July 21, 2019, Don’t Mary Me, (Luke 10:38-42) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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As far as I can recall, I’ve never met a person who identified themselves as a “Mary”. But I’ve met any number of people who identify as “Marthas”. I can certainly see a lot of Martha in myself. And the thing about us self-proclaimed Marthas is that we generally take a little pride in our persistent Martha-ness. If we’re honest, we like being the people who are bustling around out there, getting stuff done. We even, sometimes, take a perverse kind of satisfaction in feeling overwhelmed, because it just proves how really productive and useful we are.
When we read the story of Mary and Martha, we tend to think about these women (and ourselves) in terms of personality types: we are what we are. We see ourselves, for the most part, as Martha-type people just by our nature. But we also have a sneaking suspicion that it is more virtuous, more pleasing to God somehow, to be a Mary-type person, and we often read the story with a vague uneasy sense of unworthiness, knowing that we aren’t very inclined to be Mary-ish. But here’s the first thing to notice: at no point in the story of Mary and Martha does Jesus tell Martha to be like Mary.
We can put together a pretty good picture of Mary of Bethany from her appearances in the gospels, and it would seem that she was something of an eccentric, quite an unusual woman for the time and place she lived in. To go and sit at the feet of an honored male guest, in the company of his rough-and-ready male companions, instead of heading to the kitchen to help with dinner preparations – that was definitely non-conforming behavior. But when Jesus came to Bethany on a later occasion, just days before his death, Mary did something stranger still. Jesus and his disciples were reclining around the table, and Mary came in with a jar of extremely valuable perfume – a full pound of it. And she didn’t just pour a little out to anoint Jesus, Mary broke the jar and poured out its full contents. It was a passionate and definitely non-standard expression of love. Mary just didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought of her.
And yet, we also see that Mary was generally the quieter sister, even submissive to her sister Martha. When their brother Lazarus became very sick, it was Martha who sent word to Jesus begging for his help. When Jesus arrived, it was Martha who came out to greet him, while Mary stayed inside weeping for her brother. So that’s Mary, a deeply sensitive and spiritual woman who just didn’t quite fit the stereotype for a woman of first-century Palestine.
When Martha complained to Jesus about Mary, asking him to tell her to get up and make herself useful, she did have a houseful of men to cook for, so that there was good reason for her to feel overwhelmed by the tasks she had set for herself. But I believe she was also very troubled by Mary’s behavior. Didn’t Jesus care that her sister was embarrassing herself, sitting at the feet of the Teacher like one of the guys, instead of busying herself in the kitchen like a respectable woman should?
But Jesus replied in no uncertain terms. Would he admonish Mary and send her to the kitchen where she belonged? Absolutely not. “Mary has chosen the good part,” Jesus said to Martha, “and it won’t be taken away from her.” Now, it seems very unlikely that Martha was in any way jealous of her sister. I can’t imagine that Martha herself had any desire to go and sit with all those unwashed fishermen. And notice, Jesus never suggested that she should. But he made it abundantly clear that Mary, in all her eccentricity, had his full blessing and approval.
Maybe you can think of people you know, maybe even people in your own family, who you really wish wouldn’t always be quite so themselves. Not because they do anything wrong or harmful, but just because they offend against what the world considers “normal” and “acceptable.” We worry about them, for one thing. And sometime we find them embarrassing, as Martha was embarrassed by Mary’s oddness. It’s hard for us to have grace for someone who chooses to march to a different drummer, as they say. But one thing we see in the story of Mary and Martha is that Jesus has grace for people who don’t fit into the molds society sets for us, people who are “special”. And even more, the story might suggest that people the world sees as weird or unacceptable are often able to draw close to Jesus in ways we can’t even understand.
Just as we can get a fairly good picture of Mary by reading the gospels, we can also get a pretty good idea of what Martha of Bethany was like. It’s pretty clear Martha was the head of that household in many ways, a woman of authority and ability. She reminds me of the Proverbs 31 woman, a real woman of virtue. She is a hospitable woman, we can tell. Surely not every woman would have invited an itinerant preacher and his twelve young followers into her home and fed them. We already noted that when their brother became ill, some time later, it was Martha who got a message off to Jesus asking him to come, and Martha who was watching for him, and who came out to greet him when he arrived, too late.
And in spite of all the grief and disappointment Martha must have been feeling at that moment, we see that Martha held fast to her faith. John tells us she held firm to the teachings that promised Lazarus would rise again on the last day. But John tells us that she also had a deep faith in Jesus himself, hoping beyond all reasonable hope that the Teacher had the power to bring her brother back to her.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” This tells us, by the way, that Martha had obviously been listening closely to what Jesus was teaching, even if she was setting the table and kneading the bread while she listened.
But maybe what says the most about Martha’s character is that when Mary broke that jar of expensive perfume and poured it out on Jesus out of sheer overwhelming love, Martha didn’t make any objections at all. Instead, it was the disciples who were scandalized, especially Judas, at Mary’s strange behavior and at that profligate waste of money. I think Martha had learned by that time to understand her sister’s eccentricities, and maybe even to appreciate them.
But notice, Jesus never told Martha that she should really try to be more like Mary. On that first occasion, when Martha complained about her sister, Jesus answered Martha with compassion and understanding. “Martha, Martha,” he said, “You’re worried and bothered about so many things. But only one thing is needed.” And the really fascinating thing is that Jesus never identifies the one thing. Some of the early commentaries actually suggested that Jesus was saying Martha only needed to make one dish for dinner, though most commentaries agree that Jesus is talking spiritually here. So what is the one thing? Listening to him, being more like Mary? Offering hospitality? Being patient with your eccentric little sister? Something generic, like love? Jesus doesn’t say. And I believe there’s a reason for that.
Luke tells the story of a rich young man who came to Jesus one day and asked him, “What do I need to do to have eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “You know the commandments: don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, and so forth….” “I’ve kept all those commandments my whole life, since I was a little boy,” the young man said. “You lack only one thing,” Jesus answered him. “Go, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. And then, come follow me.” For that rich young man, the one needful thing was to free himself from the slavery of his possessions.
When Paul wrote to the Philippians from a Roman prison, he told them, “I know that I am still far from perfect, but I’m just doing one thing these days. I’m forgetting what lies behind me, and I’m pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” In that prison cell, for Paul, that single-minded focus was his one needful thing.
The one needful thing is to follow Jesus, but it takes different shapes and forms, depending on who we are and where we are and when. It isn’t spelled out in the story of Mary and Martha, what Martha’s one needful thing was, but we do know this: that Martha learned to follow Jesus and to put her trust absolutely in him, even in the face of her brother’s death. The truth of this story is not that we need to be more like Mary or less like Martha. It is that we, whoever we are, need to be single-minded and whole-hearted in following Christ, not burdened by the expectations of the world or pressure to conform to what the world says is “normal.” Paul wrote, “Don’t be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” We can see that transformation in the life of Martha, from a woman rushing around the kitchen like a mad hen, complaining about her unruly sister – to a strong woman of faith.
At one time or another we are all Marthas, worried and bothered by any number of things or people or situations. Hear the words of Jesus: “Only one thing is needful.” Our one and only responsibility, ever, is to follow Jesus, to seek him in the midst of who we are and where we are and whatever is happening around us. Dallas Willard puts it simply this way: we should do the next thing we know to be right. Sometimes, it might mean giving up everything we’ve been holding onto like the rich young man. Sometimes, it might mean letting go of trying to change or control the people around us, like Martha, extending grace instead of judgment. Sometimes it might mean putting all of our regrets and fears and guilt and loss behind us, like Paul, and single-mindedly pressing on toward our goal. And sometimes, some blessed times, it might mean just being still, like Mary, sitting at the Teacher’s feet, and listening.