Sunday 21 July 2019
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 16C
This Sunday’s gospel lesson tells the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. They appear in two different places in the bible. There is this story in the Gospel of Luke, and there is another mention in the Gospel of John, when they encounter Jesus after their brother, Lazarus, has died, and Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But here in the Gospel of Luke, there is no Lazarus. There are only the two sisters, Mary and Martha.
Jesus is making his way from Galilee, where he has done most of his ministry, to Jerusalem, where he will be betrayed, tried, and crucified. Along the way, he is preaching and healing. As he comes to one unnamed village, he is welcomed into a home by Martha. While Martha is preparing hospitality for Jesus and his disciples, her sister, Mary, settles down to listen to Jesus speaking. Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is just sitting around while Martha is doing all the work, and she tries to enlist his support to get her sister to help her. But Jesus doesn’t agree. He says that Mary’s choice to listen to him should be respected.
So what is going on in this story? There are a few different common interpretations. One is that these two women represent two different approaches to life, and one of them is clearly superior to the other. This interpretation focusses on Jesus’s words. Martha tries to get Jesus to tell Mary to help her, and he responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”
Jesus seems to choose Mary over Martha. He seems to say that what Mary is doing is more important than what Martha is doing. “Mary has chosen the better part.” It might seem that Mary has chosen the correct thing, and Martha has chosen the incorrect thing.
If this is how we understand this story, then we seek to be like Mary and to reject the things that Martha does. We say that the most important thing is to listen to Jesus, and everything else should come second. Since we don’t have a flesh-and-blood Jesus to sit down and listen to these days, we have to figure out what would be the closest thing to that in our modern world.
Would it mean reading the Bible? Should we focus our life on reading the Bible? Or should we focus on philosophical pursuits rather than on more practical matters? Does it mean that thinking or believing is more important that doing? Does this story pit those who do against those who study? Does it mean that those who are contemplative are more important than those who do? Does it mean that people who are in thinking professions are more important than people who do labor? That’s how it has been interpreted by some. I don’t really buy it, though. If the world were filled with only contemplatives, nothing would ever get done.
Or maybe the distinction between Mary and Martha has something to do with heaven and earth. Does it mean that heavenly pursuits are more important that earthly pursuits, that we shouldn’t think about conditions in the real world because we are looking forward to a heavenly future? If so, should we stop being involved in justice ministry in the world because the physical world doesn’t really matter? Should we just be focusing on attracting converts who can escape into a heavenly eternity? Again, this is how it has been interpreted by some, but I don’t really buy this interpretation either. Jesus is constantly preaching that the Kingdom of God is near, right here, breaking into our world, and that we should seek to create here on that which is in heaven.
Maybe it’s not about proving that Mary is better than Martha at all. Maybe it’s more about describing two different personality types. Maybe some people are Marys and some people are Martha’s, but they are both important. In fact, Jesus doesn’t actually say that Mary has chosen the better part, despite what many English translations say. He only says that she has chosen a good part. Maybe each of them have value.
Some people are meant to be like Mary. They are meant to listen, and think, and ponder. They like to study, like to read, like to debate. They like to spend time in silence and in prayer. They can be counted on to think deep thoughts and have profound revelations.
On the other hand, other people are meant to be like Martha. They are meant to get things done. They see a problem, and they tackle it. They find out what needs to be done, and they get it done. They look out for the needs of others. They make sure that everyone is taken care of. They can be counted on to make things happen.
If we choose this interpretation, then it’s a matter of deciding which one we are and then living out that calling. Am I a Mary, or am I a Martha? And whichever one I am, I should try to be like all the time. Or I might even try to root for my own team. Team Mary is the best. We think deep thoughts. No, Team Martha is the top. We get things done.
And there’s probably a bit truth here. We know that the world needs both thinkers and doers. It makes sense to have a set of role models who represent those differences.
But we also have to acknowledge the role of gender in interpreting this story. The truth is, Mary and Martha have only been held up as models for women. Men can choose Peter or Paul or John or Thomas, or a whole host of other disciples. But for women, it’s got to be Mary or Martha.
And that has also effected to way that we understand Mary and Martha in the story. If these two women are going to be models for female disciples, then they had better fit into the molds of acceptable female behavior. Martha becomes the domestic goddess. She fills her role by doing housework. She cooks and cleans and takes care of the men. Mary becomes the doting follower. She sits quietly at the feet of knowledgable men. She hangs on every word that Jesus has to say, but says nothing in response.
But that narrative, of two sisters fitting two different, but equally subservient roles, disguises some of the radicalism of this story. Because what these women do, and how they are described, is really rather subversive. They both push the boundaries of what was expected of women in their time.
Let’s take Martha first. Is she a housewife who cooks the food and does the chores? Not really, if we look at her story closely. She is actually a patron of Jesus’s ministry. She is the one who welcomes him and all of his disciples into her house. She provides for them, not just with her service, but with her possessions. She has no husband, but she is powerful enough t play host to a man. Jesus and all of his disciples are dependent on Martha’s generosity. Martha is the benefactor, and Jesus is the recipient of her beneficence.
And that’s not all. Luke uses a very interesting word to describe what Martha does. It gets lost in most English translations. The version we read this morning says that Martha is distracted with many tasks, and she complains that Mary has left her to do all of the work. Those words for tasks and work come from the same Greek root: διακονία. The better translation is ministry. Martha is consumed with much ministry. In fact, it’s the same Greek word that gives us the English word “deacon.” Martha is doing the ministry of a deacon. That is what will develop into the ministry of a clergyperson. So Martha is identified here with a form of church leadership that within a few generations will be limited only to men. But it is the ministry that Martha does in this story. She serves as deacon.
I also find it very interesting the way that Martha confronts Jesus. It’s rather bold. In Greek, you can tell from the way someone asks the question whether they expect a yes or a no response. Martha expects Jesus to agree with her. Martha says, “You do care that my sister is leaving me alone to do the ministry, don’t you? So tell her to help me!” There’s nothing subtle or submissive about it. She knows what she wants, and she expects Jesus to agree with her. She commands him to. Not exactly what we might expect from a first-century woman.
And Mary’s role is just as subversive to gender norms. It may not seem like it at first glance. After all, all she does is sit and listen, right? How revolutionary can that be?
More than you might think. First of all, the fact that she’s in the classroom at all is interesting. Education, and particularly religious education, was generally for men. But there is Mary right along with Jesus’s other disciples.
And there’s a little bit more. She is described as sitting at Jesus’s feet listening to him. That is the traditional position for a disciple. Disciple is one of those words that we only use in church and so we forget what it is supposed to mean. A disciple is a follower. All of the great philosophers had disciples. A more common word today would be student. Mary sits in the role of a student of Jesus.
But even that word fails to capture what is happening here. You see, disciples weren’t just trying to learn from a master teacher, they were trying to become like their teacher. A better word might be apprentice. A disciple, if they followed closely enough, would eventually replace their master.
Mary here, sits right at Jesus’s feet, in the place of his chief disciple, with the clear implication that she is worthy to strive toward a ministry like Jesus’s own ministry. And even Jesus himself affirms that she belongs there. “She has chosen a good portion,” he says, “and it won’t be taken away from her.”
Mary and Martha present us with two models of faith, though they are not as simple as we sometimes think. Martha shows us the model of a patron and deacon. Mary shows us the model of a disciple and apprentice. Is one of them better than the other? Not necessarily. Must each of us choose between one of these two? Certainly not. Is there a time to be contemplative and thoughtful? Absolutely. Is there a time to stop thinking and get to work? Certainly. Is it often useful to pair a deep prayer life with positive action in the world? Most definitely.
We can celebrate the life and ministry of both Martha and Mary, without having to choose between them, and without using their stories as a way of pigeonholing us into a particular, circumscribed way of being. They were both radicals, in their way, and they invite us to challenge the expectations that the world puts on us. What their story teaches is not that there are only two ways of faith, but that being faithful often calls for bending the rules and breaking the molds. May each of us, like Martha and Mary, have the courage to serve God with our whole and authentic selves, even and especially when it’s not what others would expect of us.