Sermon for July 21st, 2013
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.’
Marthacans, Marycans & Americans
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.
The story of Martha and Mary is familiar to many of us, but as with all familiar stories that we hear over and over again, it's easy to get stuck at the surface level, easy to assume that we know what the story is really about. Today, I invite you to dig deeper into this story; because it's not just a story about two sisters from 2,000 years ago. It's a story about us. If you'll forgive the bad pun in the sermon title, it's a story about Martha-cans, Mary-cans, and Ameri-cans, too.
So what do we know about Martha and Mary? They show up several times in the gospel, along with their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus raises from the dead. 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 tell us that, "Jesus wept." So all in all, 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 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 (maybe a little bit of a slacker) and spiritual. While she may have been some of these things, there's no way to prove that on such limited evidence. People in general are 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 this version 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 monks who dedicated their lives to prayer, fasting, and study of the scriptures were held in higher esteem than the monks who cleaned the monastery, worked in the fields, and put food on the table for the praying monks. John Calvin--the 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; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
Notice what Jesus doesn't 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 vs. thing. He doesn't name Martha's distractions, nor does he ever say what the "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 one about two other siblings a long, long time ago: Cain and Abel. Both brothers made 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 likes meat-eaters more than vegetarians...it was never really about what was on the grill. It was about what was in the heart. God cares 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 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 three pitfalls (that we can also learn from). And if we can successfully navigate between the principals and the pitfalls, there's also a promise waiting for us in the end. 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. 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 us to challenge today?
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, while Mary gave her full, undivided attention to what she was doing (which happened to be listening to Jesus). Jesus calls us to full, wholehearted, 100% commitment. What would that look like in our church? What would that look like in our businesses? What would that look like in our families?
3. Jesus calls us to serve him (and through him to serve others) above ourselves.
As Americans, we can probably identify with the stereotype of the Workaholic Martha, even if that Martha doesn't really exist. But there's another side of Martha that I think does exist, and it's one Americans are very familiar with, too. Some call it "rugged individualism" but it's probably best summed up in the expression "It's all about me, me, me." Martha refers to Jesus once, Mary once, and 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." Incidentally, 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 to 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 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, three pitfalls, 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 the one needed thing. 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 I will never be taken from you. Choose me, Martha, and you will never be alone again.