The Better Part
Proper 11, Year C
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.” From the Gospel according to Luke. In the name…
Growing up, our house was not always the cleanest. There was always a lot of clutter, there were usually dishes in the sink, lots of dust on the shelves of knick knacks and old family pictures, and we won’t even talk about mine and my brother’s bedrooms. But, occasionally someone in our house would get all indignant about the mess and decide that enough was enough and start cleaning frantically. Usually me or my brother, and usually when there were friends coming over or a new girlfriend in the picture. And, not only that, they would expect everyone else to share in their indignation and start cleaning up as well. So, they would start vacuuming while everyone else was trying to watch TV and get angry when no one else would share their enthusiasm. This is a bit how I imagine Martha. She had invited Jesus into her home and, wanting to be a gracious host, was fussing over all of the things that needed to be attended to, or at least the things she thought needed to be attended to. And so when Mary was just sitting there listening to Jesus, things got a bit like they did in my family until she finally got so frustrated she asked her guest to set her sister straight but instead she ended up being the one who got set straight.
So, what is the problem here, why is it that Martha gets stuck with all the work while Mary just gets to relax. I see two factors in play here. First, we see how Martha invites Jesus into her home and it seems that she goes immediately to her tasks, her distractions. She doesn’t take time to just sit with her guest, to listen to his stories and his teaching or maybe even his jokes, who knows. And this is an observation that pretty readily and commonly made given this passage and with our fast-paced lifestyles and the abundance of distractions that surround us this is something we always need to be aware of. There is even a massively popular Bible Study curriculum called “having a Mary heart in a Martha world.” We have to take the time to sit at Jesus’ feet like Mary did before we try to take on all of the things we need to get done.
We go to Jesus for clarity, peace, strength, and all the things we need to both know what really needs to be done as well as do it. As Martin Luther is famously quoted as saying, “I have so much to do that if I didn’t spend at least three hours a day in prayer I would never get it all done.” Now, I’m not saying that you should spend three hours every day in prayer, but how about 30 minutes. Part of the beauty of our tradition is the Daily Office, morning and evening prayer. These are short services found in the BCP, intended to bookend our day with scripture and prayer, there’s even an app for it. We could all stand to spend more time in prayer to prepare us for everything this world has to throw at us.
The next problem we see with Martha has to do with her attitude toward her sister and towards her service in general. Even if she didn’t start in the right place, much of what Martha was doing was commendable. She was taking on the role of servant, and how many places do we see the one who serves being honored and exalted in the Kingdom of God; “And whoever would be first among you must be servant of all.”
In our other lessons today, we see Abraham serving the Lord, rushing to prepare a meal for the three men who appeared near his tent, we have Paul referring to himself as a servant of the Gospel. Service is an integral part of our lives as Christians. But, Mary’s service seemed to come with some expectations. She clearly expected her sister to join in her busy-ness. Here’s the thing though, our service needs to be centered on our love for others with no expectations of our own. We cannot serve with an expectation of appreciation, or gratitude, or reciprocation, or for everyone else to stop what they are doing and pitch in. We can’t dictate the actions of others and we don’t get to heed our call to serve on our own terms. Don’t get me wrong, these are completely appropriate responses to being served, and here in Texas we tend to pride ourselves on our hospitality and we teach our children to do these things, but they aren’t the reason we serve. Our call is just that, ours. It may be that our call is to encourage or empower others or to lead a family or a parish or a ministry, but we don’t get to decide what other people are called to or neglect our duty when we aren’t getting the response we expect.
When Martha set out to be the gracious hostess, she shouldn’t have given a second thought to Mary’s actions. Would it have been nice for her sister to have helped out, I guess, but as Jesus pointed out, she had chosen the better part; she knew the one thing that was needed was to sit and listen to her Lord and Savior. You see, at this point, Jesus has already turned water into wine and fed five thousand with a few measly loaves and fish. There was nothing that Martha was fussing over that Jesus could not have provided for. It wasn’t Mary who was missing the point here, it was Martha. At the end of the day Martha’s biggest problem was discernment. Mary understood what was needed while Martha set about doing what she thought was needed. She jumped right and got busy without acknowledging Jesus first and then got frustrated when she didn’t get any help. We have to be prayerful about what God is calling us to or we may get caught up in all of the distractions and miss out on the better part.
In the name…