Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 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.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.
There’s an account, written by a Muslim man hundreds of years ago, of an early encounter with Christian Europeans in the Holy Land. A Christian knight, seeing a Muslim prostrating himself in prayer, repeatedly tried to clasp the Muslim’s hands together and make him kneel, shouting, “This is how thou art to pray!” The Muslims on the scene were baffled, and tried explain to the Christian that the Muslim way of praying was NOT to fold the hands and bow, but to give oneself wholly to the earth in an act symbolizing complete submission to God. But the Christian still didn’t understand. For him, the MOTIONS of prayer were the significant thing, and the Muslim’s motions were too different for him to understand. Each of them had their own way of relating to God.
We see the same sort of thing happening in our gospel lesson this morning. Martha and her sister Mary are relating to Jesus in very different ways. Neither way is right or wrong. They’re just DIFFERENT.
When Jesus is received into the house, Martha’s response is to actively serve him. But Mary simply sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching. When Martha becomes distracted with her serving, and wants her sister to help her, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” Jesus’ words to Martha aren’t meant to REPRIMAND her for her serving. Instead, he’s concerned about her anxiety and distractedness in that serving.
Most of us probably identify at one time or another with either Mary, the learner, or Martha, the doer. Sometimes we’re calm and centered, able to listen and learn. The next moment we’re busy as bees, working, fixing, preparing. Is one way BETTER than the other? Should we be LEARNERS or ACTIVISTS? How ARE we supposed to serve God?
Mary is the learner, the quiet reflective one. Mary never even SPEAKS in this passage. Yet it’s MARY who’s the more radical figure. When Jesus is received as a guest in her home (quite a radical act in itself – a man visiting the home of two women who are apparently living alone), Mary promptly positions herself at his feet to hear his teaching. It’s a remarkable move on her part. She’s taking the position in her society that a student would take in relation to his teacher. And I mean HIS teacher, because this was the traditional posture taken by Jewish males who studied the law under a rabbi, something completely excluded from women.
Martha’s behavior is more in keeping with cultural norms – serving a meal was an accepted female role. Jesus’ commendation of MARY, the aspiring student, rather than MARTHA, the dutiful housekeeper, didn’t fit the stereotypical role expectations of first century Judaism.
Jesus’ commendation of Mary, though, isn’t a DISMISSAL of Martha’s more traditional role of serving. Jesus is concerned more with Martha’s ANXIETY in serving.
Martha is the activist. She’s the gracious hostess who welcomes Jesus into her home. She busies herself with getting his meal prepared. The statement that she’s “distracted” implies that she also would like to sit at Jesus’ feet. It’s her sense of DUTY that confines her to the kitchen. She does everything according to the expectations of her culture, and her impatience with her sister – may be even her need for attention — is perfectly understandable. Jesus doesn’t REJECT Martha’s hospitality. It’s her OVERACTIVITY that he wants to correct. Martha is anxious, troubled, and distracted. She’s so preoccupied with serving dinner that she loses her perspective on WHAT and WHO is really important.
How about you? Are you anxious and distracted? Are you more often like Martha than like Mary? I know I am – just ask my husband about my behavior when expecting family or friends over for a meal!
Anxious to serve. Anxious to get things done. Anxious to show hospitality and warmth through what we do rather than who we are. Conforming to the expectations of society in order to keep other people happy. How easy it is to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re SERVING OTHERS, even OURSELVES, through our frantic, fractured, distracted efforts.
And to what end? WHY do we do it? WHY is it so hard for us to settle down at the feet of Jesus? – to listen, to learn, simply to BE.
Maybe it’s because we fear offending others. If we step out of our usual role, someone might be disturbed. Better to stay in the kitchen.
Maybe it’s because we fear what we’ll learn there at the feet of Jesus. We’re afraid of exposing our self-doubts. We fear intimacy. We’re afraid of being met, found out, transformed. We fear learning a new way to live.
No, better to stay in the kitchen than meet and commune with a friend.
Better to stay in the kitchen, where we know how to prepare the potatoes and dish out the familiar phrase, than to meet the One who would ask great things of us, someone who would open our hearts to the love, pain, suffering, and glory of bearing God’s presence into our broken world.
No, better to stay in the kitchen.
Better to pile up the packages, attach ourselves to our screens, stuck to our Xboxes and Playstations, or shop for the newest outfits or gadgets – than to face each other, ready to be touched, changed, moved by the presence of another, by the presence of an incarnate God.
Jesus didn’t tell Martha to get out of the kitchen altogether. He told her to stop RUNNING AROUND in the kitchen – to stop HIDING behind her activity, and to sit at his feet.
Maybe when we too can stop running around – compelled to accomplish, so anxious to please – we’ll recognize the ways in which we’re like Mary. Mary KNEW that her need couldn’t be satisfied by flurried activity. She knew that all she could do was listen and learn, simply seeking God’s Word.
I was struck watching this week’s news by what have become all-too-familiar storylines – the accusations and counter-accusations in our government, in our culture wars – how much we’re constantly bombarded by all extremes of self-serving politicians and activists who inundate us with their blather. However well-intentioned they are, many of them are sort of like Martha, full of anxiety and seeking attention.
Then I saw the latest images from the James Webb Telescope that were revealed this week. Those images felt more like Mary’s point of view.
Known as “Webb’s First Deep Field,” the images from the telescope brought distant galaxies into sharp focus – evidence of water on a planet a thousand light-years away, and incredible details showing the birth and death of stars. Light from these galaxies took millions of years to reach us — their images providing a look back into the history of our universe.
I recalled the words of the psalmist, “O Lord…how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens…When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; / what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet. She was sitting at the feet of the One who we know as God incarnate. She was sitting at the feet of the God who created the universe, and our world, in all its glory.
Mary was sitting at the feet of God. And we need to do the same. To sit and worship at the feet of the wonder, glory and power that is our mighty God. Perhaps only after we’ve sat at God’s feet, absorbing what God’s creation and God’s Word truly mean, can we then fully become activists – on behalf of other people, and on behalf of our planet.
I think we’re all a combination of Martha’s and Mary’s. We want to be active servants. But our flurry of activity mustn’t outweigh our grounding in God’s power, in God’s word. Because without giving our attention to God in WHATEVER we’re doing, our service and activity will become only anxiety and distraction. What we fuss over and offer up as substitutes for our real selves will never be enough. We’re called to leave the many things that distract us, and take the position of student at the feet of a teacher. To listen for what God, the creator of the universe has to say to us.
For we cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Let us take time in our lives to listen for that Word. Amen.