This morning we meet Martha and Mary – two sisters who turn up in various Gospel stories along with their brother Lazarus. Or do they… Luke tells us only about Mary and Martha, the brother is unknown to Luke. And Luke doesn’t mention the name of the town… Some scholars think it could be Bethany, home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in John’s Gospel, but others are certain that it cannot possibly be Bethany. So, we cannot be sure if these are the same Martha and Mary we meet in John’s Gospel.
When we read scripture, other parts of scripture tend to whisper in our ears. We know this family. We know about Mary not only sitting attentively today, but anointing Jesus’ feet with Nard. We know about Jesus’ great love of Lazarus and about Lazarus being raised from the dead. The thing is, Luke doesn’t seem to know about these things, and neither would those who first heard Luke’s telling of the Gospel. John’s Gospel, where we learn about Lazarus and nard and such, was not written for another decade or so.
To really meet Mary and Martha as they exist in this Gospel, in Luke’s world, we have to forget some of that stuff.
When we’ve gotten John to be somewhat quiet, we might notice first that this Gospel story is not really about Mary and Martha, it’s about Jesus. Jesus knocks at the door. The sisters let him in and prepare to feed this unannounced drop-in crowd. Well – Martha prepares to feed the crowd. Mary chooses to listen to what Jesus has to say.
We get an interesting glimpse into sisterly relationships. We can guess that Martha is the older sister because it seems to be her house. At the death of the parents, the oldest child would inherit both the estate and any younger siblings… So, Martha has had to run the household and care for Mary for who knows how long.
Mary flaking out from the work of hospitality seems to bug Martha. Hospitality was an important social obligation at that time. If folks showed up at your door you were expected to feed them and house them… No matter what. So, Martha is busy serving drinks and putting out plates and hors devours and such. Mary, on the other hand, seems like she would be happy opening a bag of Doritos and letting folks fend for themselves.
Martha is not having it. But she chooses to complain to Jesus rather than her sister. Of course, she has known her sister all her life and perhaps she knows it will do no good to correct her. All we know is that she is happy telling this stranger who has come to her door that her sister is useless. “Do you not care that she has left me to do all the work? Tell her to help me.”
Of course, Martha’s complaining has benefits. She gets to vent and she also gets to make sure that the honored guest knows all the work is hers. Like the food, Jesus? I prepared that. Another drink, Jesus? I stomped the grapes myself. Mary didn’t help at all.
I can’t say that Martha is making a good first impression on me. She knows that Jesus is important since she refers to him as “Lord.” Does she know more about Jesus? Does she know that he is the Son of God? Does she care?
Luke is silent about Martha’s story – because this story is about Jesus, not Martha, not Mary.
This story follows directly after the story of the Good Samaritan, which follows the story of the sending out of the Seventy and their happy return. There is a sort of travel theme to this tenth chapter of Luke.
When the seventy (or seventy-two) disciples are sent, they are told to each go to the appointed village and lodge with someone random family there. Eat and drink what is offered. This is, in fact, just what Jesus is doing at the home of Martha and Mary.
The person attacked on the road to Jerricho is left at the merciful hands’ hospitable strangers. In this story, Martha and Mary are those strangers with hospitable hands… or at least one of them is.
Jesus tells the disciples, when they are sent, not to worry. Eat what is offered. Drink what is offered. Don’t wander from house to house looking for a better deal. And if you are not welcome, just move on.
So, when Martha goes into high hospitality gear, Jesus has a reaction. She is surely worried that her hospitality will not be up to snuff. She no doubt takes pride in her house and in her food and drinks offerings. That slacker Mary is no help whatsoever. But Jesus has previously told folks to just accept what is offered. That bag of Doritos from Mary would have been just fine. Martha is so busy putting on a show for Jesus that she is missing Jesus.
Of course, I suspect that Jesus and the disciples are quite enjoying Martha’s handiwork. I don’t suppose that they are refusing the food and drink on offer. But still, Martha can chill. She does not have to prove herself to Jesus. She does not have to be found worthy through her catering.
Luke is giving us several subtle lessons. For the followers, it is a window into the disruption and distress that their visits can bring. It’s not just homeowners have to be gracious, but guests must be as well.
For all of us it’s a reminder that we are called to do what we can do – not less, but not more. It would be easy, hearing the story of the Good Samaritan, to think we must always measure up to that level of sacrificing hospitality. That is what Martha seems to be aiming for. And Jesus tells her it’s really not what he expects.
Jesus tells us, in Matthew’s Gospel, that the yoke is easy, and the burden is light. In some sense, Marthy and Mary are illustrating that for us. We would feel like we were better Christians if the yoke were heavier. For all of Martha’s complaining, I think she enjoys the yoke being a bit heavy. It makes her feel validated, But Jesus has different values. Jesus’ yoke really is easy because Jesus wants it that way.
Mary has chosen the lighter yoke. Mary has chosen the better part. Mary has chosen to be present to Jesus. It sounds like the choice we would all make, but the truth is we’re all somewhat in the pew with Martha.
The reality is that Mary and Martha need each other. They complete each other. We need to be hospitable to our brothers and sisters and strangers and orphans and prisoners and so on. If we’re not, then we have not listened to Jesus. But attention to those in need does not replace worship of God. Nor does worship of God replace care for God’s creation.
I have often heard this Gospel passage presented as a sort of binary choice. We must choose to be like Martha or to be like Mary – choose wisely. But in a Mary-only world folks would go hungry while in a Martha-only world, Jesus and the Gospel would be sidelined. Our choice is not Martha or Mary – our choice is both.
The challenge of this Gospel is for us to find balance. And for each of us, that will be a different exercise. We are not called to follow in a homogenized sort of way. Jesus sees us as individuals. Jesus calls to us where we are.
In our modern world we often equate being busy with being good, or valuable, or important. Sometimes we talk about the Protestant Work Ethic. Or we quote the old truism that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” – a notion that comes to us from Chaucer, not the Gospel.
In the monastic community we talk about apostolic or contemplative life – apostolic meaning engaged with the world like the apostles in various ministries; and contemplative meaning engaged with the world through prayer.
Our modern world values activity over prayer. Yet you can’t look at the mess that the world appears to be in without recognizing that we need prayer, and we need it desperately. We are badly out of balance on the Martha-Mary spectrum. But getting into balance does not involve going to the opposite end, just making little moves until a balance is found.