Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said about today’s gospel story about sisters Martha and Mary is: Jesus, seriously, do you have any idea how much work it takes to put on a really nice dinner for company?
It concerns me that this text can be misunderstood in a way that leaves church ladies and their male counterparts, those whose gift is behind the scenes service and hospitality, feeling like dirt. As if the moral of the story is that serving is wrong, and sitting around at Jesus’ feet while others are scurrying around doing the work, is the only proper way to show our devotion to God.
I cannot believe this was Jesus’ intention in pointing out the contrast between sisters Martha and Mary that day.
After all, Jesus himself modeled servant leadership. He knelt at the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper to wash their feet. Throughout both testaments we are urged to practice hospitality, from the laws of Exodus and Leviticus to the book of Hebrews, where we’re reminded that by showing hospitality to strangers we may be entertaining angels unaware. (Hebrews 13:2) Jesus further told us that any act of kindness and service for the least of these members of his family is an act of kindness toward him. (Matthew 25: 40) And it was only a few chapters ago in Luke’s gospel that Jesus called out Simon the Pharisee precisely for not being a gracious enough host. (Luke 7:36-50)
So I’m guessing we can eliminate “stay out of the kitchen” and “stop serving people” from the list of better interpretations of today’s gospel text. Surely this cannot be Jesus’ main point.
But if that’s not it, what is? It’s a pretty succinct story. All we’re really told is there’s one sister rushing around busily as hostess, and another sister sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he’s saying. The rushing-around sister complains to Jesus that the sitting-down sister won’t help. And Jesus says it’s the sitting-down sister that has “chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:42)
Except that’s not exactly what he says. That is, it isn’t the sitting down that he highlights, in Mary’s better choice. Listen again to Jesus’ words: “Martha you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
Worried and distracted by many things instead of being focused on one thing. This, rather than serving vs. sitting, seems to me to be at the heart of what Jesus is trying to bring to Martha’s attention.
Have you ever heard the expression, “wherever you go, there you are?” Sounds straightforward enough, right? Except: what if wherever I go, I’m anywhere but there? While driving to drop my daughter off at school, I’m thinking about my workday. While helping with homework, I’m also trying to check my email. My body may be one place, but my head can be in an entirely different place. I remember vividly when my now 15-year-old daughter was much younger, playing a game of checkers with her and being beaten, soundly. She couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5. How hard could it be to beat her in checkers? Ah, but that assumes I was playing the game when I was playing the game. As I thought about it, I realized she was playing checkers with great focus, but I was staring at the checkerboard without really seeing it, composing both a sermon and a grocery list in my head, and mulling over my most recent pastoral care concern.
The particular details of your life will be different of course. But I am guessing I’m not alone in not always managing to be where I am. (Can I have an Amen?) And if I’m honest with myself, a lot of times I probably could, if I took a deep breath and thought about it for a minute, figure out which one thing was needful.
I’ve lost track of how many of you I’ve talked to recently about the category overload in your lives. So many things, some of them important things, are causing you to be worried and distracted. So many things that it can be hard to settle down and focus on the one thing that’s really needed, in any given moment.
And of course in Mary and Martha’s case, the one needful thing was the thing that Luke had been calling attention to throughout his gospel. The Messiah had come! Jesus was the Son of God, and he was right there in their midst!
There’s a scene in an old Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who, when all of these microscopically small Who’s have to get the attention of Horton the elephant and his other enormous neighbors. It takes all of their little voices together to make enough noise to be heard, as they cry out over and over: “We are here! We are here! We are here!”
Surely a big piece of what Jesus is trying to convey in these gospel stories as he makes his way from town to town is simply that: “I am here! I am here!” I’m standing right in front of you. You who long for a closer walk with God. You who long for a sign that God is with you and for you. You who wish God would make himself known to you in a real way. “I am here!” says Jesus. And so often his contemporaries couldn’t see it. Even his closest friends, folks like Martha, who clearly adored Jesus and wanted him to feel welcome in her home, couldn’t always see it. Not completely.
Granted, I’ve always wished Jesus had prefaced his remarks in Luke 10 by saying “Martha, you are an amazing cook. Thank you for welcoming me into your home, and working so hard to make me an incredible meal, and set a beautiful table.” Though perhaps he did thank her and she was simply too busy to notice. Either way, Jesus’ words that are recorded for us seem at least to convey: Martha, I am here! Emmanuel, God with you. I am here. Please enjoy our time together. Please allow yourself to be where you are, even for just a moment. As I mentioned a few chapters ago, “the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away,” (Luke 5:35) but right now, Martha, I am here. Be here with me.
That’s the opportunity that Mary seized, that her sister did not. The opportunity to notice Jesus’ presence.
And that’s where I am most convicted by this story. Because while I don’t think Jesus is saying service is wrong, and sitting still is inherently better, I do think he’s saying, “I am here!” and sometimes I’m far too busy to see him. I’m worried and distracted by many things instead of focusing on the one needful thing, which is to ask “Where is Jesus in this moment?” Is he sitting right in front of me, and I haven’t even noticed? Is Jesus in the joyful exuberance of a young child, or in a moment of meaningful conversation with a friend? Was Jesus present in a moment of silence I didn’t allow myself today, surrounded as I was by noise and chaos? Or, busy as I was with service – some of it truly good and worthwhile service – did I miss the face of Jesus in that person I was serving? Or in the face of a person that was serving me?
“You are worried and distracted about many things,” Jesus says, to all of us modern-day Martha’s. “There is need of only one thing.” Choose the better part.
Because no matter how many categories of life we may be trying to juggle on any given day, wherever we go, there we are.
What if we tried to really be there?
And even more importantly, what if we managed to remember Jesus is there too?