Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.[a] Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 NRSV)
On the third Sunday of each month our congregation hosts a Community Dinner. All are welcome to enjoy a free meal, most of it fresh from the farm. We host those who can well afford a meal but enjoy the fellowship and we host those who are getting the first decent meal since last month.
About 3:30 on the afternoon of this event, the cooks trickle in and begin to prepare the meal. Bread must be sliced and heated; butter cut into cubes, the tables set, the desserts cut into portions, vegetables cut and arranged on platters, the beverages and ice table set.
They work side by side, each one knowing what needs to be done next. I remain in my office for awhile longer because, quite frankly, I haven’t any sense when it comes to the kitchen. About all I’m good for is washing dishes and even then, I’ve been known to wash the wrong ones.
They prepare the food, talking quietly. The conversation is sprinkled with laughter. They love each other and what they’re doing. They’re excited to see who will show up this evening. It’s a scene I hope never to forget: peace filled, loving, companionable. Men and women have taken time out of their Sunday evening for the “stranger in our midst.”
Would we call these folks, “Martha”? After all, they’re working to get ready for our guests. Some have been preparing for this all week. Should we tell them that only one thing is needful and working in the kitchen isn’t it?
What about all those times that Jesus tells us to “go and do.” Just a few verses before this, a man encounters Jesus and asks him about salvation. Jesus advises that loving neighbor is important. He even delivers a lengthy parable about who our neighbor is before telling the man to “go and do.” That is, to care for our neighbor.
Today’s scripture has Jesus saying, “only one thing is needful.” In other words, “sit and listen.”
So which is it? Go and do or sit and listen? Prepare for a feast or sit at Jesus’ feet?
We need Martha. We need her list-making, her organization skills, her cooking talent, her love and compassion for the other. We need lots of Martha’s and their counterpart, Marty to serve in the kingdom. We don’t need to denigrate them; we need to tell them, “thank you” and “keep up the good work!”
While Martha slaves in the kitchen, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. This is the posture of a student with her teacher. But wait, women aren’t supposed to learn. They belong in the kitchen serving. Jesus crosses gender boundaries to teach and discuss scripture with her. Mary is learning. She’s a disciple. That’s almost unheard of outside of Jesus’ circle.
This isn’t a woman sitting at his knee with a dewy-eyed expression on her face. She isn’t a Jesus “groupie” hanging on his every word. Rather, Mary is an intelligent, capable woman and Jesus has engaged that mind of hers in serious discussion.
Mary could have gone out to the kitchen and offered to help Martha. She could have negotiated with her, “I’ll do the clean-up after dinner, Martha, so you can have time to visit with Jesus.”
Martha could have asked Mary to give her a hand. Better yet, she could have kept the meal simple. Macaroni salad and potato salad and three-bean salad could have been limited to only one. Buffet style is always simpler than setting the table.
I don’t believe that this is an either-or situation. This isn’t about maligning Martha and holding Mary on a pedestal. I don’t believe Jesus is telling Martha to quit doing what she loves and come listen to him. If she does, everyone will go hungry!
One word points at the answer. “Distracted.” “Martha…you’re worried and distracted by many things.”
In a few days, a close friend of mine will arrive at my home for a visit. I think it’s a good idea to have a bed ready for her and the house in good order. What I really want to do is wash the windows, dry clean the curtains, and clean out all my cupboards. I want my home to look its best for her visit.
But, what good are clean cupboards and windows if I’m too tired to enjoy her visit? She’s coming to see me, not my house.
Martha is craving to be in the living room with Jesus. Instead, she’s stuck in the kitchen trying to get a meal on the table that’s suitable for her guest. She listens to Jesus and Mary talking. She can’t hear every word, though, and leans closer to the living room in order to pick up more of the conversation. Every once in a while, one of them chuckles.
She’s hot and tired. She feels unappreciated. Where’s Mary to help her? She needs to get herself out her and peel these potatoes! Finally, she can take no more.
“Lord, don’t you care?”
He cares very much, Martha. He cares that you’re so wrapped up in the demands of the kitchen that you can’t take a break to visit with him.
“My sister has left me to do all the work for myself…Tell her to help me!”
Martha, calm down. We don’t need a ten-course meal. It doesn’t have to be elegant. Turn the stove off, get some iced tea and come in and visit. We’ll help you put dinner on the table in a bit.
Are you Martha? Getting that lengthy to-do list done before you spend time in meditation? Do you spend Sunday morning picking up groceries because you ran out of time this week? Are you wrapped up in cultural rules that demand to be followed, or else?
Our smart phones click and vibrate and ring. We can watch news 24 hours a day. We’re drawn away from Sunday morning worship by lists filled with “should” “have to” and “need to.”
Yes, there’s little to compare with coming to the end of the day with a sense of accomplishment. Especially when the project was a lengthy and complicated one. My friend likes to scan his to-do list for the one task he simply doesn’t want to do. Once it’s done, he’s energized to work on more attractive projects. Yes, completing tasks is exhilarating.
There’s also nothing like time spent in quiet solitude with Jesus. Reading and/or studying scripture. Journaling. Praying. Sitting quietly and listening to the sounds around you and letting your thoughts take their own path.
Perhaps you can’t begin your day without a time of meditation. Perhaps it’s at bedtime before you turn out the light and go to sleep. When you do it matters only to you.
I suspect that each of us tends to be either Mary/Matthew or Martha/Marty. Each of our personalities tend to be either busy, moving bodies or reflective, and able to sit quietly.
What fills your soul? The activity of Martha or the quiet solitude of Mary? There’s no right answer. We’re wired differently, thanks be to God.
When are you Martha/Marty? In what way does this give you joy? When has it sapped your energy and your joy?
When have you been more like Mary/Matthew? How do you feel when you spend time with the Master?
The kingdom needs our gifts and talents. The kingdom needs our focused attention as we “go and do” the work of serving others. Our focus comes from “sitting and listening” to the Master, learning and discerning.
Are you Martha? Sit and listen for awhile.
Are you Mary? Where is Jesus calling you to serve?
All glory and honor be to God.