Can’t you just picture it? There is Martha slaving away in the kitchen, the hair on her arms probably singed from the hot cooking fire, and then racing out to the local merchant at the last minute to get some more olive oil, or whatever. Can’t you see her breathless and scattered, trying to spin more and more plates, trying to cover her bases, trying, trying, trying hard to please the company that hasn’t even arrived yet, trying to live up to her society’s expectations of a woman and a host. The water is boiling…but that’s not all that’s simmering over the stove.
Mary, Martha’s sister, is laughing and conversing with Jesus, having a good time to Martha’s high stress. Can’t you just hear them in the next room? She’s sitting at his feet, for God’s sake, hanging onto his every word. There’s a time and a place for such things, Martha thinks, and gracious Lord, it is NOT now. There’s a table to be set, dishes to be scrubbed, pots to be stirred, if I don’t soon dump one on Mary’s head. Good sister Martha is set to boil.
And boil she does. And in her boiling, she cries out, “Jesus, don’t you care that Mary has left me here with all the work to do by myself?!” Which implies that he, Jesus, hasn’t really done all that much either. I mean, why isn’t he helping out with the meal? Unless the actual meal, the one that Martha believes is so important, is NOT the point.
I’ve got to admit…I am sympathetic to the Marthas of the world. They DO things. In meetings, they are the ones that get to the point. They get our heads out of the clouds, and keep their feet solidly on the ground. When everyone else is standing around chatting up a storm, they are washing dishes, paying bills, organizing rallies, tending the children, getting everyone out of a pretty fix. They are the multi-taskers and the multi-managers. They are also the control freaks who make sure that the world, our world or our communities, or our churches, don’t collapse, or implode, or grind to an excruciating and painful stop. I’ve had my Martha moments, and often there is a huge sense of accomplishment when one realizes that there are 16 plates spinning in the air, and not ONE of them has fallen!
But, in this story, Jesus criticizes Martha. He says that Martha’s sister, Mary, who is right now, sitting down reflecting with Jesus about some crazy story, he says that Mary has chosen the better part. She is the wiser in this story. Huh??? Mary has chosen the better part of what? Of life? Or the better part of the evening? Or the better part of the meal? But we haven’t eaten yet! Or have we been too busy to notice the main course?
Martha wouldn’t know the answer to that question. She’s too worried, too distracted over her many tasks, her many obligations and accomplishments of the day, her many stresses and strains. And notice, while she’s stirring those pots and spinning those plates, she’s got a critical eye out for the ones who are keeping fellowship, who are entertaining guests, who have taken a breath from their many tasks to reflect why, oh why, are we praising God in the first place. Why do we, like Mary, need to sit at Jesus’ feet when there are guests to be fed, meals to prepare, bills to be paid, errands to run, and committees to gather?
It’s like a catch-22. Mary needs Martha—why, Jesus even needs Martha—unless the food is going to serve itself. But we need Mary too. Sometimes we get so caught up in being like Martha that we lose our focus. We forget WHY we are here and who gathers us in the first place. We forget to reflect wisely on why it is that we constantly and irreverently chase our holy tails. Lord, have mercy.
This story reminds me of Thanksgiving. I know we are seasonally a long way away from Thanksgiving, but bear with me. And before I begin with my story, let me just say that my spouse gave me permission, when he was alive, to tell it. Anyway—Thanksgiving. Picture it. I don’t know what Thanksgiving is like in your house, but it was the first Thanksgiving that my husband and I invited my parents to celebrate the holiday. And since we only see my family about twice a year, it was a special occasion.
My husband, Frank, asks me, “What kinds of foods should we prepare?” which kind of cracks me up. I mean, he is being generous because I am not cooking. No, I am the designated clean-up crew. We discussed cranberry sauce, of all things. You see, Frank felt that we needed to have the real kind, meaning the kind actually looks like it is made from berries—with some other choppy ingredients thrown in. I distinctly remember arguing for the canned cranberry sauce, the kind that looks like jello with the imprint of the can rim pressed into the side. That first Thanksgiving, Frank wanted to make about 10 dishes FROM SCRATCH. “From scratch,” to me, has always meant that I get a cut or a scratch in the kitchen just from making it. “That is NOT necessary,” I complain. My parents won’t care…it really doesn’t matter to them. We grew up on canned cranberry sauce. It is a family staple. Seriously.
Hence, an argument ensued and I may have gone into the other room and sat my Mary self down to read a book while my husband morphed into Martha for the day and busied himself with the rolling out the pie crust, shaping the melt-in-your-mouth bread rolls, keeping an eye on the turkey, making the dressing that wasn’t StoveTop, peeling a mountain of potatoes, sautéing the green beans, and cooking whatever else he thought we must have. I am not proud of the fact that I spent most of the day savoring the kitchen smells, but avoiding kitchen duty. Frank was worried and distracted about putting on a respectable Thanksgiving meal, about honoring my parents with REAL cranberry sauce, and about offering the best New England hospitality that we could modestly afford. I just wanted to get through the day without any more arguments.
But still. Something was lost in the argument about cranberry sauce and homemade croutons. Something was lost by BOTH of us—me included. We were no longer giving thanks, but giving each other a pain in the turkey carcass.
In this story, Jesus gently reminds Martha, “there is need of only one thing.” What do you think that “one thing” is? What needs your attention, your focus, more than all of your present worries and distractions? Are you so busy trying to get the cranberry sauce right that you’ve forgotten the praise and the thanksgiving?
Jesus seems to say, take some time in your life, like Mary, to listen and reflect. Don’t stew. Don’t lose your focus in the details and distractions. We not only need to balance the times that we are Martha and the times that we are Mary, but we need to realize that God moves at a completely different pace and by a completely different grace. If you examine the text, you find that Martha isn’t criticized for being a busy beaver, but for being distracted by “many things” – some of which include criticizing how Mary should behave around guests and how Jesus should be as “put out” as Martha is, since she’s taken up kitchen duty. Can we hear God in this story? Where is God in all of our rushing and worrying, building and becoming, plans and prayers? Do we expect God to be as “put out” as us?
Perhaps the “one thing needed” is for us to remember whose feet we are following. Perhaps we need to sit down and learn from Jesus before we race ahead and determine for ourselves what God wants for the church, or for our lives. The Good Samaritan is called good because he does the “one thing” needed for the situation, which is to bandage wounds, show mercy, and get the fellow out of the ditch. Mary “has chosen the better part” because she takes the time to learn and to listen from Jesus before blithely doing what everyone expected of her—including her society. Women, back then, did not sit at the feet of their Rabbi; Luke’s gospel shows that women were just as welcome to participate in God’s realm as the men.
I leave you with this final thought. I hope that you find it both disturbing and thought provoking. Commentator Cynthia Jarvis writes, “…A community that is hospitable to Christ is a community marked by the attention the community gives to God’s word. A church that has been led to be ‘worried and distracted by many things’ inevitably will be a community that dwells in the shallows of frantic potlucks, anxious stewardship campaigns, and events designed simply to perpetuate the institution. Decisions will be made in meetings without a hint of God’s reign. Food and drink will appear at table without Christ being recognized in the breaking of the bread…night after night, members leave home to crank out the church and return as clueless and empty as they were when they walked out the door.”
May our loving and compassionate God help us to keep our focus. If we are feeling like Martha, may we find a way to reflect on our many tasks and the manner in which we go about doing them. If we are feeling like Mary, may we consider that there are many others who have made it possible for us to sit at Jesus’ feet, eat at the Lord’s Table, and listen carefully and well. Perhaps we might give someone else the respite he or she needs to sit in contemplation without having to manage the details. Perhaps we will realize that doing the “one thing needed” is actually better than trying to multi-task with resentment. Maybe we will try to let Jesus examine us, rather than our examining and finding fault with him. And if we have already started to plan for our Easter meal with family or friends, may we remember that the grace and the thanks-giving part comes before whatever kind of cranberry sauce, whatever kind of Easter ham, and whatever feast, we end up putting on that table.
 Cynthia A. Jarvis, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 264.