MARTHA & MARY, MARY & MARTHA
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 & Luke 10 :38-42
July 17, 2022
Today we continue with our lessons in discipleship. Ecclesiastes 3 was not one of the lectionary readings assigned for today, but as I read the gospel text, this text came to mind. What Lucinda read from Ecclesiastes was a listing of fourteen pairs of opposites. Just because the words in each pair are opposites does not mean that one of the pair is more favorable than the other. Each pair is context specific and each one in the pair is required for completeness and balance of the whole.
If all we did was to plant and never plucked up, what was planted would rot and go to waste. If all we did was speak and never keep silent, how would we ever hear the voice of God or anyone else’s voice; and if we always kept silent, how would we express fully who we are and what we have to offer? Since I have taken up thrift shopping as a hobby, the one that I try to live by is: there is a time to keep and a time to throw away, or as I prefer, give away. Especially with clothing, when I bring something new into the house, then something else must go. The point is, there is a time and place for everything, but context and balance are required.
This brings us to the familiar story of the sisters, Martha and Mary. The two sisters lived in Bethany in the same home with their brother Lazarus. From the story told in the Gospel according to John about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, we know that Jesus was friends with the family, but we don’t know how they met. Perhaps our story today is about their first encounter. We read a couple of weeks ago that Jesus had sent out seventy to go ahead of him to the places he planned to visit. Maybe Bethany was one of those places and Martha and Mary were excited to meet the Teacher when he passed through their way.
What we do know is that when Jesus and his disciples entered a certain village, Martha met them and welcomed them. Welcoming and hospitality were really big deals in Jesus’ day. It was even commanded under the law. The commandment in Leviticus 19 reads: 33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” Martha invited Jesus to her home and Jesus accepted the invitation.
We all know what it’s like when we are expecting company. We want things to be just right; so we make ourselves crazy. The house that doesn’t particularly bother us when we’re at home by ourselves suddenly needs to be put into ship shape for company. There is cleaning and decluttering to do. There is food to be prepared. You can’t entertain guests without having some kind of food and drink. Since Jesus didn’t travel by himself, the disciples might have tagged along too or maybe they were farmed out to others within the village. In either case, Martha had quite the checklist to complete.
Just from the fact that Martha always seems to be named before Mary, and because it was Martha that greeted and welcomed Jesus, I get the feeling that Martha is the older of the two sisters. So we can’t overlook ranking of birth order in this text either. I know my siblings always thought that I was spoiled because I was the youngest.
While Martha ran around like a chicken with its head cut off, Mary planted herself at Jesus’ feet and was soaking in everything he was saying. It got too hot in the kitchen for Martha and she finally lost her cool. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me.” That was an awkward moment. Jesus was a guest and had no business being drawn into an issue Martha was having with her sister.
In the context of Miss Manners and understanding that there is a right time and place for everything, this was the wrong time and place for Martha to address her issues with Mary. Jesus said as much when he said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things,but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Did Jesus just take Mary’s side here and leave Martha hanging out there all by herself? Not really. Martha was every bit the disciple that Mary was. She was the one that extended the invitation to Jesus to come to their home. She was the one who was serving him quite literally through her meal preparation. Jesus, as friend and teacher, was just trying to get Martha to catch her breath and center herself. He was not belittling her or her ministry. Martha is one of those salt of the earth kind of people you can count on to pitch in and do the hard work when help is needed. Her service to the kingdom was needed just as much as Mary’s.
All of us in the church are guilty of losing our focus from time to time. We get sidetracked. We turn our attention away from what really matters, which is being the body of Christ where we have been planted, and we fixate on, argue about, and sweat the little stuff that really doesn’t matter in the long run. That’s what happened to Martha. Mary got Martha’s attention instead of Jesus. Martha got so caught up in what she was doing that she lost sight of who she was doing it for and she was missing out on the opportunity to be present in the moment with Jesus.
As for Mary, in the context of this story, she chose the better part. When the opportunity presented itself, Mary chose to sit and learn at the feet of the Master. As we know, once in a lifetime opportunities are rare and we need to take advantage of them when we are given the chance. Mary did. The time Mary spent in Jesus’ presence would guide and sustain her all of her days. No matter where she found herself on life’s journey, no one could ever take that away from her.
The message for today is not either/or, but both/and. The kingdom of God needs people who will work hard and put in the time to search for the truth, and it needs people who will proclaim it. The kingdom needs people who will meditate and contemplate on God’s love, and it needs people who will go out and express it in word and deed. The kingdom needs people who will devote their lives to prayer, and it needs people who will enact those prayers in real time with real people in real places. The kingdom needs people who are free from all worldly ties and responsibilities, and it needs people who can hands on manage its affairs in house. The church needs both Martha and Mary. Sometimes every Martha has to become Mary. Sometimes every Mary has to become Martha. (Robert Van De Wyer, Celtic Parables: Stories Poems, and Prayers, Northstone, 1998)
For the Martha and Mary within us all, worship is our common ground. If we don’t know what we should do, worship gives us a place to start, for it is here together that we hear and contemplate on the word of God for the people of God. If we are doers, worship is our measuring stick that will help us to know how we are doing. Are we moving along on the right track, or have we strayed from the ministry and mission of our Lord and are following a different agenda? For all of us, worship is the place where we are reminded that we never journey alone. God is with us. In worship, we find our balance and we are empowered to go back into the world to serve our Lord; using the gifts and talents we have been given.
Friends: Take time to be holy, the world rushes on; spend much time in secret, with Jesus alone. By looking to Jesus, like him we shall be; our friends in our conduct his likeness will see. Amen. (“Take Time to Be Holy” Public Domain)