July 21, 2013
Chef Ina Garten, also known as the Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, once told a story about the first dinner party she ever hosted. She was still a relatively young bride, definitely a novice cook, and she thought that it would be a good idea to make all of her guests individual omelets.
As she described it, that good idea turned out to be a terrible one. Omelets aren’t a hard dish to prepare, but they take a few minutes, even for the most experienced of cooks. Ina realized too late that making one for everyone at the party meant that she was trapped in the kitchen for most of the evening. She said that was the worst of it. She never got to spend any time with her guests. She stood in front of the stove all night, while her husband visited with their friends. It was at that moment that she made a vow. From that point on whenever she entertained, she would make sure she could prepare things ahead. She would never again ignore her guests while she slaved in the kitchen. Ina said she would make sure that she could prepare the majority of her meal in advance, and then she’d have maximum time with her friends. And if you’ve ever watched her show, The Barefoot Contessa, on the Food Network, you know that’s what she does. She always talks about what can be made ahead of time before having guests over.
I don’t know that Ina would have described herself as a Martha at that first dinner party. But I probably would have. I often describe myself as a Martha. Maybe some of you do too. Of course the Martha I’m referring to is the Martha of our story from Luke. Martha and Mary were sisters, who when Jesus visited their home, made two very different choices. Mary, the sister who chose to sit at the foot of Jesus, made the right choice. Martha, who chose to clean and cook and make all the preparations for the honored guest, made the wrong choice.
This is the basic interpretation that I’ve heard of this story since I first remember listening to sermons. Mary is right. Martha is wrong. But I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. I think Martha gets the short end of the stick. I even resent the way I’ve heard this passage read most of the time. The way most preachers intone his words, Jesus comes across as patronizing and snide. Martha is perceived as nothing more than a wayward child who must be taught how to behave correctly. But the truth about Martha is that she was doing exactly what was required of her by Jewish law and custom. First, she was following the rules of hospitality. Jesus was a guest in her home. There were things that must be done for him. Secondly, she was doing what women were supposed to do in that culture.
The woman bore the responsibility for the cleaning and preparing of the meal. She was doing her duty. Mary was the one breaking the rules. Mary was shirking her duty. She was also breaking a societal taboo. Women were not supposed to sit at the feet of a teacher. They were not supposed to be among the learners. They were to be among the doers. According to the rules set in place at that time, Martha was justified in her complaints about Mary’s lack of help.
But instead of taking her side Jesus tells Martha that she is too busy doing, therefore Mary has chosen the better way and that won’t be taken from her. It all sounds logical and good, but if you’ve ever felt like Martha then these words can sting.
I had a very good friend in seminary who once said, “If you tell all the Martha’s in the church to sit down, you might as well go home, because the church is going to just stop.” Let’s face it, the church runs thanks to the Martha’s. Debbie Hamrick, the conference administrator of the CREDO conference I attended in May, gave one of the best sermons on this passage I’ve ever heard. At one point in her sermon she said, “All of you pastors, when you stand at the communion table, do you ever think about who set that table?” A Martha set it. Martha’s come in every shape, size, and gender. Martha’s, the doers, are necessary and needed.
What’s really interesting about this story of Martha and Mary is that it follows immediately after the story of the Good Samaritan. Every scholar I’ve read on this passage states that the two stories are meant to be read together. They work in tandem.
In the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus tells the lawyer who is questioning him that to love God is to love the neighbor. Neighborly love is enacted love. It is love in action. The Samaritan showed love by doing, while the priest and the Levite worried more about doing their duty to the law and ignored their fellow human being.
But in this story, Jesus tells Martha that she is doing too much. She is distracted by many things. She has forgotten that only one thing is needed, only one thing is necessary. But Mary, the one who stops doing and sits and listens, is the one who does what is best. So in one story Jesus affirms that being a disciple means doing and in the very next story, he says that being a disciple means being. Is he contradicting himself?
No. Luke’s purpose in these two stories being read together is to show that according to Jesus discipleship means both things. Discipleship is both doing and being. There must be a balance between the two. When Martha complains to Jesus about Mary’s lack of help, Jesus says to her, “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” You are worried and distracted by many things, but only one thing is really necessary. Martha was right to do, but in this circumstance her doing had gotten out of hand. Doing her duty had become the distraction and it was keeping her from what was really important. And that was being with Jesus. She lost her sense of balance when it came to doing, just as the priest and the Levite had when it came to being. Their duties distracted them from what was truly necessary – helping another child of God and taking time to listen to Jesus.
Luke and the Revised Common Lectionary place these two stories together deliberately, so that we the readers are reminded about what is necessary. We must do and we must also be.
It’s not enough to think of ourselves as only Martha or only Mary. We must be both. Our faith is not a passive thing. Faith is active. It means doing. We are called to live out our faith, to proclaim our faith, not just through words but through deeds. But faith is also being. Faith is finding time to listen, to reflect, be. Loving the Lord God with all our hearts, strength soul and mind means being able to discern when to do and also when to be. It is knowing what is the necessary thing. That’s the challenge.
It is a challenge because as a society we tend to idolize busyness. A theologian I read once stated that the true American idol is not just a show on television – it is busyness. We are all constantly, unrelentingly busy. And I say this knowing that I am completely guilty. I feel guilty when I’m not doing something. In my mind being still equates to being useless. But how much of our busyness is actually necessary and how much of our busyness is just … busyness?
A member of the church I served in Minnesota shared a book from her husband’s family that tells the story of their larger family history. This family was a founding member of the Richland Prairie church, a small church in the Minnesota countryside that was also known as the Scotland church because of the number of Scots who founded it. In this book was a wonderful letter written by Sheldon Jackson, the Presbyterian minister and evangelist who was instrumental in planting the seeds for that church as well as countless others across the United States, including Alaska.
He wrote to his parents in 1860 about the people of the Richland Prairie church and what he found when he arrived to spend some time with them.
“Found them expecting me, house cleaned up, folks cleaned up. Soon after the neighbors began to gather in, to see a ‘live Presbyterian minister,’ and there was a large company to tea. In the evening about thirty attended the preaching service. After the service they were loathe to separate, some staying till midnight. These people seemed so rejoiced that they hardly know how to contain themselves.”
Now what did he find? A clean house, clean folks, food prepared to serve whoever came. That was the work of Martha’s. But those Martha’s were also Mary’s, because they realized that what was necessary was to put aside the doing and listen to a real live Presbyterian minister when he was finally in their midst. I won’t make the claim that Sheldon Jackson was a Jesus figure, but certainly he brought the word of the Lord to these folks in a way that they hadn’t heard in a very long time. And the church grew from there.
It grew from there, just as every church grows because of the Martha’s and the Mary’s. Jesus tells us that being a disciple means loving God and loving our neighbor, and that means loving by doing – living out love through acts of kindness, compassion and sacrifice. Jesus also tells us that being a disciple means sitting at his feet, listening being with him, being quiet, just being. Disciples must be both doers and be-ers. Being a disciple means recognizing what is necessary. Sometimes what is necessary is to do, to act, just as the Samaritan acted on behalf of the beaten and robbed man. And sometimes what is necessary is to set aside the doing and seize the moment to be with Jesus, just as Mary did when she left her duties in the kitchen and sat at the feet of her teacher. Disciples must be both doers and be-ers. In the church and in life, both are what is necessary. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”