We stay in the Gospel of Luke this week and hear another familiar story of Jesus. This time with two friends, Mary and Martha.
Only the Gospel of Luke tells this story; and it comes immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story it is a Samaritan, one from a despised racial group of the time, who stops after others have passed by and offers compassion and hospitality to a man who has been beaten by robbers and left on the side of the road.
Hospitality is a significant theological theme in the Gospel of Luke, with the writer pointing us to God through the gift of hospitality. In our story today, we get a view of hospitality when Jesus is visiting his friends Mary and Martha. This is a wonderful story for us to share in this year that our church is focusing on Hospitality as part of our ministry plan of H.O.P.E.
While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”
The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.” — Luke 10:38-42
I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t take much to have the makings of a reality T.V. show. Our brief five-verse story from the Gospel of Luke is the stuff that reality TV is made of. Even without a lot of details given, we can imagine the raw, uncensored, unscripted emotion in this story that is attached to real life.
Family conflicts tend to have a history…sometimes a long history; and usually, the story has two sides. It certainly seems like there is some history or back story to the tension happening in this glimpse we get into the relationship between the sisters Mary and Martha.
When Jesus comes to the village of Bethany, Martha extends hospitality by welcoming Jesus into the home she shares with her sister Mary. She then busies herself with the tasks of preparing a meal and serving their guest.
Meanwhile her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words.
The place where we sense that there might be some family history or tension between the sisters is when Martha comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”
Being the wise one that he is, Jesus does not get triangulated into this family tension and simply says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”
Have you ever been so preoccupied with having guests in your home or preparing to have guests that you are unable to fully enjoy their company when they are there? Or, perhaps you’re so exhausted by time the guests arrive that you don’t enjoy the moment and are not fully present with them.
Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to stop being hospitable; he invites her to stop being anxious about it all. He doesn’t tell Mary that she never has to wash another dish, but affirms that for the moment, she has her priorities appropriately set by bringing herself into God’s presence and listening to the Word of God. But I don’t think comparing the two sisters or ranking one above the other is the point of this story, so let’s look at the story from a different angle.
Remember, only the Gospel of Luke tells this story. The Gospel of John knows Mary and Martha as sisters of Lazarus and all three of them as good friends of Jesus.
This story in Luke is a radical one when we notice the active, courageous and risky action shown by both sisters in receiving Jesus and in how Jesus breaks through the social barriers of his day.
Jesus is received as a guest in the home of two women and once there, he also teaches a woman. Rabbis in Jesus’ day did not allow women to sit and learn from them, and yet Mary is clearly pictured in this story as a disciple learning from Jesus.
It’s easy to get a visual of this story in our minds. While Martha is in the kitchen working, her sister Mary is sitting in the living room listening to Jesus. The more Martha works, the more frustrated she gets with her sister. So Martha starts to send signals such as, banging the pots and pans together so that the noise would bring her sister into the kitchen. It doesn’t work. So Martha looks into the living room and gives Mary the eyeball roll, rolling her eyeballs in the direction of the kitchen. But Mary isn’t looking. So Martha clears her throat and gives Mary the head and shoulders motion toward the kitchen. Mary still does not respond. So Martha goes into the living room and demands that Jesus tell Mary to come into the kitchen and help her with all the work.
Martha is so busy doing and serving that she almost misses an experience to learn from Jesus…to be transformed by God’s presence. So Jesus offers her an example, her sister.
If your parents ever used one of your siblings as a shining model of how you should behave in a particular situation, you know that Martha probably didn’t appreciate Jesus’ choice of examples.
Yet, Jesus is not criticizing how Martha is making preparations for his visit, he is simply pointing out the timing of choosing to do the one when it would be better to do the other.
The point is that life has a rhythm to it. The Christian life involves, among other things, a sense of timing; knowing when to go and do; and when to sit and listen and learn. And both are forms of hospitality.
At first, Martha appears to be the hospitable one. But Jesus seems concerned that her hospitality toward him is distracting her…pulling her in multiple directions.
While it may seem that Mary is focused less on hospitality; what if we look at Mary’s hospitality toward Jesus being her attention…her focused listening to what Jesus has to say.
Mary helps frame the concept of hospitality in a new way. Hospitality does not always need to consist of serving and doing, doing, doing; but can also be extended in deep and joyful listening and in this case listening to Jesus.
Whether we are being quiet and still or going and doing, we can offer God our attention by inviting God’s presence and then grounding ourselves in that presence. There is no place where we can be that God is not there. And there is no time of day or night when God’s presence is unavailable.
And Jesus models for us in this story that God sits still for Mary too. This story shows that we have in Jesus a God who graciously seeks us out, comes into our space, and pays attention to us. What a wonderful model of hospitality…the gift of presence and attention.
So, perhaps the ‘better part’ Jesus says that Mary has chosen is simply inviting God’s presence, whether we are sitting and listening or going and doing.
It seems like we are always searching for the ‘better part.’ And as we search, the images and news of more terror and violence and injustice dominate the break-neck pace of our 24-hour news cycle.
As we are drawn to pray for the victims and loved ones and responders to the terror in France this week, we don’t want to forget last week’s violence and retaliation in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas. And as the places where terror and violence and injustice continue to accumulate, we are fearful of getting numb to knowing what our response can and should be.
Then we are confronted with this Gospel message of hospitality theology that offers us the model of balancing our living with doing and listening.
Sometimes we are called to act and serve, and sometimes we are called to sit and listen. And both are faithful forms of hospitality. We need both Mary and Martha. At times every Martha must become Mary, and every Mary must become Martha. And whatever roll we play, we are called to invite God and then be in God’s presence; and recognize what distracts us from that presence.
When our understanding of God or our theology is that of hospitality, there is a balance of doing and listening and of contemplation and action. It is like breathing in and breathing out; both are essential. We can’t live without the devotional time with God…the breathing in; or the justice-focused ministry and mission in our communities and the world…the breathing out.
It is a balance of listening and learning, and doing and serving. And whatever form of hospitality we are engaged in for a particular situation, if it is grounded in God’s presence, it is the ‘better part.’
A while back, the daily devotion in the Upper Room gave a metaphor about gardening; in particular, raising tomato plants. The author wrote about learning the purpose of plucking the tiny stems and leaves that shoot out from the stalk of the tomato plant. Those are called “suckers” and they draw sun and nutrients away from the fruit of the plant. Suckers look healthy, but they stunt the growth of the whole plant and by plucking them you help nutrients reach the tomatoes.
The writer made the connection between tomato suckers and her own life. Consider, she said, how many seemingly good things use up our time and energy in our lives until we are depleted and unable to produce healthy fruit or hear God’s word or see God’s presence.
What part of your doing keeps you from recognizing the “suckers” in your life that keep you from doing what is best? Or, what distractions keep you from inviting and receiving God’s presence?
Too often the cares and busyness of our own lives and the tragedies in the world distract us from an awareness of God. Yet, when we ground ourselves in God’s presence and listen to what God is revealing to us through prayer and Scripture and worship, then we will know the ‘better part’ for our time and place and situation.
The writer of Luke’s Gospel leaves us not knowing what happens next…do Martha and Mary reconcile? Does the meal get prepared and they all enjoy the meal together? Is Martha finally able to sit and give her full attention to Jesus?
We do know that Jesus invites all of us who are worried and distracted by many things to sit and rest in God’s presence; to hear words of grace and peace; to know that we are loved and valued as God’s children; and to be renewed in faith and life; and strengthened for service and action.
When we come into God’s presence, knowing that presence as the ‘better part,’ we will more fully be able to be present with one another and reach out in our communities and our world with the spirit of hospitality theology as we seek to be the body of Christ.
May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.