I have heard it said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who do not. I, myself, am of the latter opinion, because no simple binary model can contain the diversity of the multitudes of humanity. Still, Mary and Martha represent two ideal types of individuals.
Mary is the calm contemplative while Martha is the can-do activist. Or at least that is how they have been portrayed over the centuries.
The history of this text’s interpretation is an interesting one. In the Middle Ages this text was employed to privilege the monastic life over life in “the world.” It was considered more blessed in the eyes of God to be in a monastery praying than in a village working and raising a family. One of the first things that Martin Luther, himself a monk, did in his reforms was to abolish the monasteries. He also took a former nun as his wife. He developed a new doctrine of vocation in which every person can honor God in their work. He challenged the idea that the monastic life was the true religious life.
Some have argued that the Mary/Martha story was used to keep women from the active part of church life and relegated them to passive roles and out of leadership. I am old enough to recall when it was only men who could be deacons in a Congregational church. My first congregations in rural Maine had male deacons who served communion, and female deaconesses who set up the communion table and cleaned up afterward. I changed that to include men and women as deacons, but that was as recent as 1975. Well defined gender roles ran deep in the church for centuries, and stories like Mary and Martha were employed to justify them.
Others have argued, quite to the contrary, that Jesus’s acceptance of Mary as a disciple means full participation of women in the life of the church, something I support, as you would expect since my daughter is your pastor.
Still another interpreter has come to the opposite conclusion, that Luke marginalizes women by showing that Jesus only accepts Mary as a disciple because she acts like a man in sitting at his feet and listening, the stance of a male disciple. Martha, in this view, is delegitimized for doing “women’s work.”
Let’s dig into the text and see what we can find there. First of all, we note that Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. The frame for the story is hospitality. We can see from our first reading, where Abraham welcomes the three strangers, that hospitality is not just women’s work. Abraham put out his very best food and drink for his three guests. Spoiler alert: they were angels.The tradition is that when you welcome the stranger into your home, you may be “entertaining angels unaware” as Abraham did.
Hospitality, then and now, is an important cultural norm in the Near East, and it was also a mark of the early church that followed Jesus.
In my sermon for two weeks ago we saw how Luke describes Jesus as homeless and dependent on the hospitality of his disciples and also of strangers. He depended on the hospitality of people like Mary and Martha. This is the only story about Mary and Martha in the three synoptic Gospels, but the Gospel of John features them in the story of the raising of Lazarus, who is their brother.
So, they may or may not have been actual disciples, Luke doesn’t say, but Martha welcomes Jesus into her home, displaying a typical act of hospitality. They may have known Jesus before, again we don’t know. But in John’s Gospel Jesus weeps when he hears of Lazarus’ death, so it may be that Jesus was good friends with this family.
Whether they knew each other or not Jesus comes into Martha’s home and she starts busying herself with providing appropriate food and drink to her guest. But she notices that her sister Mary just sits down on the floor at Jesus’s feet and listens to what Jesus had to say.
This annoys Martha that Mary isn’t helping her in the kitchen, and we can imagine her seething and banging pots and pans a little too enthusiastically to get her sister’s attention and express her annoyance.
And here is where I think we get to the real heart of this passage. Martha never asks Mary to help her. Instead she asks Jesus to intercede for her, saying, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
In the therapeutic world this kind of behavior is called “triangulation.” I was a parish minister for a very long time, and it took me many years to figure this one out. Someone would come to me and say, “I was speaking to someone and they are really bothered by (fill in the blank).” The messenger would invariably add, “I don’t feel that way myself, but I thought you would like to know.” Eventually, I would ask, “who is it?” Often, they wouldn’t tell me, but whether they did or not I learned to say, “Have them come and talk to me directly about it.”
So, Mary tries to triangulate Jesus and her sister Mary. Another thing to notice about Martha’s complaint to Jesus is that she refers to herself several times: “My sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Quite a lot of “me” “me” “me” “my.”
Martha’s generous hospitality has become more about her than about her guest. I completely understand this because I love to have people over and cook beautiful tasty food for them, but sometimes my cooking takes on a performative quality about it where it is more about my food than simple hospitality. Sometimes I realize that my guests don’t really care that much about the cool food that I have so painstakingly prepared for them, and that they just wanted to visit. I never ask these people over again, but you get my point!
So, Jesus gets to the heart of the problem and answers her: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” As one commentator wrote: “Jesus is not going after Busy Martha, but Worried and Distracted Martha.” (James A. Wallace, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 265)
At a different time Jesus might well have commended Martha’s hospitality. As I said in last week’s sermon Jesus doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all template, but deals with each person differently. Last week he told the lawyer to “go and do” while today he tells Martha “sit and listen.”
So, it wasn’t Martha’s busyness that Jesus called to account, but her distractedness, her worry, and her lack of focus.
One of the features of my disability is difficulty with focus and attention. One of the reasons that I write out my sermons in full is so that I won’t lose focus and go off on the numerous tangents that call for my attention. Not to say that I don’t do that anyway, but I prepare myself against it. We often say in the brain injury community that we experience many of the same challenges that everybody does, they are just magnified by our injuries.
So, we all have focus and attention issues. Because all of us live in a distracted age, where the amount of information available to us is far more than we can take in and absorb. It is like trying to take a drink of water from a fire hose.
Another problem I struggle with is impaired multi-tasking. But again, that is a problem for our age. Have you noticed how many times of late the traffic light turns green and the car in front of you doesn’t move until you honk your horn. That is because the driver is texting or looking at their smartphone.
It’s a real problem. According to the most recent statistics, from last year, compiled by the National Safety Council, cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes annually. Texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than driving under the influence of alcohol is. One out of every four traffic crashes that occur in the U.S. are caused by cell phone usage. Some of these crashes end in death. We are distracting ourselves to death. I have a hiking friend whose adult son dropped his phone while driving and leaned down to retrieve it and hit another vehicle head on and was killed.
But we are not just distracted in the car, we are distracted in our homes. The 24/7 news cycle is distracting. Social media is distracting, and I speak from experience as a Facebook and Twitter user. The sheer quantity of news has debased its quality and accuracy, so that the most sensational stories drive up viewership and self-perpetuates a distracted, and more and more divided, citizenry.
Words are increasingly devalued, and facts ignored or distorted. The results of science are often questioned. This makes it hard to make research-based policy decisions. And the denial and distortion of facts makes us increasingly vulnerable to demagogues who use inflammatory rhetoric to play to our baser instincts.
We are not paying attention to our surroundings. I’ve been in a subway car when every person on the train was looking at their cellphone. I’ve been in a doctor’s waiting rooms where every person there was looking at their cellphone. I’ve had people who are talking on their phones walk out right in front of my car because they are not paying attention.
These are the behaviors of a distracted age. And their implications for the life of faith are enormous. Let me share some of my observations:
- When we are distracted by information and events outside ourselves it prevents us from fully developing an interior life, which is one of the factors in faith development and spiritual maturity. When we become distracted responders only to what is outside us our souls wither from undernourishment and disconnection from God.
- We can’t worship when we are distracted. If, like Martha, we are preoccupied with our worries we remove ourselves from the here and now and live either in the past of regret, or in the future of anxiety, when the only time we really have is the now, and the only place we really have is right here.
- Finally, the real activity to which God calls us, the important work of loving as Jesus loved, can only be sustained by the renewing power of the Holy Spirit that we tap into when we worship and pray and draw ourselves into the presence of God. There is a kind of frenetic activism that can lead us to burnout and bitterness. And the church too often is guilty of valuing busyness over focus.
The word translated here as “better” as in “Mary has chosen the better part” can also simply mean “good.” It’s not that Martha has chosen wrongly and Mary rightly, but Jesus is with them in the here and now and what is called for is attention to him and to focus on him. Which means that we don’t have to choose between activism and contemplation. We have to choose a balance that makes us whole, free from distraction and worries, focused in faith on what is important. Amen.
(I preached this sermon on July 21, 2019, at the United Congregational Church in Little Compton, RI. The photo is of Vermeer’s “Christ in the house of Mary and Martha.”)