“Only One Thing” Luke 10:38-42
I’ve always felt sorry for Martha in today’s Gospel reading, probably because I tend to identify with her exasperation with both her sister and Jesus. I feel like she’s unjustly criticized for trying to be welcoming. Am I the only one who finds it a challenge not to be annoyed with Jesus here? When Martha complains that she could use a little help, it seems like Jesus could offer to set the table, or at least move his conversation with Mary to the kitchen so they could chop carrots while they talked. Instead Jesus chides her for being preoccupied with ordinary—but necessary—things like eating.
Evidently it doesn’t occur to Jesus that Martha might WANT to be sitting with him, listening to his stories, but someone has to cook—especially if Jesus has brought his 12 closest friends with him for dinner! Even his repetition of her name (“Martha, Martha”) reminds me of The Brady Bunch (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”) and comes across as patronizing and belittling, as if he’d prefer she sit down and shut up like Mary.
But if I get too hung up on Jesus’ dismissal of Martha’s hostessing style, I miss the radical act of hospitality that Jesus shows in this story! Jesus encourages Mary to listen and learn the Word of God, just as men of that time were allowed to do. That’s big! After all, a first century rabbi named Eliazer wrote, “Better to burn the Torah than teach it to women.” Clearly Jesus doesn’t buy into that idea; he wants Mary and Martha to see themselves not only as servants, but also as his disciples. THAT is hospitality!
So, maybe I’m a little too hard on Jesus. Maybe it was a gift he was offering to Martha, and not a scolding, when he suggested she join him and Mary for the one thing that is needful. Maybe Jesus yearns for Martha to occasionally receive hospitality rather than always being the one providing it. Maybe the message here is a new twist on an old adage. Maybe Jesus is suggesting, “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”
But if Jesus is asking Martha to sit down and be quiet like Mary, it can sound like encouraging a passive, inactive faith. Can Jesus be endorsing a private piety that is all about “me and Jesus alone in a garden” and allows no room for public expressions of faith? That seems incongruous with the Jesus we’ve come to know who is almost always trying to get his followers to express their faith through actions rooted in love.
Neither sister’s conduct completely captures the heart of model discipleship by itself. If we read this story as a competetioin between Mary and Martha we miss the whole context of the conversation in Luke’s Gospel, not to mention the sisters roles across all of the Gospels.
Today’s passage from Luke comes directly after the parable of The Good Samaritan. You may remember that story as an answer Jesus gives when questioned about how to love God and neighbor. The famous illustration about love in action concludes with Jesus’ admonishment: “Go and do likewise.” In contrast, today’s text seems to be addressing people who get so wrapped up in going and doing that they neglect (or forget) to spend time just resting and sitting with Jesus, building their relationship.
Fred Craddock, a theology professor from Candler School of Theology cautions us to hold the two sisters together to get the full message of this text: “If we censure Martha too profusely, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to sit and reflect.” So which example are we to follow—the Good Samaritan/Martha’s busy faith or Mary’s contemplation? I think, as is often the case, the answer is “YES.”
It helps to remember that today’s story is not the only one about a dinner at Martha and Mary’s house. It may or may not be typical. Unlike Abraham who in today’s reading from Genesis serves three strangers, Jesus and Mary and Martha are good friends, and he apparently ate at their house a lot. Other than his mother, no women are mentioned more frequently as Jesus’ companions than these two.
The next time we see Martha is in the 11th chapter of John’s gospel, where John writes “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Interesting who gets top billing, isn’t it? In John 11, Lazarus has died, and when Jesus gets near the house, it is Martha who runs out to meet Jesus on the road before he even arrives at the house! She says that she knows Jesus could have prevented her brother’s death if he’d been there, adding, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” She goes on to proclaim that Jesus is the resurrection and the life—making her the very first person in John’s Gospel to recognize Jesus as the Messiah! Obviously she hadn’t spent all her time in the kitchen when Jesus was around, because she has not only heard but internalized the heart of the Gospel truth.
Meanwhile, in Luke’s story today, Jesus is teaching and preparing Mary to go out and witness to the Good News the same way as his male disciples were prepared. By contrast, when we see her in John 11, she is not running to Jesus like Martha. She is weeping at her brother’s tomb, stuck in the death part of the death and resurrection story.
In the very next chapter (John 12), however, Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus with oil, a task which in the Old Testament would have been done by prophets to mark a chosen person. Mary has been a hearer of God’s word, and now responds as a doer of God’s word, taking on the mantle of leadership with her prophetic action.
In today’s text, Jesus says cryptically, “Only one thing is needful,” but he never spells out what that one thing is. I am convinced that both sisters have learned from Jesus that there are times to hear the truth, times to speak it, and times to enact it. I believe that the one needed thing is discernment about what kind of faith is required at every juncture on our faith journeys. Discernment is navigating which aspect of faith is needed at this moment.
Likewise, our spiritual lives are healthiest when we keep a dynamic tension between action and reflection. Like a toy Slinky, which only “walks” if it has some momentum, we don’t want to get stuck too long in the “go and do” mode or too long in the “sit and listen” mode. We have to keep moving back and forth between action and reflection, reflection and action, Martha and Mary, Mary and Martha.
Today, my friends, we, too, are Slinkies, and we have been invited to share a meal. It’s not elaborate—just a little bitty crumb of bread and a teeny sip of wine (thank you, altar guild, for making sure we have those!). The point is not the food so much as the companionship. Jesus the Host and the Meal is dying for us to come and be united together with him and with all those he loves. Jesus calls us to honor one another, to honor ourselves, and to honor God. When we leave this meal, we are invited to follow in the footsteps of Martha and Mary: to reflect and to act, to listen and to set tables for others. As precious ones whom God has loved and served, we are called to recognize and honor ourselves and all the people God sends our way. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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