Mary and Martha is one of those stories that tends to divide people. I’ll admit, I’ve always identified more closely with Martha than Mary. But while there are many things we can take away from this short story, I don’t think a harsh dichotomy is the point. This week, I chose to focus on the “why’s” in the story. Why is hospitality important? Why are any of our many tasks important? Why did Jesus tell Martha to chill out? (In different words, of course.) What do you think? Have you ever been so rushed and busy that you lose sight of what matters? How do Jesus’ words speak to you?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last year, at Vacation Bible School, one of our stories for the week was Mary and Martha. My leader’s guide had given me a fun little social experiment to start each class with. I met the classes just outside the Kugler Room and explained to them that we were expecting a very special guest today. Jesus was coming! And I needed their help to get ready.
Each class was split into four groups, and each group had an important task to help us get ready to welcome Jesus. One group would set the table, one group would sweep the floor and take out the trash, one group would wash and dry the fruit. And the final group had a special assignment, they were going to go with Lauren and Paige, my helpers, when we got in the room.
The kids got into the make pretend game and really worked hard at their tasks. That is, until they saw what the fourth group’s special assignment was. They went with Lauren and Paige to a bunch of pillows and blankets, snacked on some Goldfish and lemonade, and watched Veggie Tales on YouTube.
I was very quickly told that this was not fair at all. The kids demanded that I make this group help, or else no one should be working. “Don’t worry about them,” I said, “they’re doing exactly what I asked them to.” This response did not go over very well. But the experiment had worked! We had a room full of indignant and upset Martha’s and some very smug and self-satisfied Mary’s.
Kids have a built-in sense of fairness. They are very attuned to anyone getting more or less than they should, or not doing their fair share. As we grow up, we learn that sometimes things just aren’t fair, but still this story of Martha and Mary can rub us the wrong way. Who thinks Martha got a bad deal?
Why isn’t Mary helping? Surely if they both worked together, they might have both had time to spend with Jesus. Why does Jesus rebuke Martha like he does? She’s harried and overwhelmed, and she’s only asking that her sister help her out.
And, what is this stuff about Mary choosing the “better part”? Are some ways of being a disciple better than others? Isn’t this what Martha is supposed to be doing? Welcoming Jesus into her home, being a gracious host. Our first reading, the story of Abraham welcoming three strangers, is all about the importance of hospitality. About what a gift hospitality is. Abraham runs to make these visitors feel welcome. He rushes to make sure bread will be prepared, he kills a valuable calf, and presents them with a veritable feast. Far more than the little bread and milk he promised. The surprise comes when we learn that through this lavish welcome for strangers, Abraham has unwittingly welcomed God to a meal.
Hospitality, providing welcome, is part of showing love and care to those we meet. The book of Hebrews implores us: do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some have entertained angels unawares, referencing this story of Abraham. In fact, the word used to describe Martha’s actions is even diakonia, service. It’s the same word that Jesus uses to describe himself: as one who came to serve.
So, what’s so wrong about what Martha’s doing? Why is she reprimanded? It’s easy for us, when hearing this story, to make it an either/or situation. If Martha’s wrong, then that means Mary’s right and vice versa. We’re tempted to take sides, to declare ourselves as Martha’s or Mary’s. We can easily take offense on Martha’s behalf, because maybe we’ve been in her shoes. Overwhelmed, overworked, and unnoticed. The work of hospitality is so often behind the scenes, unrecognized and underappreciated. But if all we hear in this story is Martha or Mary, or Martha versus Mary, we’ve missed something important.
Jesus doesn’t chide Martha for what she was doing, but for how she was doing it. “Martha, Martha,” he says, “you are worried and distracted by many things.” Worried and distracted by many things. Does that sound familiar to anyone?
Martha is anxious and overwhelmed by all that she has to do. She is busy, with a capital B. She is so busy being hospitable, that she doesn’t even have time for her honored guest. Have you ever passed up a chance to spend time with a loved one, with family or friends, because you were just too busy? When someone’s asked you how things are going, have you ever responded by saying how busy things are?
Busyness is a badge of honor in our culture. It’s the Protestant work ethic run amok. Busyness is seen as a virtue. It means you’re doing things, producing things, accomplishing things. Few people use all of their vacation days, if they’re lucky enough to have them in the first place. To not be busy is to risk being seen as lazy, indolent, or apathetic.
And it’s not that we shouldn’t do things. Often, like Martha, there’s nothing wrong with our tasks. The things we’re doing in all our busyness can be good and holy things. Martha was doing a good and holy thing by showing hospitality. Our work is so often good—we can use our work to do good in the world, to care for ourselves and our loved ones. The activities we do, they’re part of nurturing meaningful relationships. The chores we do and the errands we run, they’re part of taking care of each other. Maybe you fill your time with advocacy, or with service projects, or meaningful time with family and friends, or whatever it is you are called to do.
The things we do can be beautiful ways to love God and serve our neighbors. Martha’s tasks aren’t the problem. The problem is when the tasks themselves become the end goal and focus, rather than the means by which we love and are loved. Martha was so focused on getting her tasks done correctly, that she missed the fact that God was sitting in her living room, while she was in the kitchen. She was distracted. And anxious. And it made her lose sight of the one thing that really mattered. Busyness robs us of being really being present with each other. It keeps us from appreciating each other and simply dwelling in the company of God and our loved ones, like Mary.
I know you’re busy—I don’t want to give you one more thing to do. But I’m going to. Can we be attentive to the presence of the holy in our lives? No matter what we find ourselves doing, can we pay attention to God’s presence and purpose in all of our varied activities and responsibilities?
Instead of running from one thing to the next, or even planning the next thing while we’re still doing the first one, can we treat each of our tasks, no matter how simple, no matter how mundane, as if we are setting a table for God? Because God is present in every moment of our lives. God is always there, if we’re able to stop and pay attention.
What is it that God has given you to do? Each of us is blessed each of us with tasks and callings as varied as we are. They are a gift, a chance to serve and honor each other in love. And God is present in each of them. Sometimes we are all anxious and worried about many things. It’s part of being human. But hear the gift and invitation of Jesus: dwell with me. Be refreshed and renewed by God’s presence, so that we might serve in love. Amen.