Thursday, February 16, 2012
Reflections on Martha
Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 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? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, 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 away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
I’m going to be leading a one-day retreat on Saturday, and this is one of the texts that will inform our time together. I’ve been meditating on these words, and have come up with a new conclusion:
Martha gets a bad rap.
Not from Jesus, however. Most sermons I’ve heard on the text pit Martha against here sister Mary. Mary chose “the better part,” while Martha was busy with her tasks. Mary is devoted, while Martha is a legalist. Good Mary. Bad Martha.
But I don’t think that’s what is going on here. First of all, it’s Martha who welcomes Jesus into her home (note: Never, never do this with a vampire. Once you’ve invited one of them into your home, you are done for. Just a tip). It appears that Martha is delighted to have Jesus in the household, and she gets busy in the way that is characteristic for a person who is wired for hospitality.
At the risk of being extra-biblical (like that’s my most feared accusation), I’ve often wondered if Luke edited the conversation more than we realize. Maybe it went more like this:
Jesus: “Martha, 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 away from her.”
Martha: “Okay, fine, Jesus. I’ll join Mary at your feet and then you can get your own lunch.”
Jesus: “Um, that’s not exactly what I meant.”
We’ll never know what other discussions took place, but it’s clear to me that Martha didn’t choose what was less than “better” because her work of hospitality was out of line. The issue that Jesus points to is her distraction and worry, both of which served to extract her from engaging with Jesus. Mary chose the “better part” (note: it was the better part, not the only part) because being with Jesus was the one thing that was truly needed.
Martha’s hospitality is not the issue here. Her worry and distraction were the things not needed. They were clearly less than the “better” that Mary chose.
I hope that the story went on with Martha joining her sister at Jesus’ feet, and then everyone getting up to make lunch together. Maybe Jesus even helped to dry the dishes.