~ Luke 10:38-42 ~
I want to make a confession: I’m married to a Martha. No, wait – that isn’t the confession. My confession is that sometimes I take advantage of the fact that my wife is a Martha. No, that’s not true either. I almost always take advantage of my Martha. While Martha is working away in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning up, I’m the Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. OK, that’s not true either. I’m really just at my computer reading political and religious blogs. And then somehow, magically it seems, dinner is ready and after several calls that dinner is ready I go eat dinner. And even though I might mention on occasion that I’ll clean up after dinner somehow, magically it seems, all the food and dishes get put away before I can get to them. And I must confess that at some deep level in my psyche I know that and yet I still let it happen. Yes, I do take advantage of the Martha that lives in my house.
So, to make amends I would like to try in this sermon to restore the tarnished image of Martha as presented in our Gospel text. Martha’s been given a bum rap and I aim to fix her reputation. Now, you might be thinking that it would be much better if I just amended my ways, change my behavior towards my own Martha. But you know how hard it is to change!
Poor Martha and Mary. You get your name mentioned in the Bible and you become icons for the rest of history. One conversation with Jesus and you are stereotyped forever; the pattern for all women ever since. You’re either the Mary who listens to the words of Jesus or you’re the Martha who is too busy to listen to Jesus. And, of course, we all know that Mary chose the better way because that’s what it says. Poor Martha. There she is just trying to make everyone comfortable, trying to make sure everyone is taken care of and she gets put down for it. And ever since we’ve tried to psychoanalyze the Marthas of our world: Why do you try to take care of everyone? You must have some deep psychological need that drives you to be this way. And, of course, we all know it would be much better for you if you were more like Mary.
Well, I say, “hogwash.” This small encounter Jesus has with Martha and Mary was never intended to set the pattern for how woman are to be. Mary the contemplative and Martha the busy do-gooder – set in opposition with each other? It didn’t have to be this way. Think about it: If everyone just went into the kitchen – including Jesus – we’d all have more time for contemplation and study, to listen to the words of Jesus. And the dishes would get done, too. Ok, I admit, I didn’t think of that on my own. I read it somewhere. Left to my own devices I probably wouldn’t have thought of that solution!
So if Martha and Mary weren’t intended to set the pattern for women what is the purpose of this story? What can we “unlearn” about this story? Maybe, just maybe, we can remove the shackles of history that have imprisoned Mary and Martha all these years. Instead, of bemoaning the fate of all the Marthas that make up our world maybe we can celebrate the gifts of Marthas, who indeed enrich our lives. And, maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn to go into the kitchen to lend a hand. So, here’s to you, Martha!
Here’s how Luke tells the story. Notice it is Martha who welcomes Jesus into her home. Fast forward a bit and there is Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus listening, rapturously soaking up every word he says. Martha is busy taking care of things. Finally, when Martha has had all she can take of her sister’s gaga preoccupation with Jesus, she loses it right in front of everybody. “Lord,” she says, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” As Luke sees it, Martha’s problem is that, for all her welcoming of Jesus, she is just too busy with her own life to just hang with Jesus.
Jesus’ response to Martha is just to remind her that her busyness is an attempt to hold on to her life on her own. “Martha,” he says, “you get worried and worked up about so many things. It’s a wonder you don’t kill yourself with all the effort it’s taking you to hold your life together. Let it go. As long as the most important thing in your life is to keep finding your way, you’re going to live with the terror of losing it. Once you’re willing to be lost, though, you’ll be home free. Your lostness is the one thing no one will ever be able to take away from you. The only ticket anybody needs is the one ticket everybody already has, and Mary, like the Samaritan, has chosen to use it. Come on. Sit down and let’s get lost together.”
In other words this story is metaphor, like most of the stories in the Bible. And the metaphor at play here is, once again, God’s grace. It is about receiving what we don’t deserve and what we can’t earn. It is about recognizing and accepting what we already have: Complete, free, unmerited, nothing-we-can-do-to-earn-it, unadulterated grace. So, the point of the story is stop working for it and just sit down and wallow in it. That’s what listening to Jesus is all about. So, Martha and Mary are, indeed, props in an object lesson about grace. That’s the story of Martha and Mary. Oh, another confession: I’m quite aware that I used Linda as a prop in this sermon.
Contra wise, this story is not a moral lesson on how to behave. This story is not a slap on the wrist for all the Marthas of our world. This story is not about leaving all the work to be done in the kitchen and just sitting here rapturously listening to the likes of me. Indeed, in a short while we will get up from our chairs and consume food and beverage prepared for us. We have many Marthas in our midst, people who dig in to get done what has to be done so we can all enjoy it together.
Is it possible that, as has often been said about this story, that the Marthas of our world act out of some deep-seated desire to be accepted and found worthy. I suppose that’s possible. But then all of us do most everything out of some deep-seated, subconscious desire to be accepted and found worthy. It is the lot of being human. And being human means dealing with all that “worthiness” stuff. That’s why more often than not we find this “grace” stuff so scandalous – we find it hard to believe that we are completely accepted by God without doing at least something. So, let’s not lay the “you’re doing this because…” motive on Martha or on anyone else for that matter.
So, I say to all of you hard-working, busy-taking-care-of-other-people people, female or male: Thank you for all you do for the rest of us. Now, it certainly wouldn’t be appropriate for me to lift a glass of champagne here in the church. But I do believe a toast is in order. Here’s to you, Martha.