It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way!
Grace & Middle Valley United Methodist Churches
July 18, 2010
Luke 10: 38-42
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Much like the lawyer’s question and the parable of the Good Samaritan last week, this story of Mary and Martha I’m sure is quite familiar to many of us. This scene of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus in their home in Bethany has gained much popularity among Christians in our modern, very busy world. Scholars have poured over every word of this brief passage, analyzing Martha’s actions, and Mary’s actions, and Jesus’ words. Entire books have been written on this single passage, suggesting how we might have “a Mary heart in a Martha world.” Surely, this is a parable that speaks strongly to us in the busyness of our modern lives. And we church-goers often debate our attributes: “I am more like Mary,” some will say. “I have quiet time each day with God. I talk to God and listen too.” Then others will say, “I’m more like Martha. I just have to be doing something, serving others, or I am not satisfied.” There is a problem in debating this story this way, though, and perhaps many of us have recognized it: if you, like me, tend to be more like Martha, this story makes you feel as if you are an inadequate Christian because, according to Jesus’ thinking, “Mary has chosen the better part.” So we “busy-bodies” begin to fret and worry because we are too busy to be attending adequately to our need to sit in Jesus’ presence.
But here’s the thing about the Christian life, it must be both active and contemplative. It must be both Mary and Martha. Not only should we take time to pause and listen to the Master’s teaching like Mary, we must also be active in serving in Jesus’ name like Martha. “Action and contemplation are of course both important. Without the first, you wouldn’t eat, without the second you wouldn’t worship.” Without contemplation, we would never be strengthened and empowered to do God’s work in the world, and if we are not active in the world like Martha, people in our neighborhoods, communities, and around the world would never know the love and grace of Jesus Christ! Certainly some of us tend one way or another; we prefer worship or we prefer service, and we are probably all called to some unique balance between these two aspects of the Christian life. So the point of this story about Jesus’ time in the house of Mary and Martha is not about how we should value one aspect of the Christian life over another. No, we should both worship and serve! And when we think about this story of Mary and Martha, we should see that its meaning goes far beyond a simple debate about action and contemplation in the Christian life. Like the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of Mary and Martha is radical!
In order to fully understand the significance of Mary and Martha’s encounter with Jesus in their home in Bethany, we need to have a good picture of Jesus’ mission and the customs of the culture during the time that he was among us on earth. You see, people were expecting something BIG when God’s promised Messiah came among them, but Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection blew all of their expectations out of the water; it was radical. The Israelites never expected that a Samaritan would be lifted up as the one most closely following God’s command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” And the Jews never expected that Jesus would praise the actions of a woman sitting at his feet as he taught. In a great sense, everything that Jesus did was unexpected. The Jews thought the Messiah was their savior and their savior alone, come to deliver them from all the oppressive forces of the earth. But as we know, Jesus is the Savior of the whole world. And “not only was [Jesus] redrawing the boundaries of God’s people, sending out a clear message about how the gospel would reach to those outside the traditional borders. He was redrawing the boundaries between” Jew and Greek, slave and free, and even male and female; “blurring lines which had been clearly laid down.” And here is where we begin to see the significance of this story about Mary and Martha.
Jesus and His disciples had come to the home of Martha and Mary, and Martha was busy and “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” But then something happens that makes Martha stop dead in her tracks. She rubs her eyes and looks again, to make sure she’s seeing rightly. There is her sister, Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, hanging on Jesus’ every Word. Doesn’t Mary know she has work to do? Doesn’t Mary know that her place is in the kitchen? What’s gotten into her, that she would cast her responsibilities aside, and go and join the men? And that is the key to this situation. The real problem between Martha and Mary wasn’t the workload that Martha had in the kitchen. No. The real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she were a man!
You see, in that culture, as in many parts of the world to this day, houses were divided into male “space” and female “space.” And Mary had crossed a very important boundary within the house and the culture. The living room or den was where the men would meet. The kitchen belonged to the women. Only in the married bedroom would male and female mix. For a woman to settle down comfortably among men was scandalous! Who did Mary think she was? Only a shameless woman would behave this way! Martha was, no doubt, embarrassed by her sister’s behavior. Mary had forgotten her place! So Martha was worried and scared. And when Martha took her concern to Jesus, he responded graciously and lovingly, freeing Martha from any embarrassment she might be feeling. Some thought that Jesus was mad at Martha because she was too busy working to sit with him, but he’s not mad. Jesus understands where she’s coming from; he knows the customs of the day. There was a major negative attitude toward women in that culture, and standing before him is a prime example of that; a woman who has been denied a wider role in the Temple and in the society. And Martha had bought into that, even if it was just a begrudging compliance.
But Jesus is the Truth. And the amazing thing about this story of Mary and Martha is that we see how many times, the Truth goes against the grain of the way we look at the world! It doesn’t have to be this way! The Truth is that there are no boundaries in Christ! No one person is any more important than any other person. To sit at the feet of a teacher was a decidedly male role. But Mary had quietly sat at the feet of the teacher, and Jesus had continued teaching as if this was the most natural thing in the world! And here’s what’s so incredible about that: to sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be their student. As the teacher taught, the student would be listening and learning and focusing. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you did if you wanted to be a rabbi yourself. There was no thought of learning simply for learning’s sake. Mary had taken her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the Kingdom of God! And Jesus affirms her right to do so! This is the boundary-breaking call of Jesus!
The story of Mary and Martha isn’t about being busy or being still. It’s more about following Jesus wherever he leads, and being willing to go with him, even when it defies all expectations, even when it destroys all boundaries, even when it ignores all customs. Christ didn’t come to maintain the status quo, Christ came to establish a new kingdom, and being his disciples means participating in this world-changing work, wherever it may take us!
When I was in seminary, my friends and I got on a bit of a kick where we planned elaborate surprise birthday parties for one another. Some of the parties took us on crazy adventures, while others involved piñatas, and others were just a large gathering of friends at someone’s home. One of these parties stands out quite particularly in my mind. It was for my friend Adam. Adam loved to swing dance, and so on his birthday, we made plans to take him to a popular swing dancing venue in a nearby suburb of Washington DC. But we didn’t want Adam to have any idea what we were doing or where we were going. So, at the appointed hour, my friends and I knocked on Adam’s door. We blindfolded him and led him to the car to begin our journey to this swing dancing club. Do you know that every turn we made, Adam named the street we were turning onto?!? Despite the fact that he was well-blindfolded and it was already getting dark outside, Adam knew exactly where we were the whole way! This, of course, blew us all away. We never dreamed Adam would be able to tell where we were headed. Our expectation was that he would be in the car, riding along wondering where we were going! So much for our birthday surprise!
And that’s how it is as disciples of Christ. We’re not really like Adam on the way to his “birthday surprise,” completely sure of exactly where we are. Though we might have an idea of the end destination, that day when God reigns on earth as in heaven, we cannot know exactly how Christ will lead us there. But whatever path Christ may put us on, our task is to “go.” For Mary and Martha, that meant sitting at the feet of the teacher, in order to become a teacher of others. For Mary and Martha, that meant stepping across the gender boundaries of 1st century Palestine. For us, following Christ may mean serving in a home for victims of HIV/AIDS. It may mean trekking through the harsh barrenness of Darfur, Sudan, to share the gospel with a highly oppressed people. Following Christ may mean offering forgiveness to a hardened criminal serving time. We cannot know where Christ may call us, and there will be times when surely Christ will beckon us to unexpected and even difficult places. But here’s what we can know from the story of Mary and Martha. Wherever Christ may call us, he will meet us there. He will tell us we are exactly where we need to be, and then he will teach us. And if we are willing to sit and listen, we may very well find ourselves prepared to share Christ’s amazing grace wherever we are!
 N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 131.