July 17, 2022, Mary and Martha, Luke 10:38-42 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

I learned something new this week, so I thought I’d share it with you, because it’s helpful in understanding the gospel reading this week. It turns out that Luke, in his gospel, and in his “companion volume,” the Acts of the Apostles, often arranged his stories in pairs about men and women. He tells the story of the angel coming to Zechariah, and, immediately following, he tells the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary.

When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus into the Temple as a baby, Luke tells the story of Simeon, the old man who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah of God, and then he tells the story of the elderly widow, Anna, who was a prophet, and knew at once who Jesus was. Luke relates Jesus’s parable of the shepherd who lost a sheep and left all the others behind to go and find it. And he follows that parable with the parable of the woman who loses a coin and lights a lamp to search the whole house until she found it. In chapter 8, Luke tells about the disciples traveling with Jesus, and then he also tells about the large group of women who traveled along with Jesus and his disciples, and who supported them with their own funds.

I was really excited to learn about this pattern that I’d never noticed before, first of all because historically women have gotten pretty short shrift in the Church. For the most part, women were barred from ordained ministry for much of the Church’s history – and with a few remarkable exceptions the voices of women went unheard. But if we look at the gospels, we see that even though Jesus was born into a patriarchal society, we can see that women were recognized and respected throughout Jesus’s story. Jesus was definitely a radical, in this as in so many other ways as well.

And another reason I was pleased to find out about this pattern was that it was very helpful in seeing this familiar story of Mary and Martha in a new light. Because here, in Luke chapter 10, we find another pair of stories about men and women. Last week we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, about the traveler who was robbed and beaten on the road from Jerusalem, and who was cared for by a Samaritan man, who stopped and cared for him. This week Luke’s gospel follows that story with the true-life story of Jesus and his disciples traveling along the road towards Jerusalem, and being welcomed in by two sisters, Martha and Mary. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is clearly about the world of men, out in the world. The story of Martha and Mary, though, happens within the domestic world, which in that day and time was largely the world of women. But both stories are about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Of course, we all think we know the message of the story. Martha is fussing and fuming in the kitchen pulling out all the stops to properly show hospitality to the Lord. And Mary is sitting at Jesus’s feet listening to his every word. We’ve all been taught that Mary is the good one; she’s the model of discipleship. But most of us also know in our hearts that in practice we are all basically Martha. Haven’t we all said that? “Oh, I’m such a Martha.” Like it’s a bad thing. And yet, paradoxically, most of us feel more comfortable being a Martha – and somebody’s got to do the Martha stuff, right?

For years and years, using this story, women and men both have been taught to believe, falsely and harmfully and unbiblically, that it is less valuable, that it is less spiritual, that it is less important, to serve God in our everyday activities than it is to serve him in the realm of spiritual things, especially ordained ministry: things like prayer, meditation, teaching, administering the sacraments. Last Friday morning when I arrived to set up for Bible study, Ellen Galo was there ahead of me, taking a few minutes out of her organ practice time to do a little cleaning in the kitchen. This Friday morning when I arrived, Floyd Casselman was there ahead of me, doing a beautiful job caring for our yard as he and Janice do so faithfully. Who was really doing the work of a disciple of Jesus Christ? I’ll answer that in a minute.

The first problem we have is a kind of hurdle we have to get over in the story, I think. And that is what did Jesus mean when he defended Mary’s choice to sit at his feet. “Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus said, “and it won’t be taken away from her.” That really sticks in our Martha-ish craw, does it not? But we don’t properly understand what Jesus meant unless we remember that Mary and Martha lived in a very different culture from our own. Traditionally, a Rabbi (male, of course) would sit to teach, and the proper place for his disciples was seated at his feet, quietly listening. But, by tradition and by social custom, that was a men-only place. Women in that society were expected to stay in their place, working in the kitchen, serving the men.

Jesus is doing a counter-cultural thing here, in speaking up for Mary. Not only Martha, but probably Jesus’s disciples, as well as all of Middle Eastern society would have been scandalized at seeing a young woman among the disciples at Jesus’s feet. But not Jesus. It’s important to understand that he wasn’t criticizing Martha in what he said. He was speaking up for Mary –he was defending herright to sit at his feet. And that would have been a pretty shocking thing. It was groundbreaking. Jesus was saying that no one, regardless of their class or their social status, no one is excluded from being his disciple. And that might be a shocking thing in some contexts, even in our day. Is there anyone you could not imagine sitting at the feet of Jesus? Is there anyone you would be offended by if you saw them there? “That place won’t be taken away from them,” Jesus tells us.

The other thing we have tended to misunderstand is what Jesus meant when he told Martha, “Only one thing is necessary.” Jesus is so annoying when he’s being cryptic, isn’t he? Why doesn’t he just come out and say things plainly? Last week, why did Jesus have to tell a whole story about a Priest and a Levite and a Samaritan when the lawyer just wanted a nice tidy definition of who his neighbor was? This week, why doesn’t Jesus just come right out and tell Martha she really ought to be sitting at his feet like her sister, instead of sweating and fretting over the soup in the kitchen? Well, Jesus didn’t say those things because that’s not what he was teaching. He didn’t give the lawyer a tidy definition of “neighbor” because he was teaching the lawyer how to BE a neighbor. He didn’t tell Martha to sit down and be spiritual like her sister because he wasn’t condemning Martha for who she was. He was teaching Martha how to serve him as she was.

The name Martha means “Mistress.” It comes from the Aramaic word “mar” which means “Lord.” Martha was probably the older sister, the one in charge of running of the household, with any number of responsibilities on her very capable shoulders. For Martha the one thing necessary was to focus everything she did, the works of her hands and mind and strength, in love and service to Jesus. Eyes on Jesus alone. Everything else falls into place. For Mary, the one thing necessary was to listen to Jesus alone, not to the expectations of her sister or the condemnation of the world. Ears for Jesus alone. Everything else falls into place.

Jesus refused to tell Mary she had to go and be like Martha. But he also did not tell Martha she had to go and be like Mary. Only one thing was necessary, and that was to focus on Jesus, in all their doing and all their being, in all their listening and all their loving. And that begins to fit in very well with what we read last week: what is the most important of all the commandments in the Law? It’s really just this one thing: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

If you look on the back of the bulletin, there is a little graphic, urging all Martha’s to take a little time to be Mary today. And there’s truth in that: it’s a wonderful and refreshing thing to sit quietly with God. We should all seek times of quiet with God in the course of our hectic lives, for our mental health as much as anything. But the danger behind that gentle invitation is that we too often have the idea that it is only when we give up our Martha-ness and sit in Mary’s seat, that we really come into the presence of God, and that is false. It’s false first of all, because we are never NOT in the presence of God. It’s false, because we don’t have to stop being Martha and pretend to be Mary to please God; Jesus loved both Martha and Mary just as they were. And it’s false, because we can serve God just as lovingly and just as well by washing the dishes or cutting the grass as we can by leading a Bible study or sitting quietly in prayer. We serve God whenever we do as Paul tells us: “whatever we do, in our words or actions, doing it all in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

To paraphrase Brother Lawrence, “We don’t grow in holiness by changing what we do; we grow in holiness by doing for God’s sake what we normally do for our own sake.” And so, going back to these past two Friday mornings, when I came in to set up for Bible study, and Ellen was shining up the microwave, and Floyd was running the mower – as you have probably guessed, it was all three of us who were going about the work of discipleship, all three of us loving God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength – each one of us faithful to the work God had given us to do that morning, each one of us doing our very best out of love to our Lord Jesus Christ – because that is the one and only necessary thing. +

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