I was talking with someone this week about the upcoming Bible passages, and I mentioned Martha and Mary. She immediately turned to me and said with slight disgust, “I cannot stand that story! It is one of my least favorite stories!” Another member of our congregation, as we were zipping along on the S-bahn said, “I love that story. I identify so much with Martha, it’s such a good reminder for me. But yet, I still find it confusing. What are we supposed to do?” Many people, myself included, feel bruised, confused, or frustrated by this passage.
For some of you it may be a favorite story, but for others it does not hold a special place in your heart. When taken out of context, it seems to force us into a choice- we either have to be “Mary people” or we’re “Martha people”. We have to be active and serving, or we have to be quiet, reflective, and willing to sit and listen fo r hours. When we don’t seem to fit the boxes, the choice becomes that much more frustrating. What is Jesus really trying to say here? Do we really have to be one type of person or the other? This story seems to carry a lot of emotional baggage.
And so, I want to take a few moments and talk about what this story is NOT. It may seem like a strange way to begin a sermon, but I think it might be of help as we clear out some of those theological cobwebs. It might help us reinterpret the hurtful ways that this story has been read for us sometimes in the past. It might help sweep aside some of the guilt, fear, and angst about “whether we’re doing the right thing”. It might help us clear off a couple of those layers of confusion as we look together for that “precious gem”- that central piece of good news and gospel that is saturated through and through the word of God. And so, bear with me as I go through three things that this story is not.
First of all, and this might be a shock, this is NOT a story just about women. It is not entirely about how women should or should not behave at home. It is not entirely a story about what sorts of jobs women should take or not take. It is not about how to be a ‘proper homemaker’. Of course, this story has been used in recent history to talk about women’s roles- the debates around the ordination of women is one example of how in has been reinterpreted responsibly to give biblical insights our context. However, just as a story about James, John and Peter isn’t only about men, this story isn’t only about women. So, men, if you took a look at the gospel and thought you were off the hook for the week, it’s okay to go ahead and start listening again. This story, like much of the Bible, has something to say for all of us!
Second, it is NOT just story about sibling rivalry. The problem with taking this story out of context is that it allows us to pit Mary against Martha, Martha against Mary. It seems to set up this duality between the two characters, sisters by birth but acting as enemies in front of one they both love and adore. In the paraphrased words of one preacher, David Lose, “Every family has someone who acts like Mary. Mine was my aunt. She’s perfectly willing to just sit there, even to sit and watch others do the yard work. It drives me nuts. That doesn’t mean that Martha was right, but it doesn’t mean that my aunt is right either!” When we take this story as fuel for the fire of ongoing family feuds, we do just exactly what Jesus was warning against. Again, this story is not just for those with cranky siblings- it has something to say for all of us!
Third, it is NOT a story about two polar opposites. This, I think, is the ultimate pitfall of this text. We want to make it black and white. Mary was right and Martha was wrong. That means sitting is right and working hard is wrong. There should be a direct formula, right? In this situation, do this. In another situation, do that. We would like Jesus to give us some clear cut rules. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for us, Jesus refuses to be put into that little box. Last week, we talked about the Good Samaritan. How can it be that just a few verses earlier, Jesus was busy praising one who was going out of his way to provide hospitality, stopping on the road in a dangerous spot to care for another? And then here, we have Jesus praising Mary for sitting at his feet and listening, and criticizing Martha for being too concerned with hospitality.
I read a story this week, a story about a little boy, a story that may give us some insight.
In times past, people used icehouses to preserve their food. Icehouses had thick walls, no windows, and a tightly fitted door. In winter, when streams and lakes were frozen, large blocks of ice were cut, hauled to the icehouses, and covered with sawdust. Often the ice would last well into the summer. One man lost a valuable watch while working in an icehouse. He searched diligently for it, carefully raking through the sawdust, but didn’t find it. His fellow workers also looked, but their efforts, too, proved futile. A small boy who heard about the fruitless search slipped into the icehouse during the noon hour and soon emerged with the watch. Amazed, the men asked him how he found it. “I closed the door,” the boy replied, “lay down in the sawdust, and kept very still. Soon I heard the watch ticking.”
In this story, it wasn’t that the active searchers were doing something wrong. They were diligently looking for something precious and lost. The boy, though, found another method that worked better- he sat still and listened. The thing I want to highlight about this story is that both the searchers and the boy were concerned with one thing- the watch. That was the precious treasure that they were determined to find, the boy sought out a new method. In the story of Mary and Martha and the story of the good Samaritan, we have a precious treasure, just like the watch was a precious treasure to the man. That precious treasure is what Jesus refers to when he says, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken away from her.” But what is that precious treasure for us? What is that better part? What is that precious jewel that we have been searching out?
When I was working as a director for children’s ministries, I taught the 9- and 10- year old class Sunday school each week. All of the sudden, one day, the kids realized that to any question I might ask, there was a pretty good chance that the answer was “Jesus!” No matter the question, if they didn’t know the answer they would shout out this name. If that didn’t work, they would try “God?”, “The Holy Spirit?”. It was a beautiful sound- and no matter how old we get, it still is a good “educated guess”. “Jesus!” This holds true for this lesson as well. Jesus is that precious jewel we have been searching for. Jesus is the one that centers all of our stories, whether stories of action or stories of sitting at Jesus feet, poised in the position of one becoming a disciple as Mary was doing. What Jesus commends Mary for, and chastises Martha for having forgotten, is that He is the ‘better part’. His words are what ground us; his face is the one we search for as we serve our neighbor in need. He is the precious treasure we seek.
How then, do we know what is needed? How do we hear when action is called for and when we are called to sit at the feet of our Lord and Savior? Fred Cradock says it this way, “If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment. If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be Yes.” Sometimes we are called to search diligently, full of action, turning the house upside down like the old woman looking for the lost coin or those sifting through the sawdust. But sometimes we are to lie and listen patiently, listening like Samuel in the dark for the words of the Lord or like that little boy for the near silent click of time passing by. In either way, or somewhere in between, God promises to guide us as a cherished child, with us no matter how the journey goes.
This week in Stuttgart, the Lutheran World Federation will meet together for an assembly of 140 national churches. Lutherans from all over the world will convene together to discuss diverse and sometimes controversial topics, from AIDS to climate change, from illegitimate debt to homosexuality to food security for all. For this group of bishops, pastors, teachers, and worshipers, there is one seemingly unexpected topic on the table: Forgiveness. This group is expected to adopt a statement of apology to the Mennonites for Lutheran persecution of them in the 16th century, including Martin Luther’s own inflammatory rhetoric. And in response, the Mennonites are expected to present a gift of an old basin. This gift of an old basin is a strange one indeed, not something we would expect to receive from a friend at Christmas or a family member on a birthday, or anyone ever for that matter! An old basin shows signs of use. It has been rubbed on the edges, worn smooth by washing and scrubbing. Perhaps it is cracked from years of hot and cold water, from the continual process of drying out and being filled up with water that causes the wood to swell, expand, shrink again. Like Martha and the Samaritan it has served and worked hard in its day, a symbol of footwashing and very hard work. But now, it will be used as a sign of receiving forgiveness, perhaps the most passive thing we can do. As two denominations- two old siblings like Martha and Mary- try to reconcile their past wrongs, this old basin of service becomes a symbol of forgiveness. The two are forever intertwined seeking that ‘better part’ in Jesus.
Today, as we gather around the table this morning, we come into the presence of one who is always with us, whether we are acting and doing, serving and moving, whether we are reflecting and learning, listening and paying close attention, or whether we are still discerning what is needed for us now. We come to the table to glimpse a foretaste of a gift of a feast eternal, one where all siblings will be reconciled, all differences between denominations and nations removed, and all past wrongs forgiven and washed clean and smooth as an old basin. We come today to share a meal, crumbs of break, sips of wine, foretastes of that ‘better part’- Jesus in our midst. Come and see that God is good! Amen.