I have trouble with this story from scripture. People who follow the rules should be rewarded, that only seems fair. Martha is an outstanding rule follower. In Jewish and Middle East cultures, the rule is that you showed hospitality to strangers who come to your door. You are not to just tolerate or endure strangers in your home. You are to sacrifice for them, anticipating their needs, offering them your bed while you sleep on the floor, killing the only calf in the backyard to make a feast. This was how hosts in Martha’s day were to treat people they didn’t even know.
Martha follows the rules perfectly. She welcomes Jesus. Makes him comfortable. Then gets the meal going. She is a model of hospitality. Personally, I love people like Martha. We are blessed to have Martha’s in our own congregation who greet people at our doors, prepare cookies and buy donuts for strangers to eat after church, come in on Wednesdays to cook, serve and clean up for strangers at Messiah Night. Christ’s love is seen and experienced in the church by the work of Martha’s, those who make strangers feel not just welcomed but celebrated.
But it is Mary and not Martha that Jesus’ praises and encourages us to emulate. Mary who sits while Martha works. Mary who dreams while Martha plans. Mary who just listens to Jesus while Martha is doing what Jesus asks of us, loving the stranger extravagantly. Why would Jesus choose Mary over Martha? This seems completely unfair. The rules of our world is that hard work is rewarded while dreamers argue about Nietzsche in late night bull sessions with their other loser twenty something friends in their parent’s basement “apartment”.
Deep breaths. Calm down. Pause This story hits a few buttons for me, since I more closely resemble Martha than Mary. Interesting though that my complaint is that Jesus’ praise of Mary is breaking the rules, that we all rely upon. When is Jesus ever about perpetuating the faulty, lumbering system of our broken world? Whenever I think Jesus is unfair, I suspect I am accepting without question the Kingdom of Man and not reaching for the Kingdom of God.
I have swallowed whole the black and white, right and wrong rules of the Kingdom of Man. Doesn’t it seem everything for us is boiled down to an either/or choice? Either we like chocolate or vanilla. Either we are talkative or quiet. Either we support police officers or protesters. Either we are active workers in the kingdom or dreamy contemplatives. Either Martha’s way is the right way or Mary’s way is the right way. The Kingdom of Man is all about winners and losers so this either/or thinking makes sense. The Kingdom of God has declared us all winners. The world is far more complicated than the oversimplification our world puts forward. Seen differently, heard more carefully, Jesus isn’t choosing Mary over Martha. He is defending Mary’s actions to Martha.
Martha’s complaint is not simply that she is doing all the work while Mary sits on her tender behind. It is more complicated. Martha is concerned about what her sister is doing, not, not doing . Mary was acting outside the narrow roles for women in her day. Women did not sit at teacher’s feet. Disciples did and they were always men. When guests arrived, women busied themselves preparing the meal, while the men sat and talked. Martha feared that Mary was bringing shame to their house and offending the celebrated teacher who had come into their home. Mary was acting like a disciple, acting like a man. Two things she can never be…in the Kingdom of Man.
What I hear with my modern ears is Jesus chastising Martha. But in Jesus’ culture, the simple double address to Martha, Martha, Martha, signals compassion. Jesus loves Martha. Jesus praised hospitality like Martha is showing. Jesus appreciates Martha and understands her worry about Mary. He gets Martha. He is not rebuking, but from his love encouraging her to leave behind the Kingdom of Man and see the Kingdom of God that Mary has already embraced.
The key to this story is Mary’s embrace of the Kingdom of God. Mary has gotten lost in the love of Jesus and forgotten all the tired, old rules of the Kingdom of Man. Mary loves her guest so much that even leaving him for a moment to butcher the calf seems like too much. Mary is not just listening to a man speak, but hears in Jesus’ words, the logos, God’s word. Jesus is encouraging Martha to get lost in love of her guest, too. Martha’s sincere love for Jesus has gotten boiled down to a list of things to do…and not do. While Mary has gotten lost in her love of Jesus, Martha’s love for Jesus has gotten lost in the forest, because of all the trees, meal, drinks, bedding, etc…in front of her.
Seminary President David Lose in an article from 2010, tells the story of how his father who was a pastor, used to sing joyfully every Sunday morning. This became a problem when they moved to a church in the 1970’s that had a new fangled lavalier microphone that he had to turn off and on, on his own, something he could never remember to do. Fifteen year old, David Lose would die of embarrassment in the pew as his dad would make a loud, joyful and very off key noise to the Lord, that was heard over and above the many voices in the congregation.
His dad’s off key amplified singing was not what was supposed to happen, but it is what is needed in the Kingdom of God. His singing is a true, authentic sign of his love for Jesus. He sang off key with the microphone left on because he got lost in that love, so focused was he on Jesus. He forgot about social conventions, toning it down, looking dignified and pastoral, because his only thought was Jesus. Like Mary, he simply loved Jesus and nothing else mattered.
Martha loves Jesus, too, for sure. It is just that all of the ways she wants to show her love for Jesus has distracted her from the love itself. Martha loves Jesus, too for sure. It is just that she has not let herself dream big, finding new ways to show that love outside the narrow social conventions of her world. Martha loves Jesus, too, it is just she has lost that love in the forest for all the trees around her.
Martha, Martha. Karl, Karl. We are all wired differently with different gifts to give. God celebrates them all, especially when they are given with such joy that nothing else matters. This singular focus on Jesus is the better part that Jesus lifts up to Martha, to me, to us. Amen