July 17, 2022
Jesus Visits Martha and Mary
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so 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.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Let’s turn back the clock for a minute, to March, April, May, maybe even June of 2020. Yes, I’m talking about the time when many of us were wiping down our groceries with Clorox wipes, leaving packages that had been delivered to our houses outside for a few days so as to let the germs dissipate, stripping down and showering immediately after returning from work in a healthcare profession. All of that aside, though, what else did those months hold? Working remotely, curbside pick-up for groceries, the events filling your calendar all canceled. Instead of frantic activity, you found yourself reading that book you just hadn’t gotten to, doing the puzzle that just had too many pieces to complete, trying something new like making sourdough bread. We saw each other on the computer screen, those small little Zoom boxes giving us a glimpse into one another’s homes and lives. Sure for some it was a lonely time, but can you take yourself back and think again about that slower pace of life? Did you find yourself saying something like “I can’t say that I miss all the activity?” Or… “Maybe I’ll pay more attention to what I add to the routine on the other side of all of this.”
When I read the lectionary texts for today, I immediately pushed this story away. This text has been studied and preached so many times, and we know how it goes, right? Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. Martha was too busy. Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen what is better. Be Mary, not Martha. Easy peasy, end of story.
But then I got to thinking about all those early-COVID-time convictions about living a simpler, less frantic life – the convictions I left by the side of the road a long time ago – and, well, the text just would not leave me alone. I began to wonder if God has something fresh to say to us through this story. Maybe this is as true for you as it is for me, but it occurred to me that we have all been both Marys and Marthas. We have experienced both ends of the spectrum and perhaps gotten to a place where we can reflect on it more fully.
Ten years ago, Tim Kreider wrote an article for The New York Times called “The Busy Trap.” Even a decade later, it seems as if his words could have been written just yesterday. “If you live in America in the 21st century,” he writes, “you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ It is a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.’” Kreider goes on to describe the busyness, how people tend to feel “anxious and guilty” when they aren’t busy, and about how it’s not inevitable but rather something we have chosen. He talks about how “Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities.”
And then he shifts to talk about the opposite, about idleness. He says, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body…” He writes about idleness being necessary in order for us to stand back from life and see it whole, have flashes of inspiration, and make unexpected connections. He even goes far enough to say that being idle is a necessary step to getting any work done at all.
“Be Mary, not Martha” may be simplistic, but it also has some truth to it. When Jesus says “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things,” maybe he isn’t targeting her busyness, but instead how that busyness is affecting her. Notice that he doesn’t call her out for being busy, but rather calls her out for being distracted. The Greek verb used here is a “rare verb meaning ‘to be pulled (in all directions at once)’… ” We know what it feels like to be pulled in multiple directions, don’t we? So much so that sometimes we hardly know which direction is up. Jesus notices and doesn’t miss the opportunity to tell Martha she is distracted, pulled away from what might be the most important thing.
It might be helpful to note what is happening around this text. It’s no mistake that Luke places this story right on the heels of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It seems foolish to consider one without the other. Many of you may know that story. A man walks down the road and falls into the hands of robbers. A priest and a Levite pass him by, perhaps not out of malice but because they are distracted – pulled in another direction by other concerns that are perfectly valid. A Samaritan, however, stops and shows the wounded man compassion. When Jesus asks which one was a neighbor, the answer is obvious – “the one who showed him mercy.” To this Jesus replies, “Go and do likewise.”
Did you hear that? Go and do. Jesus tells the Samaritan to do – and yet he tells Martha to be. Well which one is it, Jesus? “Be Mary, not Martha” is simplistic. There may be some truth to it, but not the whole truth, because Martha’s not wrong to be doing. We can’t just sit at the feet of Jesus forever – listening, learning – at some point we do have to get up and do something. So perhaps the task before us is to figure out how to hold the two together. I wonder if the question is – “Will we know when the time comes to stop being and start doing? And will we do the right thing? The faithful thing?”
Two plus years ago, we had a forced stop, or at least a forced slow-down. What did we learn in those months about sitting and being? How did we practice sabbath in ways that might have been new to us, or at least in ways that were not part of our regular life? And as the scheduled events have crept back in, what has happened with our sabbath time? Have we protected time just to be idle, to allow those flashes of inspiration and unexpected connections to take place? Are we doing the things that matter most? As we have resumed the doing, have we taken on activities that are life-giving and restorative?
Karl Barth, a well-known theologian, published a lot of books, including Church Dogmatics, which is a multi-volume set. Most readers would say that Barth’s writing is not exactly light reading, yet when summing it up himself, he did so surprisingly simply. “When asked in 1962 how he would summarize the essence of the millions of words he had published, he replied, ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so’.” Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant when he told Martha that Mary had chosen the better part. Perhaps that is what our goal should be, in our being and in our doing – to focus on Jesus, no matter what.
If you’re like me, it has become increasingly difficult to keep a balance between sabbath and other demands on my time. This story calls us to examine that balance more closely and challenges us to incorporate it into our lives. The worries that accompany Martha’s – and our own – life of service will not vanish into thin air. Those worries can, however, be entrusted to God.
Our world today is one that is filled with polarization. We are almost trained to think that we have to choose one end of the spectrum or the other, regardless of what the issue is. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that like much of society right now, we have to choose one or the other when it comes to Mary and Martha. Many of us could probably even identify with one or the other. Instead of an either/or scenario, it seems to me as if this one is a both/and. When it comes to living out our faith, the being and the doing go hand in hand with one another. While we could choose to focus on just one, our life of discipleship will be much fuller if we find a way to incorporate both on a regular basis.
It has long been known that eating well and exercise can lead to better health in the current day and later on in life. But according to a study published this week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, doing one or the other on its own will not suffice. They need to be done together. The same is true with our “diet” of being and doing. Making just one of them a priority won’t cut it. Doing them in tandem will achieve optimum results.
I am not expecting or even hoping you drop every scheduled event you have resumed following the 2020 shutdown. We work to make a living. Being in community with others and giving of our time and our very selves are huge parts of what it means to live as God’s children. But that’s just part of the equation. The other part includes participating in activities because they give us life, bring us joy, and allow us more fully to be who God created us to be. We spend time in God’s creation and in worship with our community of faith, learning and growing so that we are equipped to love our neighbor and live out God’s call for us in the world. Honoring the Sabbath is a commandment, and that includes sitting at Jesus’ feet to see what he has to teach us. We take time to rest and recharge rather than greeting the end of each and every day with exhaustion.
I wonder what would happen if we scheduled… some unscheduled days – or even some unscheduled hours. If we did not plan a thing, except to be present in the moment. It might feel scary for some (I’ll be honest – I love a plan!). But I wonder what God might do to us in the spontaneity of some unscheduled time? How might we be stretched to love God and love neighbor more fully when we slow down and focus on what God has in store? And once we’ve taken that time to be idle – to rest and recharge – might we then be more ready for whatever it is God has for us to do?