I have a chore chart on the side of my fridge that tells me what household tasks to do on particular days. On Mondays I vacuum and wash towels. On Tuesdays I change the bedding and wash the sheets. On Wednesdays I dust and wash darks. On Thursdays I clean bathrooms and wash whites. On Fridays I water plants and wash shirts and pants. There are a couple of other extra chores in the chart that are to be done as needed, like cleaning the oven, but for the most part my weekly cleaning schedule helps the house to stay relatively clean and I am not burdened by many tasks all on one day. Maybe Martha would have done better to have a cleaning chart.
Not only do I spend about thirty minutes a day keeping the house clean, I also spend about twenty minutes a day in contemplative prayer. Centering prayer has long afforded me a structure and discipline to my prayer life. It nourishes me and offers me the opportunity to slow down and simply be in God’s presence. It is refreshing and vital to my spiritual life though I often find that my many tasks compete with my taking the time to center. I have to make an active choice to include that prayer time in my day—a day that could otherwise be filled with more productive activity according to the Protestant work ethic.
Most of us are some combination of Martha and Mary—at least the Martha and Mary we have assigned these dualistic roles of works versus faith. But I am not so sure there is such a dichotomy. If Jesus ever puts the works versus faith question forward—it would only be here; and I don’t really think that is what he is doing. He has just told the parable of the Good Samaritan—which is a story about doing what you can do to help others: a story of works. Right before that story he sent the seventy out to do the work of evangelizing and spreading the Good News that the Kingdom of God had come near. If Jesus is prioritizing contemplation over action, he has a funny way of showing it—the whole of chapter ten in Luke is focused on the work Jesus calls us too with the exception of these five versus. I think instead of judging Martha for working and praising Mary for sitting and listening, Jesus is talking about something else when he scolds Martha and quips that Mary has chosen the better part.
Jesus recognizes that there is a blend between our need to sit and listen to the Lord and our following the call to do the work he has given us to do. It is not that faith and acts are a dichotomy, an either/or situation. Instead, faith and acts are a blend, a both/and situation. Sometimes we do the work and other times we sit quietly soaking up the presence of God. When Jesus scolds Martha, it’s not because she is choosing to do the work of hospitality. At the start of this chapter in Luke, when Jesus sent the seventy out, he told them to carry nothing with them—“no purse no bag, no sandals”(Luke 10:4)—instead they were to rely completely on the hospitality of strangers who opened their homes to them. They were to eat whatever was put in front of them and to stay in the one home, not bouncing around from house to house (Luke 10:7). Jesus expected others to do work for the kingdom—his disciples and those they would witness too. He expected people to open their homes to the disciples and welcome them. So I don’t think Jesus values contemplation over work. Though, I do think there is a way in which work is offered that Jesus does value.
When Jesus sends the seventy out to the towns and places he had intended to visit, he not only tells them to rely on the hospitality of strangers in those towns, he tells them that “[w]hatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10:5-6) This idea of peace resting upon those persons in the house or returning to the disciple seems to me the true crux of the Mary and Martha story.
Jesus has entered the village where Martha and Mary live and Martha has invited him to their home and welcomed him in. She has actively chosen to play hostess to this guest. Knowing what Jesus has instructed his disciples to do upon entering a house, it seems likely that he would have offered Martha and Mary peace upon his entering the house. Mary seems to share in that peace, but Martha—because she is distracted by her many tasks or maybe because she is a somewhat anxious person anyway (which is why she is distracted) is unable to share in that peace. Her behavior and attitude then reflect this more anxious mindset and she loses the focus of what is important, not works versus faith, but how we are to be in relationship with Jesus.
I don’t think Jesus’s words that Mary has chosen the better part mean that doing nothing is better than doing something. I think Jesus’s words that Mary has chosen the better part reflect the higher value of serving God in peace rather than finding one’s self frustrated and anxious in doing our part for the Lord. I think Jesus’s words that Mary has chosen the better part are not a judgment on Martha’s actions but an attempt to draw her back into right relationship.
Imagine for a moment had the situation been reversed. Jesus arrives in the village. Martha welcomes him into the home. Her sister, Mary, tries to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he is saying. But Martha, who is quietly going about the business of getting dinner prepared and setting the table, humming to herself and content with this opportunity to serve the Lord, is distracting Mary from her focus on Jesus. Finally, she says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that Martha is not sitting down and listening to you and is instead busily setting the table? Tell her to be still and listen to you like I am doing.” But the Lord answered her, “Mary, Mary, you are worried and distracted by your sister and her work; there is need of only one thing. Martha has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” In that scenario, it is not contemplative listening that receives the priority from Jesus; but neither is it the work. The thing that Jesus values is the orientation of their beingness—the choice to live and act from a place of peace, not anxiety.
That day when Jesus comes to visit, Martha gets anxious—for whatever reason—and in her frustration complains to the Lord. And Jesus reminds her that she has chosen to be worried and distracted and that her choice is hers alone. Jesus will not place her choice upon another: He offers peace, an easy yolk and a light burden. Martha will have to be responsible for her own choices and cannot blame them upon another. Jesus’s rebuke of her evokes the sense of personal responsibility that she must accept and he will not allow her to shift the blame of her anxiety upon her sister.
We often read this story as a choice between whether or not it is better to work or pray. We like to divide ourselves into Martha’s and Mary’s. But that is a false reading of this story and not helpful to the growth and nurturing of our relationships with one another because it causes us to compete and defend our actions or lack thereof. Instead, when we get to the deeper revelation of this story, we discover that this is not a story about two women—one who is lazy and the other who is not—but a story about all of us and how we approach our relationship with God. Are we stressed out in doing the work God calls us too? Do we grumble and complain or yell at the kids when we are trying to get everyone up and moving to get to church on time on Sunday morning? What is our attitude when it comes to working for or worshipping God?
Jesus isn’t going to give us a free pass and tell us not to come to church or do the work he has called us too just because we are stressed out. He never tells Martha to stop preparing the meal or that she needs to sit down and listen to him. Instead he points out that in her work she is distracted and worried so that her work is not fulfilling to her or her relationship with Jesus. His point is for her to change her attitude not her actions—to find the peace that Mary has chosen because that is the better part. To find the peace that passes all understanding regardless of the circumstances. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” And it is peace in the presence of the Lord.
6 Pentecost Proper 11: Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, July 20, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer