When reading scripture, it’s always important to pay attention to what comes before, and what comes after a story. Like this story of the sisters Martha and Mary. A story of two women, one who chooses to serve, the other who chooses to sit, to be.
What comes before this well-known story? Another well-known story, the story of the Good Samaritan. In this story, Jesus is illustrating how we’re supposed to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. And so the enemy of the Jew- the Samaritan- stops by the roadside to tend to the wounds of a Jewish man left there to die. Many of us know the story- how the Jewish priest and Levite just walked past the guy, unwilling to stop, to alter their important agendas.
But the Samaritan, the one we never thought would do it, stops what he’s doing, stops his own agenda, and attends to the person God has put before him. So we have a story about a person scuttling about trying to serve another human being. And Jesus says, Go and do likewise, and you will inherit the Kingdom of heaven.
Then, in the very next verse, we have the story of Mary and Martha- Martha scuttling about trying to serve Jesus, getting the meal on the table. And the story of the ingrate little sister who just sits at Jesus’ feet while her sister works up a sweat in the kitchen.
Mary or Martha- which one is doing the will of God? Of course- it is Mary who sits and listens! But in the paragraph just before, in the story of the Good Samaritan, the one who does the will of God is the one who scuttles about trying to serve his neighbor. And he was the one who was praised. But all Martha gets for all her efforts to serve is a rebuke- no praise at all.
What’s going on here? Are we supposed to serve those who come to us or not? And that’s exactly the wrong question. The right question is, Who is doing the will of God? And in different circumstances, the answer changes.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan is the only one around. The man is going to die without him. And so he does what he knows God would require of him: he saves the man’s life.
It reminds me of another story Jesus told, about the Sabbath. The Sabbath- the command to take off one day every week to not work, not do a darned thing except be grateful: it’s right there in the 10 Commandments. It’s important.
But Jesus says that if your ox falls in a hole on the Sabbath, you need to get off your tush and get the animal out so it doesn’t suffer. Jesus says that the Sabbath is there to give blessing and refreshment, not to break our backs trying to follow a law.
The Samaritan performs an act of deep compassion, which is exactly what God wants him to do. But isn’t Martha also performing an act of compassion? Yes, hungry people need to be fed, and hospitality is one of the strongest aspects of the religious life.
But… what if she’s not the one who is supposed to be serving right now? What if the will of God is to sit down and be served by the Lord? The circumstances, the context, is different from the Samaritan story. I mean, they’re not going to starve to death if they miss a meal, or if the meal is late.
It’s like throwing a party: it’s no party if the hostess is in the kitchen sweating away, complaining how there’s no one to help. It’s not a party if she misses being with the very people she invited. The whole reason for the party is to be with the people we’ve invited.
Thanksgiving Day- What is more important? The turkey and pie, or the people gathered around the table? Now, some of us might say the turkey and pie, that we don’t like our relatives that much anyway! But that’s not what Thanksgiving is about, is it? Thanksgiving, like the Sabbath, is about being with those we love, and knowing a deep gratefulness in our hearts for them, for our life, for our blessings.
Martha is busy with the turkey and pie, but is missing her guest, and the blessings He wants to give her. So it’s not that cooking isn’t important; it’s just not as important as Jesus.
But it is really hard to just sit there and BE with someone, when what you want is to be up and doing things. Amen? Amen! We Americans are purpose-driven people, living purpose-driven lives. Things need to be done. Things that will bring happiness and security and contentment to those we love. But no; sometimes what is needed to bring happiness and security and contentment to those we love is to just be with them.
In Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, Emily Webb has just died; she was 26. Against the advice of the other dead, Emily chooses to go back to visit on the morning of her 12th birthday- one of her best memories ever. Going back, she begins to feel the excitement and busyness, all the routine of a birthday celebration. Emily is in the kitchen with her mother. Her mother is busy baking her birthday cake. Her father is in the next room decorating. She tries to talk with them, but they are too busy doing things to make her birthday ‘special.’ She starts to speak loudly, with urgency: “Mama, just for a moment now, we are all together. Just for a moment we are happy. Let’s look at one another. Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me!” With despair, she realizes, “We don’t have time to look at one another…. I didn’t realize… we never noticed.”
To love someone, we have to notice them, to just sit and gaze at our kids or spouse or friends. The color of their eyes; the lines in their face; the movement of their hands. The heart of gratefulness, of life…
And Jesus says to Martha, “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 10:41-42)
It is difficult to move from the role of provider to being someone who receives a gift from the other. It can leaves us feeling too vulnerable, too little in control. And we do like to be in control.
Too bad. Because there comes a time, in obedience to God, when we are to just sit at the feet of our Lord and be blessed. There comes a time when we need to put away our agenda, the things we do to feel useful and purposeful, and just breathe. Step away. Step into the arms of grace.
“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.”
And if we stop and just breathe, listen, and be in the presence of Jesus, the peace and joy and contentment we are given will not be taken from us.
In the Name of the One who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resources: Our Town, Thornton Wilder; workingpreach.org, July 21, 2019, Brian Peterson
Scripture for July 21, 2019
Now as Jesus and His disciples went on their way to Jerusalem, they entered a certain city, Bethany, where a woman named Martha welcomed Jesus into their home. Martha had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what He was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to Jesus and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
But the Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; but only one thing is essential. Mary has chosen it, and it will not be taken from her.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.