Psalm 15, Genesis 18: 1-10a, Colossians 1: 15-28, Luke 10: 38-end
When Jesus decided to visit his friends Mary and Martha, Martha’s first impulse was to dash into the kitchen and start preparing some food to offer her guest. This was a very special guest whom Martha recognised as ‘Lord’. In taking this action, she was being faithful to the tradition of hospitality begun long ago when Father Abraham welcomed three guests to his tent. Just as Abraham asked Sarah to help with hospitality, Martha expected Mary to help her, but Mary had other plans.
Whilst Martha was busy in the kitchen - flipping through cookbooks, boiling the water, chopping the vegetables, and setting the table for three - Mary settled herself down on the rug at the feet of their friend and guest, and allowed herself to be completely absorbed by what he was saying. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary had taken the posture of the disciple. Who could then blame Martha for loudly banging the pots and putting the plates on the table with a demonstrative crash?
Martha’s frustration exploded into words –delivered not to Mary, but to their honoured guest Jesus, “Lord” Martha said “don’t you care…” this shows us that Mary was not the only one under scrutiny, it was Jesus too “don’t YOU care”, and then her gaze falls on Mary, “that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?’
Understanding Jesus’s response in crucial. By saying “My friend Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things” he is not criticizing busy active Martha, but rebuking worried and distracted Martha.
This passage has often been seen by interpreters as an either/or choice where Mary and Martha’s roles are polarized, forcing us to see the sisters’ actions in opposition to each other. Are you a Martha or a Mary we’re encouraged to ask? Are you active ‘do’-er or a will you stop listen and learn? Many have seen it as Jesus’ criticising Martha’s busyness and affirming Mary stopping and listening to the word of Christ. Are we supposed to look towards Mary as the example to follow – to celebrate stopping and listening rather than always doing? Actually, I think the text suggests something more subtle than that. I don’t think it’s an either/or message, I think it’s a both/and message. This is a message about Christian hospitality and what it means to be the kind of hosts Christ wants us to be. At the centre of it is not a question of action, but a question of focus.
So what is Christ telling us about hospitality?
What kind of hosts does he ask us to be?
With less than one week before my own wedding, when I very much want my guests to have a wonderful time…. Should I be a Martha or a Mary on my wedding day? I want to try to speak to as many people as possible and make sure they have everything they need, but I also want to be present and soak up every moment.
In our English translation we hear from Jesus that Mary has chosen ‘the better part’ but in Greek the word is translated as ‘good’, meaning that Mary has chosen ‘the connection to God who is good, the ground and energy for effective action’. This suggests that God is both inside and outside, sustaining us inside by being grounded in Him, while summoning us to work in action, through our service, to bring about a world of justice, mercy, and peace. Again, this shows us it is not an either/or message but a both/and. We need both Mary and Martha
So if it’s not a criticism of her active ministry, what is Christ gently criticising his friend Martha for?
This is a criticism about loss of focus.
In verse 40 we are told that Martha was distracted by her many tasks. The word for distracted (perispaomai) refers to drawing away or diverting something
Criticizing Mary (and subtly, Jesus) for leaving her alone, Martha insinuates value judgements upon the different activities the sisters choose to perform – she is drawn away from and diverted from her focus and purpose. Hospitality that is “anxious, troubled and frustrated” loses its focus, a focus which should be on Jesus her guest and Lord. Instead, Martha is focussed on herself.
In complaining that her sister has left her alone to serve as host, she breaches and important rule of hospitality - it was Jewish etiquette that no honoured guest should be insulted by drawing them into a family dispute. Instead of addressing Mary, she puts her guest Jesus on the spot. Her frustration – certainly not her desire to offer hospitality through service – is the problem that Jesus addresses. She is drawing attention to herself and her tasks, rather than offering them with humility.
When Jesus refers to Mary as taking the ‘better part’ he is referring to focus – to Mary’s singular focus on him. To be genuine, acts of discipleship –whether contemplative or active, or anything else – need to maintain this focus. Martha’s problem is that her service strays from attending to its rightful object of devotion, the Lord Jesus.
The story of Mary and Martha is not about asking us to choose between sitting and being, or active service, in how we offer hospitality to others. There is a time to sit down and just be alongside our guests, just as there is a time for activity and action in serving them. This is a matter of focus and intention, or humility and selflessness.
This is a lesson in Christian hospitality.
So when you wonder if you are a Mary or a Martha, remember it is not an either/or but a both/and message. It’s not about what the sisters are doing, but the way they are doing it. Both action and contemplation are valued, the importance is the intention and focus behind it.
As a very soon bride to be, on my wedding day, when hospitality will be so important to me, I will allow myself to remember both Mary and Martha, to be in the moment like Mary, but also to be active Martha, focussed on the day, the people and God’s blessings, not worried and distracted Martha. Well, at least I will try!
Along with an insight into the hospitality Jesus wishes us to show others, this story of two sisters offers us an ongoing plea from the Lord to focus on him.
This same Lord calls us to focus on him when we gather on a Sunday, to move from our place of being “worried and distracted by many things” to one where we are in touch with the one thing needed, ‘the good part’. There we will connect with the source that brings both peace and energy to all of our lives.
Rev Melanie Harrington
Cover image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay