For as long as I’ve known this story of Mary and Martha, the focus has always ended up being about the polarized positions of the two and the contrast between them.
Martha with her busy-ness, scurrying around in a flurry of pots, pans and preparations.
Mary with her fervent devotion sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his every word.
Which one should one be, a Mary or a Martha? That’s usually what we jump to when the story is told. We think we hear in this episode Jesus’ commendation for Mary and his reprimand of Martha for being too busy.
Except, we don’t.
Look at it again.
Jesus does not tell Martha that she should sit down and listen up. He doesn’t dismiss what she does in attending to the honorable obligation of extending hospitality. For heaven’s sake, he’s tired and worn out from travel and probably looking forward to a good home cooked meal!
Nor does Jesus tell Mary to get off her duff and help out her sister. Mary has simply made her choice, and it is (as it turns out) it is an excellent one for her. She shouldn’t be discouraged from having made it. She has chosen the “better part” Jesus says, which he assures will not be taken away from her, despite Martha’s complaint that the work seems to have all fallen on her.
No, what is modelled instead is something with which we’re not exactly sure what to do, and increasingly so it appears.
What is modelled is listening, observing, and reflecting.
Martha tries unsuccessfully to rally Jesus to her own viewpoint. “Jesus, do you not care?” she spouts in a fit of apparent frustration, pointing her finger at Mary for leaving her to do all the work on her own.
But Jesus does not bite at her baiting, nor does he reprimand her. Instead, what He does is observe and comment. He comments not on the situation, or on what is being done, or not done, or on who is doing what, but rather on what he sees taking place within Martha.
“You are worried and distracted by many things….”
Is that a description that would fit these times in which we live?
Worries seem to be everywhere.
There are no lack of speculations about what actions should or should not be taken. Indeed, we are told constantly that something should be done, must be done, proposals are made, counter proposals are offered. There is no lack of opinions or stances or proposals out there for any number of issues that present themselves.
What is increasingly lacking is the kind of “calm in the middle of the storm” that Jesus models here.
What is lacking is observation and comment, not on the situation, but on what is going on inside the person.
Jesus will not get Martha to sit down.
Jesus will also not get Mary to jump to her feet, either out of guilt or desire.
All that Jesus can do in this moment is point out the choices that have been made, and reflect on what those choices are doing to the individuals who have made them.
Mary is in a good place.
Martha is “worried and distracted.”
And Jesus? Well, he’s there with both of them, in their respective states, and apparently he won’t be pulled into taking sides or making pronouncements or urging actions.
Frustrating, isn’t it?
“Do you not care, Jesus?” Martha blurts out, and we can see how Martha’s question surfaces, for it also surfaces in us.
We watch as the world seems to spin horribly out of control.
Violence begets violence.
Injustice motivates coups in far off lands, and marches in our own streets.
Desperate and frustrated people take up firearms and lay plots and plans for revenge and forcing hands.
The innocent suffer.
The blissfully unaware are caught off guard. Who looks for a speeding truck to plow through a crowd?
“Do you not care, Jesus?” We want to say, scream at the top of our lungs.
We want Jesus to do something, raise up a great leader, restrain the evil in our midst, address the inequality that breeds contempt, squashes hope, and that renders helpless.
“Do you not care, Jesus? How can you just sit there when…..”
And there it is, our very own Mary/Martha moment when we realize that Jesus is doing something, and it is very disconcerting and uncomfortable for us.
“You are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing.” His words still echo across time and circumstances.
What is making us worried and distracted? Have we lost sight that God is with us in the midst of it all?
And what is the “one thing” that eludes us?
Could it not be what Jesus models, learning how to observe and listen, and to comment on what is going on inside, and to reflect on what that means?
This is what is in short supply currently, this election cycle, in this world, in this day and age.
There are way too many people are trying to justify themselves, to set themselves up as saviors.
There are too many people who have opinions on what direction they believe everyone should go, have to go, to make things work.
There are too many distractions from the center of life.
The demands of hospitality codes have set Martha in opposition to Mary.
The worry of doing hospitality right, or enough, or adequately has affected their relationship. They are in disagreement on what to do, even and maybe because Jesus is present. And, because conflict is what we tend to key in on, we assume that one of the sisters must be right. One must be “wrong”, and we assume that Jesus’ role in the story is to sort that out for them.
But that’s not what happens at all.
This is an unresolved story.
We don’t know how it ends.
We only know that what Jesus seems to doing here is attending to the relationship by helping Martha look at what is going on inside of her.
We observe now, that when one attends to that, possibility is opened up.
You have to look inside yourself, so Martha, you are worried and distracted…..one thing is needed. Mary has made her choice and is at peace with it, are you at peace with your choice?
This is a terribly unsatisfying sermon, I know.
You’d like me to tell you what the “one thing” is that you ought to be attending to, so that you could check it off your list and move on.
You’d like me to validate the work ethic of Martha, tell you that the more you do the more beloved by God you are, but that’s not grace.
Or, maybe you’d like me encourage a few more “Mary’s” to get busy around here. Encourage people to join the altar guild, or run for council, or work around here to address the weeds in the pavement and the maintenance stuff that needs to be done and that falls on too few anymore.
You’d like me, like we’d like Jesus, to make a few things clear and bring some resolution to the messy affair that is life.
Or, at very least, you’d like me to join you in a good rousing chorus of “Do you not care, Jesus…” what happens to us, to the church, to the nation, to the community, or whatever is distracting us this week.
Sometimes I’ll be tempted to do just that… but not today.
Today I’m just standing here befuddled at Jesus’ calmness, and his insight into us, and his willingness to sit with us, both in our calm and in our anxious and frenzied actions.
Today I’m dumbfounded by the grace that seems all to scarce these days, the ability to take people where they are, and love them, and to listen and affirm what they see in them, in us.
We likely already know what the “one thing” we need is for each of us, I suspect.
But will we make the choice? Will we make the choice for the better part that we know is within our reach?
Or, will we continue to shake our fist and have the audacity to demand that Jesus fix things for us, and preferably in the way we think they should be fixed?
That is the question the Gospel leaves us all with today, as Jesus persists in doing that thing that it seems only he can do at times, to be calm and present in the midst of the storms of this life that worry and distract us.
Can we learn from him?