July 17, 2016, Proud to Be a Martha – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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The story of Mary and Martha is one of those Bible stories that tends to bother people. I know it bothers me. We read about Martha bustling around trying to get dinner on the table by herself while her sister sits quietly at our Lord’s feet. Luke doesn’t give much detail, but I assume that Martha had been trying to catch Mary’s eye and give her the signal that she had better get in the kitchen where the women belong and her help was needed, instead of making a fool of herself sitting with the men. It’s not a bit surprising that Martha finally got fed up and asked Jesus to please tell Mary to help out, since she was obviously not going to pay any attention to her sister.
But then comes the part of the story that really bothers us – or at least me – because Jesus seems to take Mary’s side. Not only does he not tell Mary to get up and help her sister, he tells Martha that it’s Mary who is actually doing the better thing, making the better choice. It looks like Mary chooses a privileged position, and Jesus defends her right to that privilege.
What is wrong with this picture? It’s all wrong, right? We know that Jesus’ followers are supposed to be servants. And we know that Jesus’ followers are not supposed to take the better place. We’re supposed to be humble and not put ourselves forward.
But the reason this really bothers us is because we – or at least I – identify so much more with Martha, than with Mary. We would really have liked it so much better if Jesus had told Mary to go help her poor sister. Because we know what it’s like to be Martha:
We are constantly overwhelmed by how much there is to do
We measure ourselves by what we accomplish
We know that not working is laziness, and laziness is bad
We pride ourselves on being hard-working – and humble
At the same time, we hear from what Jesus says that Mary is special. The Marys of this world, we understand, are those holy people who are in the pews praying instead of in the kitchen chopping vegetables and washing dishes. We look up to them. We admire them. And we even recognize that they are better than us. But we are privately confirmed in our heart of hearts, if we are honest, that we really prefer Martha-ing our way through life. We tell ourselves that we are quite happy shouldering the heavy burden of Martha-hood and leaving the place of honor to the Marys.
And so we miss the whole point of the story.
First and foremost, this story is not about separating the Marys from the Marthas. This is not like one of those silly facebook quizzes: answer these ten questions to find out if you are a Mary or a Martha. And a good thing, too, because I’m pretty sure that at least 99% of us would definitely come out Marthas.
Can you just feel your defenses rising yet? When I read this story, I always find myself having lots of good reasons why it’s OK that I’m a Martha; do you? After all, how can it be a bad thing to be a hard worker, to be helpful, to be a good servant? We know that none of those things are bad. So what is Jesus criticizing poor Martha for? Isn’t her life hard enough already? Isn’t our life hard enough already?
“Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “you are worried and distracted by so many things. I want you to know that there is only one thing you need.”
“You are worried and distracted by so many things.”
Martha was distracted, not by the work she had to do, but by the sheer unfairness of having to run around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to get dinner for at least 16 people, while her sister sat peacefully listening. I totally get that. That dinner wasn’t going to cook itself, and the table wasn’t going to set itself. Somebody’s got to do the tedious stuff. It just didn’t seem fair to Martha that she was doing it alone.
And even worse, it worried her that no one seemed to appreciate how hard she was working. She was doing it for them, after all. “Lord, don’t you care? Don’t you care that my sister is leaving all the work to me?” It worried her that she might fail to earn the love and respect of this man whose love and respect she valued so much.
The place Martha had chosen was the place we so often choose ourselves. We don’t mind working hard, but we do want justice. We want things to be fair. We are doing it all for Jesus after all; we’re doing our Christian duty. We’re making coleslaw for the Community Dinner when we’d much rather be reading a good book. We’re mowing the lawn for our sick neighbor when we’re already tired from mowing our own lawn. And really, we’re glad to do what we can do to be good Christians. We just think other people should be being good Christians, too. That’s only fair. We act from the best of intentions, to please God and to be good people. But we get distracted by the careful measuring and comparing of our actions to the actions of others.
And the heart of the matter; the real reason that worries us so much, I think, is that we are so afraid that after all our hard work, maybe God won’t even notice. “Lord, don’t you care that I’m doing all the work?” Martha asked Jesus. “Don’t you care?” If we are honest with ourselves, we worry that maybe God won’t ever care about us plain old Marthas like he cares about the Marys. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the Mary and Martha story in Sunday School lessons or Bible story books, have you ever noticed that the artist always draws Mary pretty and Martha plain? That is our basic human fear and insecurity crying out from the deepest recesses of our minds and hearts. We know we are Marthas, and we are terrified that we will always be Marthas. We are so afraid that we will never be the one Jesus looks on with love and respect and approval, no matter how hard we work, no matter how perfect the table setting is, no matter how diligently we serve, no matter how heavy the burden is that we carry on our shoulders.
We are afraid, because we have missed the whole point of the story.
“There is need of only one thing,” Jesus told Martha. “Mary has chosen the better part, and it won’t be taken from her.” Hear what Jesus told his good friend Martha. “There is need of only one thing.” He’s not talking about Mary. He says to Martha: “There is only one thing you need.” Not to work harder. Not to work better. Not to make Mary work so things are fair and square. There is need of only one thing. And that is, to know me. To know that I love you. Stop worrying, stop comparing yourself; lay down the heavy burdens of performance and earning your way and trying to measure up, because when you know me you will know that you are loved without measure and above and beyond all fairness.
“Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” Jesus told Martha. “But Martha, I want you to choose the better part as well. There is need of only one thing. Not after the dinner is on the table or after the dishes are washed. But now. There is need of only one thing. Know me. Listen to me.
Do you realize that Jesus doesn’t ever need us to serve him? It is he who serves us, not the other way round. There’s no fairness in it, no comparison, no measurement. Only one thing. He loves us. That is the better part. Jesus was inviting Martha to choose the good that her sister Mary had chosen. He invites us all, all of us Marthas, to choose the better part.
It’s not a one-time choice, of course, because we are Marthas in every fiber of our being. We are Marthas from childhood to old age, from top to bottom and from the very center of our being to the ends of our fingers and toes. We get distracted and anxious. We hate unfairness. We load ourselves with burdens too heavy for us and we indulge in our little pity parties and we worry, worry, worry, that we will never be good enough and that God will never love us as much as the Marys. And so, every moment, we have to keep choosing the better place, over and over again. “There is only one thing needed,” Jesus told Martha. Because Jesus loved Martha just as he loved Mary – just as he loves you and me.
Remember today, remember in this moment, what Jesus tells you – that there is only one thing needed. And that is to know him. Know that he loves you, know that he approves of you; he delights in you: not because you are working so hard, not because you are as good as somebody else or better than somebody else, but simply because Jesus has chosen to know and love you.
His presence is the better place. Choose to abide in his presence: today and tomorrow and the next day, moment by moment, when you are working and when you are at rest, when you are alone or when you are in the middle of a crowd. Choose to abide in that better place.
And the better place will never be taken away from you.
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