Print Version July 20th, 1998
Last week at our Lectors’ meeting this gospel passage stirred up a storm of indignation. Nearly everyone wanted to rush to Martha’s defense. Wanted to defend her against Jesus. Didn’t he now how elder sisters, eldest children in general, are put upon, have always had to be responsible, been forced to take care of things from an early age, have always had to keep an eye on their younger brothers and sisters. It’s not so much the work involved they said as the habit of never being able to rest and let be, never being able to stop and leave something unfinished and sit and enjoy the passage of life like the pampered ones, the irresponsible ones. What the Marthas most objected to, got most upset about, was the frustration. They knew what it was like to rush around the kitchen in a panic of responsibility all the time aching to go and sit and visit with their guest, with all the time a growing irritation at the Marys. Above all they hated feeling that almost-hatred of the sister whose training hadn’t forced her to be where they were now, sweating and fuming and feeling guilty.
So why the hell does Jesus have to rub it all in? Doesn’t he know I know?! Doesn’t he know I want sit and be like Mary? Doesn’t he know I can’t? Not if he wants his dinner, not if he wants to be fed.
The overwhelming temptation as a preacher is to want to defuse that anger and frustration. To want to make it all come clear. To want to defend Jesus, and Mary, and Martha too—So everyone comes out of it well and calm and virtuous. But in it’s own way this story is a parable. It follows straight on from the Good Samaritan and continues its upside down challenge. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Asks the lawyer only to be made to answer his own question: to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength and to love your neighbour as yourself. But “who is my neighbour?”, he goes on. And Jesus tells the story where the respectable and god-fearing turn out not to know because they cannot feel compassion, because they put duty and responsibility before simple human need. Where the hero is a traitor, a foreigner, and an outsider. As if the Christians walk on by but the atheist drug-dealer stops to take care of the bleeding victim. “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus.
And just in case we’ve got the point and taken the challenge Luke tell us about Martha and Mary. Martha who knows the demands of hospitality, knows how to serve, welcomes Jesus into her own house and Mary who neglects her sister and shirks her responsibilities and puts her religious duty before compassion. And Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her. What do you think?
And just to make it harder to choose let me add another layer. Both Martha and Mary are doing brave things. Neither of them behaves the way normal women of their time should. What’s Martha doing having a house of her own anyway? In her society she has to belong to someone, a husband, a relative, a son even. She has no right to have her own household and be bold enough to invite in a single man like Jesus who ought to know better than consort with the likes of her. Luke pushes it further—the word he uses for what she was doing in the kitchen—serving—is the word Luke’s community used for church ministry. Martha is serving as a deacon and, through it, making Jesus welcome at the table. Mary, too, is bold beyond belief. Contrary to all rules of propriety she, uninvited, takes the disciple’s place at the feet of Jesus. We are not talking about a starry-eyed, hanging-on-every-word kind of listening as though this was a romantic comedy but a practical, presumptuous, assumption of responsibility. Instead of being some man’s property Mary sits down where she shouldn’t and says without words, “speak your word to me and I’ll speak it to others.” Martha is bold but Mary is bolder, neither of them fits their time, both of them of them push beyond their allotted place in the scheme of things. And Jesus affirms the boldness: Mary has chosen a dangerous position of privilege and responsibility: let no one take it away from her.