38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Our gospel reading for today, if you didn’t notice, is quite short. Just five verses. Which is nice, I think. I can remember as a teenager grabbing the bulletin when I first got to church and immediately checking the length of the scripture readings. Any reading longer than 9 verses got a groan and an eye roll from me. So this one, just 5 short verses would have past the teenage angst test.
The problem is, though, now that I have the opportunity to preach on a short text, I don’t have a clue what to do with it. It seems so ordinary, so unimpressive that I am not sure what kind of blessing and good news can be squeezed out of such a small piece of fruit.
It is a story many of us have heard before. But even if we haven’t heard it before, we have likely lived it before. It is the story of two bickering siblings and their seemingly opposite nature.
Just after Jesus has finished telling the lawyer to go and show mercy to his neighbors, like the despised Samaritan showed to the man in the ditch, Jesus hits the road again. And along the way he is invited into Martha’s home. Almost immediately, we learn that Martha’s sister, Mary, is there as well. And almost immediately, she sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to every word he says like the disciple she will come to be. Whatever Jesus was saying couldn’t have been that interesting or else Luke would have told us what it was. But he doesn’t. Instead the story turns quickly to Martha. Busy and hurried Martha, scrambling around the house pushing the dirty laundry out of sight, throwing away any rotten food that might be still sitting on the counter, and pulling together the nicest meal she can on such short notice. This wasn’t unusual. It was just the way of being hospitable. Not unlike it is today.
In fact, I can still feel the tightness in my chest that comes over me whenever someone makes a surprise visit to our home and we are terribly unprepared. You know, when it’s 2:00pm on a Tuesday and you are still in your pajamas. The doorbell rings and you just know it is a parishioner. And then as you are running around trying to find something to put on, stepping over piles of laundry while avoiding being seen in the windows, you begin justifying yourself – big deal if I am still in my pajamas. I didn’t have any meetings today and I am working from home. There is nothing wrong with this…now , jeans, jeans, jeans…where are my jeans?
Anyways. I digress. Back to Martha. Martha is simply trying to do what was expected of her, which was to offer hospitality to her guest. To offer a respectable home. But then her sister, Mary, is just sitting there not doing anything to help. But rather than speak directly to her sister, Martha decides to drag Jesus into this mess. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” We do that, don’t we? Rather than speak to the person we are actually angry with, we get others involved and on our side. And Jesus responds, “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.”
As I said, even if this is the first time you’ve heard this story, I imagine it isn’t the first time you’ve experienced this story. Sibling rivalries simply brought on because one is not like the other. We know the Marthas and the Marys in our own life, don’t we? We are the Marthas and Marys!
Martha is the one who likes to be organized and well-planned out. Martha is the one who brings printed out copies of the driving directions for wherever you are going, or at least she already has it pulled up on her phone before departure. Martha is the one who is studying weeks before the test and is always getting straight A’s in school. But she’s also the one who has trouble sleeping at night because there is so much to do. She’s the one who for years has always responded to the question “How’s it going?” with, “Ugh. It’s such a busy time right now.”
Mary, on the other hand, is the dreamer. She is the one who stares out the car window for hours on a road trip without making a sound. She is the one who can’t seem to do any better than a B- in school, but she also knows how a lilac bush smells. Mary is the one who when told to clean up her room, takes three days to do it, because there are too many other things that are more interesting. Like the new birds nest being build behind the gutter on the back of the house.
We know the Marys and the Marthas. Which is what amazes me about this story. Just how ordinary it is. It is about people like us. There are no miracles in it. There is no great teaching that gets woven into church banners and hung on the walls. No demons are cast out. No sins are forgiven. It is simply about an ordinary family with problems just like everyone else. A family that doesn’t have it all together. A family that doesn’t always get along.
And so maybe that is the first piece of good news in this text. Jesus comes to visit ordinary families. Bickering families. Broken families. That we don’t have to have it all together before God will show up in our lives.
While that alone is enough good news for one day, the truth is some have had a very hard time with how Jesus responds to Martha in this story. They have said that Jesus scolds Martha. That he rebukes her. And since almost every single person I know (person, not just woman) seems to relate more with busy Martha than with lazy Mary, it is no wonder people have not liked Jesus’ response. No one wants to be scolded about how they are too busy and they just need to relax a little more. Especially not when you work the night shift followed by caring for your crying newborn as soon as you get home. Especially not when you are working two jobs, one in town and one in the cities, just to pay the rent. Especially not when your father is in the hospital and your kid has an away basketball game that she cannot miss or else she’s off the team.
Some have even argued that Luke must have something against active, working women with power. “(Because of this) he tells this story in which Jesus criticizes Martha, who is active and doing and working and in charge, and he praises Mary, who is passive and silent. What Luke is trying to do, these folk charge, is to put women back in their quiet and obedient places. But this view doesn’t really hold any water. Not only does it not square with Jesus’ view of women, it doesn’t even square with the rest of Luke’s Gospel either. Throughout Luke, women are not passive and silent; they are prominent, powerful, worthy, articulate, and celebrated.” So I don’t think this story is about women, or anyone for that matter, needing to be less busy (even though we all could probably use it).
What interests me is that Jesus never tells Martha to come and sit down. He never says that she needs to stop doing what she is doing and to come and be like Mary. All Jesus does is point out to Martha that she is worried. And distracted in her work. There is only need for one thing, he says. And Mary has chosen the better part.
What is the better part? I suspect it has something to do with being distracted and worried while in the very presence of God. Jesus knows that when we are distracted and constantly worried, we tend to miss the very God that is standing right in front of us. Let’s be honest, when we are distracted and worried, we are more likely to snap at a co-worker over nothing. When we are distracted and worried, we forget to call that very special person on their birthday. Again. When we are worried and distracted, we begin to think that’s all there is to this life – worry and distractions.
But if you can find a way to shake off those distractions and those worries, then you know what a gift it can bring. How you suddenly feel like you can breath deeper and like your eyes have just been opened for the first time in years. For it is when you are not distracted that you finally notice that the very fruit you are stacking at the local grocery store is not simply a tedious task, but is rather crucial to the feeding of hungry people. When you are not overly worried, your ears buzz when that person whose hair you are trimming says that she is going for a job interview later in the week. Which then leads you to do your best work of the day. When you are not worried or distracted, you can see for the very first time the person who sits alone at lunch every single day. And then choose to go sit with them. Those things, those experiences, are priceless. And can never be taken away from you.
Jesus is not telling Martha or us to quit all of our busy, busy, busy schedules. I think he is asking us to have a different perspective on them. To see them differently. To not be so worried and distracted by them, but rather to see how buried within them is the kingdom of God coming near.
How do you become less worried and distracted? I have no idea. You’ll have to figure that out for yourself. All I can say is, sometimes I think it begins by just trying it. Trying not to be worried. Trying not to be distracted. Sometimes, to make the work seem less like work, to make the worries go away, you have to start seeing differently. Sometimes you have to start seeing what you do, busy though it may be, as infused with the presence of God. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus proclaimed to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.” Blessed are your eyes. That see what you see! Because what you see contains the very kingdom of God coming near to this world.
Though it is short and perhaps not all that interesting, maybe there is good reason for why this story is in Luke’s gospel and in our cycle of readings. Because it is our much needed alarm clock. Our set reminder that goes off at least every three years to alert us to the fact that worry and distraction can be the very cause of spiritual blindness. Blindness to the very presence of God that will always, always, always be sitting right in front of you. AMEN