Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She 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 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.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘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.’
Are You Listening? Luke 10:38-42
In our Bible, across all the different books, through the works of many different authors, in a variety of different genres, there are few communal values more important than the value of hospitality. From the most ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible through the Gospels of the New Testament, hospitality is a key sign of righteousness. In ancient pagan, Jewish, and early Christian stories, a key test for a hero is whether or not they are willing to welcome friend and stranger alike into their home. They never know who they may be welcoming. Sometimes it's even gods, or representatives of a god. That's what we have in our first scripture from today. Abraham is welcoming strangers who turn out to be angels who bring him good news from God. According to scholars, to be a good host was to offer the guest food, shelter, a place to bathe, and maybe even protection from violence. Hospitality is particularly important in this middle section of Luke, from chapter 9 to chapter 19. Jesus and his disciples were journeying to Jerusalem. They were utterly reliant on people's hospitality along the way. Jesus even went so far as to instruct the 70 disciples he sent out to take almost nothing with them: no purse, no bag, no extra shoes. They should only rely on the people whom they will teach, and on God, for survival. According the Gospel, that's just what they did. Jesus also seemed to travel in the same way. That's how he ended up here, in the house of Martha, shortly after having a surprising conversation with a Pharisee about mercy and tending to the needs of strangers.
Knowing that hospitality was so important in not only the broader culture but also central to early Christian practice, we might also be surprised by this story of Martha and Mary. It seems like Jesus is giving Martha a hard time about her practice of hospitality. Let's return to the story for a minute. Jesus and somewhere between 12 and 82 people were traveling and showed up in a village where Martha welcomes them into her home. How many of you would be prepared to offer between 12 and 82 people food, shelter, and a bath on absolutely no notice? I'd hazard that even the most Martha-ish among us would struggle with such a task. Martha dived right into the work of serving these strangers. Her sister Mary was there, too. Mary had a different reaction. Rather than rush about to get everything ready for all of these people, Mary sat down and began to listen to whatever Jesus was teaching all of the people gathered. Scripture says that she sat at Jesus' feet, that is, she sat in the place of a disciple who was tending to words of a great teacher. Some frustration, naturally, ensues. Martha had a whole pile of unexpected guests to serve. She needed help. It would have been reasonable for her to expect her sister to help fix the meals, set the tables, and pass around some wash basins. As we have seen, that was most certainly not what happened.
It is funny to me that Martha went to Jesus with her frustration. In the counseling classes that I've had, we'd call this triangulation... one person has an issue with another person but goes to a third person to try to get them to fix it rather than simply talking with the person they actually have an issue with. Instead of saying, "Hey, Mary, can you come over here just a minute and help me out," Martha, driven to worry and distraction by all of the service that she saw before her, marched up to Jesus and said, "Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." I wonder if Mary even knew that Martha was mad? I wonder if Martha might have even been a little annoyed with Jesus. He could have waited a minute before he started teaching or he could have made sure that everyone pitched in. All this talk about mercy and here he is, ignoring how frazzled she has become while trying to welcome him into her home. She could use some mercy right now... and some help with the dishes.
Given how much Jesus emphasizes service to neighbor as central to the law, you might expect him to agree with Martha, or, at least find someone to help her serve everyone. Maybe you might even expect him to get up and help her himself. After all, the Gospel of John preserved a story where Jesus served his friends by washing their feet and also by sharing a meal with them, a meal we memorialize when we share communion. He does neither of those things in this story. Speaking gently to this woman who was overwhelmed by the enormity of the work before her, he said this, "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." He said you see so much that needs to be done. There's really only one thing that needs to be done right now. Mary chose to sit... listen... be present with her guests. I won't ask her to do something different.
Now, there is a history of interpretation of this text. Oftentimes, Jesus' words will be read a harsh rebuke of a life of faith that is centered around service and action. Martha becomes an archetype for the kind of Christian who prays primarily through protest and good works. People will read it as though Jesus said that there is something wrong with that kind of faith. Mary, then, becomes the archetype for quiet contemplative, waiting to hear a good word from Jesus. Some will read this scripture and say that a quiet, singular faith of learning is what is most demanded of us. I don't actually find that interpretation particularly compelling. Given how consistently Jesus invites his followers into service for God and neighbor, I can't imagine that he would want us to hear this conversation and think that we are wasting our time in acts of service. As one scholar I read noted, that just doesn't make sense in the context of the portrayal of Jesus in the book of Luke. Remember, it is in this Gospel that Jesus describes his own ministry in terms of service to the poor and oppressed. And, this story follows on the heels of the story of the Good Samaritan, where service to one's neighbor is upheld as the central ethic of Jewish religious law. I don't think Jesus is telling us that our acts of service and outreach and advocacy are a waste of time.
Instead, I think that Jesus is asking inviting his followers to discern when the time is best to act and when the time is best to be silent and listen. It will often be tempting to see the pile of work ahead of us, and become worried and distracted. We may become frustrated and lash out at our coworkers and even the people that we have been called to serve. In those moments, when the work seems overwhelming, perhaps that is the time to take a moment to sit. To be in prayer. To listen and learn a new thing from Christ. To know that you are welcome just as you are, not because of what you do or what you have accomplished. Sometimes, it may even mean that the most important part of our call to hospitality is the quietest part, the part where we actually give our full attention to our guest, leaving all the rest of the work for later.
If this is a story about discernment, I think one important question that we are left with is how do we know when we should be living out our faith in action or living out our faith in listening? Because both action and contemplation are necessary. And, I also wonder how do we know when we should disregard the conventions of what is expected of us, even when the conventional expectations are really good ones, and risk engaging with the Divine in a different way, like Mary did? Because Jesus didn't ask us to pick between a life of action and service and a life of isolation and contemplation. We are called to do both. Maybe one sign that can help us figure out when to act and when to wait is a sign that we see Martha exhibiting. She is worrying and distracted. She has become overwhelmed. Jesus seems to say that the worry and lack of focus is what is keeping her from doing the best thing at that moment. Maybe when we see too many jobs to tackle, that can be our sign to stop and listen for the good word that Christ is bringing to us right now. We probably don't need to sit and listen forever. We are constantly being called into action with Christ. Sometimes, though, the listening needs to come first. The gracious presence with a guest need to come first. And, then, we can base our action in what we have learned. We don't have to pit the Marthas and Marys against one another. We need both. We need to be both. And, we can to work together with God to figure out which sister we need to be right now.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing this sermon:
Sermon Brainwave podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=781
Jane Schaberg, "Luke," in the Women's Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
Mikeal Parson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2917
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1723
Marilyn Salmon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=625
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4686
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.