Which Way Is Better?
Mary and Martha
Luke 10:38-42  July 21, 2019

For the second week in a row, we face the challenge of hearing a story that we have heard many times and already formed an opinion about…which could lead us to miss what God wants to say to us today.

In fact, our challenge is compounded because Jesus’ rebuke of Martha might raise our defenses because we may already feel guilty for not spending enough time reading our Bible, meditating or praying.

But to turn one isolated scene in the gospel into a trope that elevates contemplation and study above all else is a misunderstanding of the Bible.

After all, what was so terribly wrong about Martha hustling around to prepare dinner for their honored guest?

Lots of people through the years have been troubled by how Martha seems to be criticized.

John Calvin, one of the founders of the Protestant churches, railed against this text.

One Lutheran church in the mid-West has gone so far as to install a stained-glass window depicting Martha with her apron and cooking utensils.

Let’s begin by remembering that in bible study, context is always the starting point.

To get our heads around this passage we have to look at its context … first, its scriptural context, and then its cultural context.

Scriptural context means stepping back to consider why Luke chose to tell this particular story in the first place (he had no shortage of stories and parables to choose from), and then why he placed it where he did within his gospel account.

Why did he place it here, and not somewhere else?

The first thing we notice is that the narrative comes right on the heels of the story of the Good Samaritan, in which the priest and the Levite were criticized for not coming to the aid of a suffering person.

The unlikely hero of the story was praised for showing his love for God by getting his hands dirty and helping the assaulted traveler.

Then Jesus said, Now you go and do likewise.

But then Luke brings tension to this lesson of “doing” by jumping right into the story of Mary and Martha, that – among other things we’ll look at – shows that activism disconnected from piety does not lead to a godly life.

Luke forces us to wrestle with the tensive relationship between the two because neither the parable of the Good Samaritan nor the story of Mary and Martha is complete without the other.

To be doubly sure we see their connection, Luke writes parallel opening lines: a certain man in the Good Samaritan, and then a certain woman in Mary and Martha.

So, Mary is commended for her discernment, knowing what is best at that moment.

Grace Thomas was born in the early twentieth century as the second of five children.

Her father was a streetcar conductor in Birmingham, Alabama, and so Grace grew up in modest circumstances.

After getting married and moving to Georgia, she got ️a️ job in the state capitol in Atlanta, where she developed a fondness for politics and the law.

So, although already a full-time mother and a full-time clerk, Grace enrolled in night school to study law.

In 1954 Grace shocked her family by announcing that she wanted to run for governor.

That year there were nine candidates but only one issue: Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that mandated a desegregating of schools.

Grace Thomas was alone among the nine candidates to say she thought this was a just decision.

Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the Polls”!

Hardly anyone did, though, and Grace ran dead last.

Her family was glad she got it out of her system, except she didn’t and decided to run for governor again in 1962.

She again faced threats of violence and even death, but she continued her campaign.

One day she held a rally in a small Georgia town and chose as her venue the old slave market in the town square.

Motioning to the platform where human beings had been bought and sold like a commodity she said, “The old has passed away, the new has come.  A new day has come when all Georgians, white and black, can join hands and work together.”

At that point, a red-faced man in the crowd interrupted Grace’s speech to blurt out, “Are you a communist!?”

“Why, no,” Grace replied quietly.

“Well then, where’d you get all them goldarned ideas!?”

Grace pointed to the steeple of a nearby Baptist church.

“I learned them over there, in Sunday school.”

Grace had spent time listening to the Word of her Lord.

But that Word is dangerous — it frequently leads to action.

Spiritual discernment is knowing when to listen and knowing when to turn your listening into action

I’ll say something more about that in just a minute, but two very big things happen in this scene that are part of the cultural context of the passage.

Luke 10:39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.

First, Mary assumed the posture of a student learning at the feet of a rabbi, but that was a role exclusively reserved for men.

Women would have been expected to stay in the background and provide for the men.

But rather than being offended by Mary’s presumption Jesus says she exemplifies an exceptional disciple.

Luke 10:42 Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

So once again Jesus is teaching that to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself often requires our doing the opposite of the cultural ways … even ways of the religious institutions.

Second, Martha was also breaking social conventions of their time.

Luke 10:38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a certain woman named Martha opened her home to him.

Martha is presented as the owner and head of this household.

An important aside about reading scripture: You have to let each gospel writer speak for themselves.

Mathew, Mark, Luke and John each have different memories, insights, experiences and emphases to their gospel accounts.

We often are unwittingly guilty of harmonizing the gospels, trying to make them all tell the same story.

For example, in the Christmas narrative, only Luke mentions the shepherds – the poor and marginalized were a special concern to Luke.

Only Matthew mentions the Wisemen and the exile to Egypt, and Mark and John show no interest at all in Jesus’ infancy.

There are real differences and we miss each gospel’s unique message when we try to make them all the same.

In Luke, Mary and Martha do not have a brother named Lazarus living with them … that is a different story found in a different gospel.

Maybe Lazarus was a brother who lived elsewhere … it doesn’t matter here because Luke has gone out of his way to illustrate how Jesus and his disciples broke social conventions, and wants us to see Martha as a female head of household who Jesus chose to honor with a visit.

To dig still deeper into this story requires us to understand that hospitality

was exceedingly important in biblical times.

Hospitality was one of the highest virtues in the Ancient Near East, and if we fail to understand that we not only misread this passage but also many others like Sodom and Gomorrah, and the angel appearing to Abraham and Sarah.

The virtue of hospitality even extended to foreigners, who were not trusted by the Israelites.

Knowing this and the honor/shame norms of their culture, we see that the sisters must have felt considerable pressure to treat Jesus especially well …for one thing, their whole village would be watching.

So, Martha properly busies herself preparing dinner and serving their honored guest.

Maybe you can feel her frustration and her anger rise.

She’s running around, handling dozens of last-minute details, sweating over this big responsibility while her sister just sits there listening to Jesus.

Finally, she’s had enough.

She turns to Jesus and says,
Luke 10:40 “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 

Whether you empathize with Martha’s resentment or cheer for Mary’s reversal of traditional gender roles, you cannot miss that Jesus chides Martha … but not for her being busy, as we’ve often assumed.

The problem with Martha is not that she is busy serving and providing hospitality.

Jesus’ retort is for her being worried and distracted.

Former Dominican priest Matthew Fox once wrote that his dog was his spiritual director.

That may sound like a strange comment, but his point was that his dog was fully present and engaged in whatever he was doing at the moment.

When our dog Audrey plays tug-a-war, she is 100% tug-a-war, but when she tires, she just drops the ball, curls up and is 100% enjoying her nap.

When she’s hungry, she dives into her dinner, tail wagging, snorting and happy … nothing distracts her from the pleasure at hand.

We could learn from our dogs.

Multiple studies show that people lead the overall happiest lives when they’ve trained themselves to be fully present to whatever we are actually doing throughout the day.

Meanwhile, other studies reveal that, on average, we spend about 47% of our awake time distracted from what we are actually doing.

47% of our mental energy is often given to nagging feelings about finishing our to-do list, or worrying about problems – real or perceived.

It reminds me of ️a bicycle ride I wrote about a while ago.

I was riding along in our beautiful Southern California sunshine, surrounded by our tall green trees and flowers blooming everywhere, but my mind was everywhere else.

I had ridden for 90-minutes but had not experienced my bike ride.

I had worried about what someone had said, and in my mental “worry machinc” I had lost my job, had two strokes, and a bout with cancer, but I missed my ride.

In the case of Martha, she was distracted from the very thing her effort is supposed to be directed at: graciously hosting Jesus as an honored guest.

Both Martha and Mary’s attention would best be focused on Jesus – whether it was serving him or studying with him.

If Martha had really needed some help, couldn’t she have just taken her sister aside and said, “Hey Mary, I really could use a little help here”?

Instead, she allowed her worries and distractions to build into frustration that put their guest in the middle of their squabble.

Did you notice that she triangulated their discussion, publicly humiliating Mary and possibly embarrassing Jesus?

Martha allowed herself to fall into one of the traps that Jesus warned of in his Parable of the Sower:

Luke 8:14 … the seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.

Rather than a rebuke for being a servant rather than a student, we might hear Jesus’ words to Martha as an invitation to be fully present while being a student or a servant.

A lesson from today’s scripture is that discipleship doesn’t mean that you can only do either this or that: be a go and do likewise servant, or be a sit at Jesus’ feet student.

There are times when discipleship means to sit, be still and be with God.

And there are times when discipleship means to sit with colleagues to share burdens and meals, or even a good movie.

There are ️other times when discipleship means to go and care – for someone who is lonely, or grieving, or suffering a divorce.

Today’s scripture reminds us to be fully with Jesus, with each other, or with whatever we are doing