“Martha, Martha, you are 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.” (Jesus, as quoted in Luke 10:42)
I did a search today on Google with the words “Martha's Guild”. I came up with about 12,900,000 results in 0.18 seconds, testifying to the popularity of this name for women's groups in the church which emphasize service to others. I notice, however, that in the very first page of listings were two for “Mary-Martha Guild”, testifying to the fact that some folk in the church are seeking to represent a balance between the ministry of service represented by Martha and the ministry of study and learning represented in this text by Mary.
There's some consternation in the Church about this text. There should be, if we're paying attention!
Not a few women – perhaps some here – feel slighted by our Lord's words to Martha, which indicate a denigration of her ministry of service. Recognizing this, and valuing as I do ministries of service, I feel a temptation to explain away Jesus' words here; to take away the offense of his words.
But I don't think I can do that. There seems little way around the fact that the Gospel According to Luke gives us these words in a context which indicates that Jesus intended to disturb his hearers, to shake them from any sense of complacency.
I will say, however, that is isn't just the Marthas of this world that he disturbs. Jesus in Luke's Gospel is an equal-opportunity disturber of persons who have settled patterns of behavior – even behavior that is ordinarily righteous and good. Hardly any of us are spared offense.
Just before my vacation I preached a sermon on the text from Luke's Gospel in which we're told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”. I pointed out in that sermon that this was a pivotal event for him. Everything he says and does after that decision; every encounter he has after that decision is to be seen in the light of that decision. Jesus is on a mission; and that mission is to take the challenge and disturbance of the proclamation of God's reign straight to the heart of Jerusalem, the seat of religious and political power.
Right after announcing that decision Jesus warns a would-be follower that they would from this day have no home of their own, but be dependent upon the kindness of strangers. Another man who wants to follow him after he has fulfilled his filial duty to bury his deceased father is given the blunt reply “let the dead bury their own dead... go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” To another who wanted to follow Jesus after he had said goodbye to his family, Jesus' reply is to say “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”2
The sensitive reader will wince at this. What could be more honorable than burying a father? Saying goodbye to family? My God, these are activities expected of a devout person, an honorable person. What on earth is going on?
Let's return to Martha's situation.
Luke tells us that after saying these things Jesus appointed seventy other people to go from town to town proclaiming the kingdom of God. As he instructed them he told them to travel light and to depend upon the hospitality of strangers.
So here is Jesus, enjoying hospitality along the way in the home of Martha and Mary, and guess who is working the hardest to provide that hospitality? Martha, of course. Mary's out sitting at the feet of Jesus taking in his teaching, apparently oblivious to her sister's labors on behalf of the guests.
I confess sympathy with the feelings that must have driven Martha's request of Jesus: “tell my sister to help me!”
To which Jesus replies:
“Martha, Martha, you are 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 10:42)
“Mary has chosen the better part.”
It isn't that Martha's offering is not good. It is. But in the context of this urgency, as Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, Mary's interest in understanding his mission is a great thing, to be honored. Jesus gives Martha the opportunity to honor Mary's interest.
Good, better, best. Life's hardest choices are not between apparent evil and apparent good, but among goods.
So it is with the kingdom of God, as we hear about it from Luke's Gospel. As Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, he is giving up goods: home, parents, family, the whole community which gave him birth and nurtured him as he discovered his calling from God.
It is good to make a home and keep a home and have a home. After all, if all forsook their homes, who would show hospitality to the one who comes proclaiming the kingdom of heaven?
It is good to honor the dead, especially the dead who gave you a home and a start in life, like your mother and father.
It is good to say goodbye to your family before leaving them behind.
But there is, Luke's Gospel affirms, the moment when the kingdom of God comes calling; the kingdom which calls some to leave home in order that more who inhabit Earth may find Earth a home free of apart from suffering and oppression.
There is a moment when the kingdom comes calling, and even familial attachments are not quite as important as the calling from Jesus to join him in accepting the fact that God is making of all the families of the earth one people.
Mary perceived there was something afoot with Jesus and his proclamation, and she was fascinated. So fascinated that she forsook ordinary obligations. Jesus offends us by telling Martha that Mary had chosen “the better part.” Mary sought understanding of Jesus' mission, and he honored her for it. Jesus also honored Martha by receiving her hospitality, even as he chided her for not seeing the good in what Mary was doing.
The kingdom Jesus proclaims and lives is a kingdom which comes about through sacrifice. And this sacrifice is not mainly the sacrifice of evil things. It is the sacrifice of good things for the sake of a greater Good.
If we're offended, so be it. We can get over it. Jesus, like all prophets before him, shocks us from complacency. We can get over it, especially as we see how Jesus' embrace of the kingdom of God led to Jerusalem, to the cross, and to a wide embrace of all of us for the sake of God's love.
The worship of the true God, of which Jesus is our Teacher, requires sacrifice. Christians are not the only people who recognize this. Mohandas Gandhi recognized this when he cited “Worship without Sacrifice” as among the most harmful traits of humankind.3
I cannot tell you exactly when you will hear Christ calling you to some sacrifice of good for the sake of the kingdom of God. I can only listen for myself, and respond for myself when it happens.
But here at this Eucharist we commit ourselves to listen for this call and to be ready to respond. We pray:
“Sanctify us also, that we may faithfully serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord”
So be it, God helping us.
1I am indebted to the insights of Marilyn Salmon in the construction of this sermon. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching_print.aspx?commentary_id=625
3Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi, one of the most influential figures in modern social and political activism, considered these traits to be the most spiritually perilous to humanity. http://www.deadlysins.com/features/gandhi.htm
Wealth without Work
Pleasure without Conscience
Science without Humanity
Knowledge without Character
Politics without Principle
Commerce without Morality
Worship without Sacrifice