Martha's Place, and Mary's

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 10:41b-42
Introduction: Promises, Promises

We all make promises we don’t keep. Many of our promises we don’t even remember making. But I made a promise on March 6 of this year that I’m going to keep today. On that day, I talked about the Parable of the Prodigal Son—a passage of scripture intended to make traditional religious people question the value of their religion and their attitudes. And when I preached that sermon I promised another sermon on a very different text, but another one which forces dedicated church members to re-think their religion. That text was read this morning, and so the words that follow are a fulfillment of a 19-week-old promise.

The story of Mary and Martha that we just heard is different from the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in that it’s a biographical detail of Jesus’ life, and not a story Jesus told in order to help his listeners better understand the nature of God’s love. But both are stories about family dynamics, and both challenge our view of our own place in the Christian faith. This is why, when I talked about the Prodigal Son back before Easter, I also got a request to address this story—the one about Mary and Martha.

But in reality, today’s passage doesn’t go with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as much as it is the flipside of another parable—the one that immediately precedes it in Luke 10: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story we learned that discipleship means doing something to help others, and today it appears that we’re learning that discipleship means doing nothing to help others. It’s all very confusing. But the fact is that we can’t isolate the Samaritan from Mary and Martha, and we can’t fully understand Mary and Martha without also accepting the truth of what the Samaritan taught us.

I. Martha’s Place, and Mary’s

So let’s make a quick summary of this little story. One of the things that probably doesn’t strike us, but certainly should, is the fact that Jesus is being entertained in a woman’s home. First, Jesus, as a respected teacher, should never compromise his reputation by being entertained by a woman. Second, Martha has no place owning a home. It may seem as though I’m putting too fine a point on this, but I’m not. Just because we are not scandalized by something in the year of our Lord 2016 doesn’t mean that it wasn’t scandalous almost two thousand years ago. It was, and it was supposed to be.

But it’s important to note that, though Martha was independent at a time when women were supposed to be dependent, it doesn’t mean that she eschewed all traditional female rôles. She welcomes Jesus—apparently along with some of his male followers—to her place. and then sets about playing the part of the perfect hostess: baking, cooking, serving, and cleaning up.

The problem, of course, is her sister, Mary. Some have talked about Mary of Bethany as being the same person as Mary Magdalene. But this doesn’t really seem possible, since Bethany is in Judea and Magdala is way up in Jesus’ homeland of Galilee. And so in the life of Jesus, we know of at least three important women named Mary. And all three of them—his mother, the Magdalene, and today’s Mary—seem to have a deeper understanding of his nature and his purpose than most—maybe even than any—of his male followers.

Mary of Bethany demonstrates this at least twice. This second time is found in three of the four gospels [1] and in one of our stained glass windows—when she anointed Jesus’ feet in a way that seemed scandalous to those who watched it happen. And the first time was today when, instead of helping her sister do “women’s work,” she sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he had to say.

We need to remember that “sitting at a teacher’s feet” didn’t mean anything demeaning. It was simply a metaphor for learning. It’s not even necessary to take the phrase literally, since it would’ve been possible to respectfully listen to and learn from a teacher while sitting across from them at a table or beside them on a bench. So, while Mary—like the men around her—may well have been seated on the floor while Jesus was sitting a chair, the most important thing we can take away from this description is that Mary saw herself as a disciple.

But did Jesus? Apparently he did, for when Martha asks Jesus to put her sister in her place, Jesus answers that Mary’s place was not that of a housemaid, but of a disciple.

II. There’s More to Life

Now please remember that Martha isn’t saying anything that most other people wouldn’t have said in that day and age. The Mishnah recorded the Jewish oral tradition of Jesus’ day as saying, “Let thy house be a meeting-house for the Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst… [but] talk not much with womankind.” [2] Jesus responds by dismissing this attitude that in our day would be called sexist. But of course, sexism is a very unfair accusation to lob at a woman who’s probably spent her entire life knocking down the barriers that others have tried to place in front of her.

Jesus isn’t a politician or a social reformer, crusading for an abstract concept of equality, but is sharing...

the overflowing love of God, which, like a great river breaking its banks into a parched countryside, irrigates those parts of human society which until now had remained barren and unfruitful. Mary stands for all those women who, when they hear Jesus speaking about the kingdom, know that God is calling them to listen carefully so that they can speak of it too. [3]

Nor is he really even criticizing Martha, whom he clearly respects. He didn’t get up from his place and go looking for this woman who didn’t act like her sister, but only responded to her when she approached him to criticize Mary. [4] The wording of what he said is somewhat unclear after twenty centuries have passed, but it appears to have been something like this:

Martha, you’ve got a lot on your plate. But there’s really nothing so pressing that you, too, cannot do as Mary has done. Housework is important, but none of it will be remembered later. What Mary is learning, though, is something that will make a difference in her life from now on.

From our more modern viewpoint, I think we might better understand Jesus’ sentiment in these terms, “Nobody ever said on their deathbed, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’” [5] Sometimes Jesus rebukes people who are so far off base as to be dangerous, [6] but here, Jesus simply reminds Martha, lovingly and gently, that there’s more to life than housework.

III. The Answer Is ‘Yes’

But what does this mean? This story may only be told in one of the gospels, but clearly Luke included this passage for a reason. So (as is the case with most things) our first reaction is to boil it down to a single point—that being that It’s better to sit at Jesus’ feet than to be up and about doing something.

Later Christianity would thus devise two ways of being a Christian, calling them active and contemplative spirituality, generally implying that there was more merit to prayer than to action. [7] Activity was the duty of the laity, who needed to earn their living by the sweat of their brow, and whose duty it was to support the cloistered whose prayers were so valuable in the eyes of God as to help save the souls of those outside the walls of the monasteries and convents.

If we want to turn the story of Mary and Martha into such a lesson, we can only do so by ignoring the passage that immediately precedes it. For in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus prefers the one who acts and is willing to get his hands dirty to the pure and holy religious figures who avoided the messiness of the world around them.

And so “[n]either the story of the good Samaritan nor the story of Mary and Martha is complete without the other. Each makes its own point,” says New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper: “the Samaritan loves his neighbor, and Mary loves her Lord—but the model for the disciple is found” when we compare and contrast these two examples: “To the lawyer, Jesus says, ‘Go and do,’ but he praises Mary for sitting and listening. The life of the disciple requires both.” [8]

Some people learn better by doing. But if doing is all we do, then even the most energetic and extroverted disciple will eventually burn out. We can only be the Good Samaritan for a season. We must also find time to sit at the Lord’s feet and passively receive. There must be balance:

If we censure Martha too harshly, 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 listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment. If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would be Yes. [9]

Yes to doing something, and Yes to doing nothing; Yes to giving, and Yes to receiving; Yes to feeding, and Yes to being fed; Yes to healing, and Yes to being healed; Yes to speaking the word, and Yes to hearing it.

Conclusion: Spiritual Spinach

It all boils down to something else Jesus taught, and it’s something I mention relatively often, because I think it’s one of his greatest gifts to us: Live for today, be in the moment [10] Discipleship isn’t about calculating how best to be a Christian, it is about gratitude for each moment.

If we encounter a person in need, we don’t need to figure out which of God’s laws might take priority here—should we keep pure for some future religious duty, or should we reach out without worrying about how the outreach might sully our hands or our reputation? Nor should we excuse our unwillingness to help by saying, “I was on my way to church,” or “Somebody else could do more than I could.” God might forgive this response, but it’s clearly not the most Christ-like behavior.

But at the same time, we should never feel guilty for the times when we’re the ones who need to receive. It may not be a handout from a passer-by that we need, it may not be a meal in a soup kitchen or a bed in a homeless shelter, but letting our minds and our spirits receive something from God (or a servant of God) is no less vital than a meal, a cup of water, or a roof over our heads. There’s no such thing as perpetual motion in God’s creation. All things need a source of energy, and nothing goes on indefinitely without replenishment. Our bodies need food and water, and our human spirits need the Holy Spirit. Just as friction and burnt energy cause our bodies to slow down and eventually stop, so the cares of the world and the constant reminders of what we don’t know and can’t do will sap our souls of their God-given strength. Time at Jesus’ feet is to our souls what spinach is to Popeye’s body.

To be honest, I’ve never met anyone who was purely a Mary or purely a Martha. I doubt that even Mary and Martha could themselves have been boiled down to the rôles we see here at the end of Luke 10. I know the people of this church pretty well, and those who seem to “do” the most are also quite devoted to prayer and study—just not always where everybody can see this side of them. And by the same token, some others who seem to be most characterized by listening are also among the most active—but often behind the scenes where their action isn’t all that visible.

In the end, the story of Mary and Martha isn’t a mandate to judge—whether it’s others we’re judging or our own lives. It and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, when read together, are an invitation to live into God’s shalom—a word that means more than just peace, it means well-being, or wholeness. In wholeness let us receive what Christ offers, and in wholeness let us offer it to those we encounter. Martin Luther put it this way:

A person becomes a Christian not by working, but by hearing. The first step to being a Christian is to hear the Gospel. When a person has accepted the Gospel, let him [sic] first give thanks unto God with a glad heart, and then let him [sic] get busy on the good works to strive for, works that really please God, and not man-made [sic] and self-chosen works. [11]

Only in giving and in receiving can relationships with God and our neighbors be lived out and seen in their fullness.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

  1. See Mark 4:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, and John 12:1-11. Though both Luke and John place this story in Bethany, only John identifies the woman as Mary. 
  2. Mishnah, Danby trans. (Peabody MA: Hendrickson, 1933), P. 446. 
  3. N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster, 2001), p. 131. 
  4. This is in keeping with John Calvin, who in his Commentary on Luke 10:42 used rather strong terms to warn against an either/or interpretation: “There is no comparison here, as unskillful and mistaken interpreters dream. Christ only declares, that Mary is engaged in a holy and profitable employment, in which she ought not to be disturbed.” 
  5. Often attributed to Rabbi Harold Kushner, the earliest source of this quotation actually appears in Sen. Paul Tsongas’ book, Heading Home (New York: Knopf, 1984), p. 160. Tsongas is quoting a friend, and my version is a paraphrase. 
  6. Such as in Luke 9:51-55, when the Sons of Thunder wanted to destroy an entire village. 
  7. For more on this, see N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster, 2001), p. 131-2. 
  8. R. Alan Culpepper, Luke, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), p. 232. 
  9. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), p. 159. 
  10. See Matthew 6:34, Mark 13:11, Luke 12:22-31. 
  11. Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians 3:2.