Let’s begin by being clear on what this story does not teach. Martha is busy attending to things, making sure the food is prepared and being the proper host. Mary is setting in the presence of Jesus listening to his teaching. Martha rebukes Mary and even turns to Jesus expecting him to back her up. But Jesus rebukes Martha and commends Mary for choosing the “better part.” Why does he do that? Why does Jesus commend Mary but rebuke Martha?
Let’s begin by laying to rest one explanation very quickly. It’s not because contemplation is more important than activism. It’s not because prayer is more important than service. Jesus is not disparaging the active work involved in hospitality, nor is he elevating worship over hospitality. Both work and rest, prayer and ministry, solitude and service, hospitality and worship are equally important in the grand scheme of the spiritual life.
We can trace a pattern in Jesus’ own life of active engagement in teaching, preaching, and healing, and then withdrawal from that active life to periods of prayer and solitude. It’s the pattern of the first creation story where God creates and then God rests. It’s not about one over the other; both are equally important. Activism, service, engagement, participation on the one hand; and solitude, prayer, study, and worship on the other hand.
So why does Jesus rebuke Martha and commend Mary? The key I think is found in Jesus’ words to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” Many things create anxiety and distraction; one thing simplifies life
The problem is not that Martha is busy and actively engaged in providing hospitality for her guests. In fact, that is indeed a very important work. The problem is in the spirit in which she is engaging in being a host. She is distracted and unfocused. She is an anxious presence. Clearly her ego has the upper hand. When she asks Jesus to put Mary in her place she questions the judgment and lack of consideration of both Jesus and her sister, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Catch the emphasis on “me.” She is clearly operating out of the false self, the ego self, the little self. She is offended at her sister and at Jesus for encouraging her sister, because after all Jesus no doubt is pleased to find such a focused pupil in Mary who is very passionate about listening to what he is saying.
Mary, living in the moment, is focused on being a disciple, while Martha is anxious and frustrated because Mary isn’t doing what Martha thinks she should be doing. Some interpreters have pointed out that sitting at the feet of Jesus assumes the status of disciple, student, pupil which was common to rabbinical instruction. In the Jewish world that prevailed in Jesus’ time women were not permitted to do. There was no law against it, but this was commonly held tradition and custom. Receiving rabbinical instruction simply was not a woman’s place.
Could Martha be offended that Mary is assuming a man’s role and breaking with tradition and custom? That’s quite possible. Or maybe it’s more about control. We are told that this is Martha’s house. We might naturally assume that Martha is the older sister, though we don’t actually know that. Mary is not doing what Martha expects her to be doing. So maybe Martha is realizing that she cannot control her sister. A lot of problems in relationships center around the issue of control do they not?
I think for you and me, we have to begin with the question: What is the one thing that is necessary? Jesus says, “There is need of only one thing.” In a wonderful scene in the movie “City Slickers,” Curly (Jack Parlance), the tough-as-nails, wise-to-the-ways-of-the-world, trail boss, asks Mitch (Billy Crystal) if he wants to know the secret of life. Curly says, “It’s this,” holding up his index finger. Mitch retorts, “The secret of life is your finger.” Curly, never batting an eye says, “It’s one thing. The secret of life is pursuing one thing.”
What is the one thing? What is the main thing? If you have listened at all over the last several weeks to my sermons or have read them on line, you know what I am going to say don’t you? In last week’s text, which immediately precedes this story about Mary and Martha, what does Jesus tell the scribe to do in order to experience eternal life? He tells him to love. He tells him to love God by loving others as he loves himself. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians: “The only thing that matters is faith working through love.” If faith does not produce love it has no value. Paul said in his correspondence with the Corinthians that of faith, hope, and love, love is the greatest. The main thing is to love others as we love ourselves, because only love can heal and liberate and transform. Love is the power of God at work among us and in us inspiring forgiveness and reconciliation, and empowering our work for peace and justice in society. This is what Mary is learning at the feet of Jesus – how to love.
We can become so easily distracted. I heard about a man who turned his basement into an alternative world. He liked model trains (I’m not talking about Boyd Lawson here. Gene would never let Boyd do this). His whole basement was trains - trains passed through little communities, with stores, gas stations, schools, houses, where little people dotted the landscape. They crossed bridges over rivers, beside lakes where boats sailed and kids swam. And while his alternative world grew more and more elaborate this man became more and more distant from the people who cared about him as his real world deteriorated around him.
One of the ways Christians get distracted from the main thing, which is loving others, is by focusing on the afterlife. For some Christians the gospel is about heaven and hell, and saving people for the next world, though Jesus clearly taught that the kingdom of God is about healing and liberating people for this world – freeing people to love others. When the focus is on the afterlife then it is quite easy to dismiss matters of justice, equality, peacemaking, and the common good. If it’s all about being evacuated from this world to another world then this world becomes increasingly irrelevant. Even though it is true that our time here is limited, this world is our home for now and God loves this world and longs for its healing and redemption. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, in Romans 8 clearly believed that God’s redemption of this world extends to creation itself. If we keep the main thing as the main thing then we will engage in faithful stewardship of the resources of this planet and be about the work of taking care of it, not exploiting it or abusing it.
Sisters and brothers I can assure you that if God is as good as the Jesus of our Gospels believed God is, then we needn’t worry about the afterlife. If God is as good as Jesus teaches, then the afterlife is all going to be good. I will say to you what my son used to say to me, usually when I was upset with him, “It’s all good.” “Chill, dad,” he would say, “it’s all good.” I find myself saying to Christians who believe in a literal hell. “Just chill sister. Relax brother. It’s all going to be good, because God is good. God is not a tyrant. God is not a monster. God is not an angry deity. God is love. God is good.” The afterlife will be good because God is good, so let’s focus on the main thing – namely, loving each other here and now.
Anything can become a distraction. When I became passionate about kayak bass fishing, at first I was content to go to the lake by myself. I am an introvert by personality type. But then I realized how this could easily become a distraction, so I decided to push against the grain of my introvert personality and employ my passion as a way of making new friends and perhaps as a way of expressing something of God’s love outside the bounds of my church community. So I became engaged in the Kentucky kayak anglers community and I am developing relationships with people who have no religious affiliation at all and some who have very different beliefs and views than I have. I realized that as I live out my passion for bass fishing I can do so with the intent to love others and express God’s love in the new relationships I am forming. I just began a friendship with a young man in his late 20’s or early 30’s whose life is consumed with bass fishing. He’s given me some really good tips. I have learned some stuff from him. And I thought, you know, I might be able to help this kid become a little more balanced in life. I love to bass fish, but I have to keep the main thing the main thing, which is about loving others. Whatever your passion – golfing, painting, gardening, whatever – consider how you might use that to love others.
Now, I need to move in a different direction. Sometimes we will say something is a distraction, which is not really a distraction at all, but we claim it as a distraction in order to avoid doing what Christian love beckons us to do. I am thinking in particular about engaging in public discourse about the great issues facing us as a society: immigration, health care, issues of equality, gun violence, care for the poor, and so forth. How many clergy simply avoid the issues of today because they know how messy it can be to speak out and contend for justice.
Rev. Amy Butler’s articles for BNG are posted the same day as mine, so I have been reading them. She is the pastor of Riverside church in NYC. She tells about meeting a new friend, who upon finding out she was a pastor, said to her, “I am so frustrated.” He told Rev. Butler how he had pulled his pastor aside recently and told her how surprised he was that she wasn’t talking about the political situation in our country, given the state of things right now. He said to her, “Pastor, can you tell me how my faith might help me make sense of the unbelievable political situation in our country?” He said, “She looked at me, shaking her head, and said, ‘Well, I guess all I can tell you is that you should pray about it.’” Rev. Butler’s new friend looked at her incredulously and said, “Can you believe that? Pray about it? Her answer made me despair for the future of the church. Because if we’re not talking at church about how our faith informs our everyday lives, and especially this election cycle, then what is the point of church at all?”
Personally, I love to hear Christians talk like that. Unfortunately, however, Christians who have this kind of concern tend to be the exception, not the norm - at least in our neck of the woods.
Rev. Butler in her article which is titled, “If the church won’t speak out, who will?” says this (I have included this quote in your worship bulletin as a meditation today): “If we really believe what we say, that our faith should inform the whole of our lives, then we cannot leave our values and beliefs at the door when it comes to public discourse. While the separation of church and state is critically important to the freedoms we experience in America, I wonder if we use it too much as a convenient excuse not to talk about some very hard and uncomfortable things. Separation of church and state insures that government does not exercise control over religion or favor one religion over another. It does not mean we separate our values from our public engagement. Some peoples’ values are informed by Plato or Ayn Rand or Machiavelli. If your values are informed by the teachings of Jesus, you may bring them to bear on the public discourse. In fact, if your values are informed by the teachings of Jesus, you must bring them to bear on the public discourse.”
We must never confuse partisan politics with being politically engaged over the issues of our day such as care for the poor, immigration, health care, gun violence, our inequitable economics, racial profiling, and so forth. If we love people and if we love what is right and good and fair then how do we not engage in public discourse over these critical issues of our time?
The reason Jesus commends Mary is because Mary chooses to break custom and tradition and listen to the voice of Love. That’s what’s she’s listening to – the Voice of Love. That’s the Voice we must listen to. That’s the one necessary thing sisters and brothers. Sometimes that means that we will be busy preparing food and setting tables because that’s what love calls for. Sometimes it means being silent and holding our tongue. Sometimes it means speaking up and out on the critical issues of our day. Sometimes it means sitting quietly with a family in their grief. Am I listening to the Voice of Love? Am I doing what Love tells me? That’s the one thing, the one question to rule all questions. The world doesn’t need our anxious presence. Most people in our world are indeed distracted and worried about many things. What they need is someone to come beside them who models a different way, a non-anxious presence. They need someone who embodies the way of divine love.
O God, help us to embody a different way – to not be an anxious presence, to not be so worried and distracted. Empower us to be better lovers – lovers of what is good, true, and right. Lovers of one another. Lovers of people who are very different than we are. Lovers who love with the love of Jesus. Amen.