A long time ago I was in worship on a Sunday morning. I was a young teenager and sitting on my lap was three-year-old Elizabeth. I was her regular baby-sitter. Our dads worked together. We lived in the same neighborhood and worshipped at the same Lutheran church.
Now this church was a mission start in the early 1960’s. Ten years later we still had metal folding chairs which sat on a hard tile floor. Elizabeth sat facing me with her feet hooked under the edge of the chair.
The pastor was reading the Gospel — this Gospel in fact. When he spoke the names of Mary and Martha, Elizabeth’s head jerked back in recognition, her eyes grew wide and when she jumped and exclaimed those names aloud, the force of her movement lifted my folding chair right off the floor. For you see, ‘Mary’ and ‘Martha’ are in fact, the names of two of my sisters. That little girl may not have been listening closely, but in that moment she thought the pastor was telling a story about her friends. Which, in fact, he was. More to the point, every time this story is told it is told about all of us and each of us.
Indeed, is there a Bible story which gets a more instantaneous reaction from church folk? If there is, I certainly don’t know of one. I walked into a Women’s Bible Study a few days ago and all I had to do was say I was thinking ahead to preaching on Mary and Martha and the response was quick and clear. We ‘get’ Martha. We wonder how it is the coffee will get made, the table set, the meal prepared, the dishes done without her. Most of the time we don’t mind mentioning how we resent Mary’s ability to somehow simply ignore all that has to be done. And we certainly don’t react all that well to Jesus’ seeming to take Mary’s side. I have a friend who wants to have t-shirts made which read “Martha Got a Bad Rap.” I’m not sure she couldn’t retire on the proceeds of such a venture.
Now I, for one, am not worth much in a church kitchen. In fact, there are a whole lot of hands-on practical matters you don’t want me anywhere near. Some might even look at this pastor and see someone a lot more like Mary than Martha. Not this week though. And not many weeks, if I’m honest.
In fact, as I wrote much of this I was sitting in the waiting room of a large University Hospital. It was my normal day off, but this week once again for all good reasons it simply didn’t happen. In fact, technically my ‘day off’ started at 2:15 a.m. with a phone call from a local nursing home where a member had died. I stayed until the funeral director arrived then went home and grabbed a couple of hours sleep, thinking I could perhaps still get to those tasks which normally make up a Friday. At 8 a.m. the phone rang again telling me we had another in critical condition so I made the drive into Chicago. The week had already held a number of challenging meetings in addition to planning another funeral with all its chasing down details and tending a grieving family. I don’t miss meals and a couple of times this last week I almost forgot to pause to eat. I ‘get’ Martha. I know ‘busy’ and I know what it feels like to believe without me it won’t get done. And yes, I find myself hearing Jesus’ words with a certain measure of resentment myself today. How does one ‘choose the better part’ when there appears to be neither time nor space to do so?
And so today for now I only have this to offer. Even though Jesus’ words annoy me, I’m trying to hear them as good news and not only judgment. I’m wondering at what it would mean to take time in the midst of all that demands our time. I’m trying to take a hard look at myself and to consider the very real probability that my own quick reaction to Mary is not about her and more about me and my own needs and hopes and hurts. And I’m wondering if there is a way to ‘be Mary’ in the middle of all that presses in. And I wonder, too, if the work itself can somehow be worshipful — if the work itself can be ‘the better part’ if it is done in the right spirit.
For of course the work has to be done. Everything that I did this week: every call made, every table sat at, every prayer offered was necessary and important. I expect a lot of good and important work was done in these last days. And yes, I believe Martha’s work was also good and important. Perhaps it says something that Jesus’ words are only spoken when Martha approaches him in her own distress. Apparently, it doesn’t take much for Jesus to pick up on his friend’s ‘distractedness’ and to see her own spiritual drought. It’s not so much the work itself that he is condemning so much, but what it appears to be doing to Martha. At least I hope this is so…
It is so that what I offer now is done mostly in a spirit of confession. I ‘get’ Martha, I do. I know what it is to be exhausted, distracted, resentful. I’ve had those days when the good and important work I’m called to share loses all its joy. I’m also learning that my reaction to ‘Mary’ is more about ‘me’ than it is about ‘Mary.’ Perhaps as I learn to hear Jesus’ words in all their intended honesty and kindness, I will more and more ‘get’ Mary, too. And perhaps I will learn more often to quit always ‘doing’ and simply be. And not only to be strengthened for the ‘doing’ again.
And so on Friday afternoon I ventured down to the cafeteria alone and paused to eat. I sat still and watched and listened as strangers walked by and I overheard languages I did not understand and somehow experienced a small measure of Mary’s gift of ‘choosing the better part’ in the midst of an otherwise hectic week. I was at the end of my energy and almost felt as though I had no choice but to sit still for a little while. Wouldn’t it be something if I also did so when I felt I had a choice? Before I sense Jesus shaking his head at me and saying, “Janet, Janet….” Even so, for now, I expect Jesus celebrates either way though. And for that I am grateful.
- How do you hear today’s story about Martha and Mary? Where do you meet yourself in it?
- Do you hear Jesus’ words to Martha as judgment or grace or both? Why is that?
- When did you last sense Jesus shaking his head at you? How did you respond?