As early as I can remember, my grandparents’ home has always been a place for the family to gather. The house they lived in for my father’s childhood and up until I was in the sixth grade was a perfect place for entertaining. In fact, while I have many memories from that old house, whenever I close my eyes and picture entering the front door, I am quickly transported back to all of the sensory experiences: the sound of loud conversation and laughter; the smell of delicious food and baked goods; the rush of warmth that happens when a large number of people are gathered in any space; the sight of numerous family members lining up to shake hands and give hugs and leave lipstick smears on our cheeks. My grandmother’s side of the family is, after all, Italian, so all of these are pretty typical.
And while grandma and grandpa now live in a smaller house, theirs is a place where we gather around the holidays to celebrate family, laugh and remember. Of course, as time has passed, the gatherings are not as full as they used to be, and some of the biggest characters and personalities have long passed on.
One thing that was always clear whenever we would enter the house was that everyone had a role. The uncles, Phil and Tom, would be watching a football game (or sleeping in front of it); the aunts (affectionately known as “the sisters”) would be sitting at the table teaching my brother and me how to play cards; and everyone would be tasked with eating as much food as possible, and there always seemed to be endless quantities of it!
And then there was my grandmother. She was often the last person we would find to say hello to, as she was often busy in the kitchen, washing dishes, preparing food, putting something into the oven or taking something out, mixing up this salad or that dessert… she was the one concerned with making sure everything was set, that everyone was fed, and if everyone was fed, everyone was loved. Food is my grandmother’s love language.
When I read this account of Jesus at the home of Martha and her sister Mary, I cannot help but see my grandmother in the character of Martha. Here is an important teacher and preacher who has come to their village, and he has come to dine at their home. Martha, wanting to be sure everything is in excellent condition, has probably been cooking up a storm, straightening up the house, and crossing dozens of things off of dozens of lists to make sure Jesus is treated with the respect and honor he deserves.
Martha is the hostess; she does everything she is supposed to. When hosting a guest, especially one of such esteem as this Jesus, there were a lot of expectations! “Hospitality was a highly valued and presumably widely practiced custom among pagans, Jews, and Christians [in the ancient world]. Hosts were expected to provide food, shelter, amenities, and protection to these traveling strangers” (Parsons).
Throughout the gospel of Luke, much more than the other gospels, Jesus emphasizes action and acts of service as being of paramount importance to realizing the kingdom of God. In the lectionary, this reading follows on the heels of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, a story that underscores the importance of serving our neighbors, especially those we might not normally see as our neighbors. Luke consistently highlights a “social ethic [which] provides a solid foundation for Christian habits and practices both within the community (we have unlimited responsibilities to fellow believers) and with the world (we are called to provide Christian hospitality to those unlike us in nationality, faith, or ethnicity and assistance to those in immediate crisis). Christians are called to extend hospitality both as hosts and guests and to fellow believers and non-believers alike. Such hospitality calls for personal and intimate engagement in a way that an insipid value such as ‘tolerance’ does not. We are not called simply to ‘tolerate’ or ‘endure’ those not like us; rather the ancient ‘Christian virtue’ of hospitality demands that we engage and interact with the Other, whether we are guest or host” (Parsons).
Martha is doing what Jesus taught, and doing it really well! She “has busied herself with caring for her guest, and she exemplifies ideal hospitality… [she] represents the vita active, the active life” (Parsons).
So Jesus’ response to Martha when she comes to him complaining about her sister saying, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” is challenging. “Folks were always asking Jesus to intervene in family disputes and other seemingly trivial matters. You would think this would have irritated Him, being God-in-flesh and all, but His response to Martha was gentle, almost tender” (Held Evans 35).
“Martha, Martha,” he says, almost cooing, as someone calming an upset child. “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
Well, yeah, she’s worried by many things! She’s got a casserole in the oven, the apples for the pie still need to be peeled and cored, there are a hundred dirty dishes in the sink, and… and…
Martha… Martha… Calm down.
The problem we often run into in this story is making it an either/or scenario. Jesus “corrects” Martha, so Mary is right. But to pit “woman against woman [is to call] out our sin of comparison. And comparison, competition, who is better, is a deleterious path. It rarely ends with acceptance, but usually in the secured certainty of who wins- and at the expense of the other” (Lewis).
In her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans discusses the different versions of Martha and Mary we seem to have stuck in our traditional interpretations. She writes:
“The Precious Moments New King James Version of the Bible that I toted around to Sunday school as a child included a cartoon illustration of this story that depicted Mary kneeling at the feet of Jesus, looking quite like the Virgin herself, with hands clasped together in prayer, body positioned at a perfect ninety-degree angle, eyes closed, and head covered, while Martha, looking rather like a Disney stepsister, with an enormous nose, angular jaw, and kooky hairdo, cast an exaggerated glare at her sister while balancing a platter of grapes in her hands- a sharp contrast between the servant and the student, considering the fact that good Christian girls are generally expected to be both.
“Feminists like me love this story. Here we have Jesus gladly teaching a woman who was bold enough to study under a rabbi, which was patently condemned at the time. However, conservatives note that Martha served future meals to Jesus and His disciples, suggesting that Jesus called Martha out on her critical attitude, not her role as a homemaker. As tempting as it is to cast Mary and Martha as flat, lifeless foils of each other- cartoonish representatives of our rival callings as women- I think that misses the point.
“Martha certainly wasn’t the first and she won’t be the last to dismiss someone else’s encounter with God because it didn’t fit the mold. When an unnamed woman interrupted a meal to anoint Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume, some of those present complained that the money could have been donated to the poor (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9). When an invalid healed by Jesus ran through the streets, carrying the mat to which he had been confined for thirty-eight years, a group of religious leaders chastised him for lifting something heavy on the Sabbath (John 5). When my friend Jackie became the first woman to deliver a sermon from the pulpit of a megachurch in Dallas, she received hate mail from fellow Christians. When a new mom told me she felt closer to God since giving birth, I secretly dismissed her feelings as hormone-induced sentimentalism.
“I guess we’re all a little afraid that if God’s presence in there, it cannot be here” (Held Evans 35-36).
Mary is not doing anything wrong. In fact, Jesus points out that she is doing the right thing. But that does not mean that what Martha was doing was wrong. Mary “represents the vita contemplativa, the contemplative life. She sits at the feet of Jesus as a student and listens to him teach. Both the active life and the contemplative life are needed; to choose one over the other can create a false dichotomy” (Parsons).
What Jesus seems to be pointing out is that, while service and hospitality are important, so is listening to and studying the Word of God. In fact, when he says, “There is need of only one thing,” there is almost an urgency in his tone. He seems to be saying that in the ordinary everyday world, the service Martha is performing (and chastising her sister for not being active in) is a vital part. But these are not ordinary days, Jesus is saying. He is on his way to Jerusalem; He is on his way to the cross. Everything is about to be torn down and built up new. There isn’t much time left, so the time to sit and listen is now.
“Christ gently reminds Martha (and Luke’s audience), that Mary’s is ‘the better part,’ because actions- even acts of Christian charity and hospitality- if they are to be sustained, always follow being; that is, what we do flows naturally from who we are” (Parsons).
So who are we going to be? “Caring for the poor, resting on the Sabbath, showing hospitality and keeping the home- these are important things that can lead us to God, but God is not contained in them. The gentle Rabbi reminds us that few things really matter and only one thing is necessary.
“Mary found it outside the bounds of her expected duties as a woman, and no amount of criticism or questioning could take it away from her. Martha found it in the gentle reminder to slow down, let go, and be careful of challenging another woman’s choices, for you never know when she may be sitting at the feet of God” (Held Evans 36-37).
So the next time your house is full of family and friends and you find yourself running around trying to make sure everyone is fed and laughing and happy, remember two things. First, thank you for doing what you are called to do. And second, sit down and join the conversation. Sure, the casserole might burn a little, but that’s not the important thing. Amen.
Evans, Rachel Held. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “master” Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 35-37. Print.
Lewis, Karoline. “No Comparison.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 10 July 2016. Web. 15 July 2016.
Parsons, Mikeal C. “Commentary on Luke 10:38-42.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 15 July 2016. Web. 15 July 2016.