chosen the better part." Work. Worship. Martha chooses work; Mary chooses worship. Mary has chosen the better part.
Only I'm not convinced Jesus is buying into the whole work vs. worship thing. Martha is--she comes to Jesus and says, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." For Martha, it's a question of work vs. worship. But listen to Jesus' answer in verse 41: "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."
But pay attention to what Jesus does NOT say. He doesn't say: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by all your work. There is need of only one thing, and it's worship--sitting at my feet and listening quietly to me, like Mary is doing." No. Jesus doesn't pit work against worship, he pits thing against thing. He doesn't name Martha's distractions, nor does he ever clearly say what that "one needed thing" is, either.
I think that's because there is nothing wrong with what Martha is doing. There's nothing wrong with what Mary is doing. Hospitality, or working to make someone welcome in your home is every bit as good a way to love, serve, and honor a guest as listening attentively to what he or she says. The problem is not a difference in WHAT Mary and Martha are doing...it's a difference in HOW they are going about it.
This is almost exactly the same story as another one in the bible about two other siblings. The very first siblings, in fact: Cain and Abel. In the book of Genesis, both brothers make sacrifices to God. Cain was a farmer, and made an offering of fruits and vegetables. Abel was a shepherd, and made an offering of burnt meat. God rejected Cain's offering, and accepted Abel's.
As much as I would like to think that it's because God loves meat-eaters more than vegetarians...it was never really about what was on the grill. It was always about what was in the heart. God cares far more about the spirit in which something is given than the substance of the gift. God cares more about the quality of what you give--whether its your time, money, attention--than the quantity. This was true for Cain, Abel, Martha, Mary, and for us today.
In the story of Martha and Mary, I find there are three principles we can learn from, and also a promise. So here they are:
1. Jesus calls us out of our comfort zones, challenging social boundaries and the status quo.
I don't think Martha was working in the kitchen because that was just her personality. I think she was working because that was the expected gender role for her culture in her time. The women cook and clean...while the men sit at the foot of the Rabbi. Mary should be in the kitchen, too--but she isn't. She's taking a chance, pushing the boundaries, raising some eyebrows.
You know... kind of like Jesus, who turns power structures upside down, eats with sinners and tax collectors, and says that the first will be last and the last will be first. Jesus calls us out of our comfort zones, challenging social boundaries and the status quo. Mary answered that call. Martha didn't. What social boundaries is Jesus calling you to challenge today? How is Jesus calling you to go against the grain and turn other people's expectations of you upside down?
2. Jesus calls us to full, wholehearted, 100% commitment.
Jesus' criticism of Martha is not that she's working. It's that she is "distracted by many things." I don't think her work is one of the distractions--rather, I think she is distracted FROM her work by many things. You might say that her hands are working, but her heart isn't in it. And that's an easy trap for all of us to fall into. After all, work is...well...work.
But Colossians 3:23 says that "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord." Martha and Mary were both, literally, working for the Lord. But Martha was distracted from her work, while Mary gave full, undivided attention to hers (which happened to be listening to Jesus). Jesus calls us to wholehearted, 100% commitment. What would that look like in your work? In your worship? In your family? In your church?
3. Jesus calls us to serve him (and through him to serve others) above and beyond serving ourselves.
I just said that Jesus asks us to commit 100% to whatever work we are called to. But I didn't say Jesus calls us to be workaholics--neglecting all else in order to advance ourselves through our work. Remember, it's not about how much work we do, it's about WHO is glorified through that work. Notice that Martha refers to Jesus once, Mary once, and to herself three times: "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left ME to do all the work by MYself? Tell her then to help ME."
When children do this we call it being a "tattle-tale." When grownups do it, we call it "triangulation." Martha has a problem with Mary, but instead of going directly to Mary, she tries to drag Jesus into it, but really it's all about Martha. How often do WE come to serve Jesus, but what we really want is for Jesus to serve us? How often do we ask Jesus to help us with our plans, instead of finding out what his plan is?
Jesus tells Martha there is need of only one thing. He doesn't say what it is, but I believe that one thing (the only thing you need) is, in fact, Jesus himself. Put that one, needed thing first, and everything else will fall into place. The opposite is true as well: without that "one needed thing" in place, you will only work harder and harder to gain less and less. Jesus calls us to serve him first, and in the process to serve others, always putting him (and them) above ourselves.
Three principles, and now a promise: Martha tells Jesus, "My sister has left me to do all the work by myself," and in those words, "left me" and "by myself" is a fear that many of us share: The fear of being left behind by the ones we love, the fear of being all alone. Recognizing this fear, I believe that Jesus is speaking a promise to Martha when he says, "there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part... which will not be taken away from her."
Jesus is only thing we really and truly need. And here he is saying, "Choose me, Martha. Put aside your distractions and give your life to me, 100%, wholeheartedly. Choose me, Martha, and put me first in your life, above all others. Choose me, Martha, and if you do that, I will never be taken from you. Choose me, Martha, and you will never be alone again.