Revisiting Martha and Mary

March 24, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert


Scripture-Luke 10:38-42

“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

As we consider this reading today, just a little background info as there are a number of Mary’s in the Gospel of Luke.  We hear about Mary, Jesus’ mother, and then there was Mary of Magdela who came from a town in Galilee and is often misrepresented in common understanding, and then the Mary from today’s reading, who is the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  This was a family that was friends with Jesus and they are from Bethany, which is just outside of Jerusalem.  They appear later in the famous story about the death of Lazarus.  But today, we hear about the interactions between Jesus and these two sisters, Martha and Mary.  We are invited into the visit as well, and perhaps some of us would have found it impossible to not get into that kitchen and help out while others could never have passed up the chance to sit at the feet of Jesus.  Let us pray, We hear you calling us to sit down, to sit still, to listen to your Words, the Words of your Son in this holy season.  Be with us now as we listen to You. Amen.

We know that for a great meal, it takes both the food on the table and the people gathered around it, the substance of the meal as well as the conversation that is generated… hopefully lively, happy conversation where everyone feels welcome.  These seem to be the ingredients for a great meal together.  Perhaps that was what Jesus was trying to share, that there is one thing needed as we get ready to eat, some kind of focus, something that gets us talking, trying to figure out things.  In Luke, they refer to a number of meals, different times when people come together to eat and it seems that these are teaching moments, moments when priorities are proclaimed, talked about. It’s an experience of the Last Supper over and over again.  At the Last Supper, Jesus and his friends speak about what they’ve done, what there is to look forward to, what’s most important.  We hear these last words of Jesus at the Last Supper, a shared and very emotional experience and each of the Gospel writers included that.  What is the one thing that is important?

Jesus understood people and communities; he understood that we all have the tendency to get off track, to lose focus.  I’ve mentioned in recent weeks how fast paced our lives have become, how challenging it is to slow down, to make time for the people and things that really feed us spiritually, that nourish us in our souls.  Jesus is inviting us back to that, to the balance, to focus.  And so today, we get a glimpse of this time when Jesus is visiting the home of Martha and Mary.  They welcome him into their home and while Martha works to prepare a meal, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus.  Martha, for various reasons, then goes to Jesus to ask him to encourage Mary to help her in the kitchen.  Jesus responds by telling Martha that she is worried and distracted by many things, and here is where we can all sympathize but then comes the troubling part when Jesus goes on to say that Mary has chosen the better part, namely to sit and listen and learn.

I’m sure many of us can see ourselves in either Martha or Mary or perhaps we have a bit of both of them in us.  In many families, we can see people who take on these roles.  My own brother who is a great cook spends so much time in the kitchen at holidays that he usually comes to the table late, if at all.  There’s nothing we can do to convince him to stop and join us and that is his choice.  But in this story, many feminists and other scripture scholars find a false dichotomy.  In one article I read titled A New View of Martha and Mary, Mark Mattison writes,

“On the one hand, Jesus’s commendation of Mary unambiguously empowers women. Jesus’s disciples—that is, those who learn from him and study under him (or in modern terms, those who “study theology”)—are not limited to men. Everyone is welcome to pursue biblical studies, women as well as men.  This reading seems to fly in the face of common sense, not to mention Jesus’s own teaching. Why should the theologian, be “better” than the one who serves the food? If everyone sat around talking all day, where would dinner come from? Thin air?”

And let’s be honest, in many traditional families, it was, and still is, women’s role to cook and clean up after the meal, while the men went into the other room to continue their conversations or watch sports on tv.  Who among us wouldn’t be frustrated if we were left alone to do the preparation or the cleanup while others are relaxing in another room and chatting about heavy, deep and real things?  It is good that Jesus notices that Martha is distracted and worried by many things; however, it’s not great to hear him reprimand her in favor of her sister.  Why must the two be pitted against each other…if that’s how you hear it?

Jesus’s statement in Luke 10:42 is clearly contrary to what we hear from him twelve chapters later. There, Jesus’s disciples “got into an argument about which of them should be considered the greatest” (Luke 22:24, DFV). Jesus replied that: the greatest among you should become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. Who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? Isn’t it the one who sits at the table? But I’m among you as one who serves (Luke 22:24-26).    We know that Jesus was defined in some ways by the historical context of the time in which he lived when men and women had distinct roles; yet, he often defied some of the traditions of his day by how he treated women and reached out to those who would have been on the margins; we know this.  Perhaps his words to Martha were meant to be liberating; perhaps they were an invitation for her to stop her work and come join them, although it doesn’t quite sound that way.  And, if I could have re-written this, I might have had Jesus getting up to serve them.

Another scholar, Mary Stromer Hanson, authored an article titled “Mary of Bethany; the new perspective on Martha and Mary” in which she looks at the King James version of this story and reviews other translations of the passage which seem to imply that Martha, as well as Mary, regularly sat at the Lord’s feet.  She also explores the language of Mary having chosen the ‘better portion’ with a different understanding that Mary chose ‘a good portion,’ meaning equally as good as that of her sister Martha.

In any case, as we continue this journey through Lent, it may be helpful to consider the roles we play in our homes, in our community, in this church.  What worries or distractions are we ready to let go of?  What new learning would we like to do?  How may we lay down our burdens and be present.  Our prayer chair each week is symbolic of this call to sit at the feet of Jesus, if you will, to take time away from the busywork that often crowds out our days, and discover new habits of slowing down, opening up, being present.  The lesson here is not that it is bad to work, but that we also need times of connection to God. Tuning in to the holy may mean just taking time to notice things that are beckoning to dwell with us a while. What contemplative practices can feed and nourish our active lives and help us be more in tune to the present moment? What distractions/addictions consume our attention?