Martha serves while Mary waits

A sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost 
(Amos 8:1-12; Luke 10: 38-42)

I cannot resist kitsch, good kitsch.  Last month when I was at a provincial conference in Rehoboth, Delaware, I came across a store that is devoted to, you guessed it, kitsch.  It is packed, floor to ceiling with tacky little souvenir items, but also with nostalgia.  There were a few things I couldn’t resist – a toast stamper that will emboss an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on every slice, and, from the makers of Nunzilla (the little wind up walking nun that shoots sparks out of her mouth) come a series of little statuettes commemorating some of the lesser-known or marginal saints.

I bought for myself St. Gertrude, the patron saint of cat lovers.  No surprise there.  For a gay friend who loves to entertain and keep house I just had to buy a statue of, you guessed it, St. Martha.  It says on the box that she is the patron saint of waiters and waitresses.  It even promises, “Get more tips!”  In reality she is revered as the patroness of servants and cooks.   I also bought it for him because he reveres our own modern day Saint Martha…Stewart.

I believe the biblical Martha has been given short shrift in many sermons.  Oh, Martha, preachers chide, don’t be such a busy-body.  Leave your sister alone.

Certainly, the story presented to us in the Gospel would seem to show that Martha’s concern over fixing dinner for Jesus, her houseguest, pales in comparison to the image of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet.  But as is often the case, there is more to this story than we might see at first glance.

What do we know about Martha and Mary?  The text here tells us they are sisters.  In John’s Gospel account, they have a brother Lazarus, but he is nowhere to be seen here.  Earlier in Luke, Martha is mentioned as a financial backer of Jesus.  So before this encounter, we know that she is serious about Jesus’ ministry.  And one phrase in this morning’s reading should jump out at us, “a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.”  Now this is something we can easily read past, but culturally speaking, this is not a small detail.  The text doesn’t say, “the family home” or “Lazarus welcomed Jesus into his home and Martha fixed dinner for everyone.”  No, this is Martha’s home, and Jesus is her guest.

Much is made and rightly so that Mary is assuming a very non-traditional role when she sits at the feet of Jesus.  To sit at a Rabbi’s feet shouldn’t necessarily conjure ideas of Mary sitting gracefully on the floor in front of Jesus’ chair.  Instead we might read this that she was his student, his disciple.  Even if she isn’t numbered among the 12, she nonetheless learns from him and he willingly teaches her.  Both Jesus and Mary are breaking with convention. 

What else should we see here?  Let’s not assume either that Jesus has dropped by for tea or is simply coming over for dinner.  More than likely, Jesus is staying at Martha’s home, and what’s more, probably some if not all of his disciples as well.  There is a crowd in Martha’s house and hospitality dictates that they be fed and well-cared-for.

So much is made of hospitality in the Gospels – Jesus is often at dinner, in someone’s home, needing to have his needs met.  Martha is truly a saint in this regard.  Not only does she support Jesus financially, but she opens her home to him.  One of my heroes, Dorothy Day, who was a Martha in many ways herself said, "If everyone were holy and handsome, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. But it was not Christ's way for himself. Ask honestly what you would do when a beggar asked at your house for food. Would you give it on an old cracked plate, thinking that was good enough? Do you think that Martha and Mary thought that the old and chipped dish was good enough for their guest? It is not a duty to help Christ – it is a privilege."

Mary, as her sister, should have been helping to show Jesus hospitality, not because she is a woman, but because she is related to the host.  Many preachers read a back-story into this text:  this is the way it always is – Mary never helps and Martha is always worn out.  But we don’t know that from this text.  We have no sense that Mary never helps out.  All we know that given the circumstances, she is doing something unexpected.  Mary is quite bold in that she is not waiting on Jesus as the sister of the host would be expected to do.  Instead she is featured in this place of prominence, “at Jesus’ feet,” waiting on his every word as it were.  This place is a place where someone else might expect to be.  She is being bold and self-asserting by claiming her place there.

“Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus says to Martha.  This must have been a hard word for Martha and even the others to hear.  In the textual course of Luke, the hearers of the Gospel have just heard the story of the Good Samaritan, where extraordinary and inexplicable hospitality are commended by Jesus.  Suddenly it would seem that hospitality is only part of what it means to be a neighbor.  Martha is serving.  Mary is listening.  Finally the question posed to us is more like, “Do we have to choose one or the other?”

When we set up an “either/or” dichotomy here, I think we lose the essence of what Jesus is saying.  There will always be work, Martha.  There will always be guests we can show hospitality to, and rightly so!  But I’m here now, and Mary has chosen to learn from me.

Can you hear the ominous words from Amos?  There will be hunger, a famine in the land, but not one of bread or water, but of hearing the words of God.  Mary has that hunger, that desire to be fed by Jesus.  Mary’s hunger for the words of God surpasses Martha’s desire to show hospitality and to be a neighbor.  Jesus’ words seem to be saying, “Martha, you are multitasking.  Set down the dust mop, iron and squeegee and consider how Mary is serving me.”  Martha’s choice isn’t wrong – Mary’s choice is better.  And I love Jesus’ words – “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The children of Israel in Amos’ day were facing exile and, far worse, silence from God.  In those days prophets such as Amos served as “mouthpieces” for God.  The children of  Israel gathered in Martha’s home to hear Jesus were hearing not just a prophet, but from the one who they were beginning to understand was God made flesh.  This was not just any prophet.  Do you think Mary sensed that?

Remember another story of the woman, perhaps this same Mary, no one quite agrees, who anoints Jesus’ with expensive oil.  Both women, this Mary and the one who anointed Jesus shared this sense of the immediacy of having Jesus present.  Unlike Martha, Mary seems to get it.  Jesus is here, now.  Drop what you are doing, Martha, and pay attention.  Mary is waiting on Jesus’ words.  She is learning, work in and of itself.  But she shows Martha and the others that this is no ordinary houseguest.  She even risks scandal by placing herself in the place where usually only men were permitted to sit.

Of course, we need the Marthas of this world, women and men who are generous with their hospitality, those who see to the needs of those in need.  But we also need Marys, women and men who can stop their busyness long enough to receive from God, who is here, now.  We need women and men who recognize their spiritual hunger and thirst and long to drink of the living water and eat the bread of life.  Alongside the statuette of Martha perhaps we should have one of Mary, patron of students.

And so whether we are showing hospitality or we are engaged in learning we are called to serve Jesus.  Both are work – serving and learning, both are necessary and needed.  But sometimes, Jesus is saying, the dishes can wait.  Let me satisfy your hunger and thirst.  Amen.

I loved these three images of the Mary/Martha story.  The first is an African rendition.  I love the proximity of Martha's work to the seated figures.  If she wanted, she could do both — listen and work.  The second is Vermeer.  It presents a lovely triangular situation of the figures, almost trinitarian.  Mary is ignoring Martha's protests.  The last one is Velazquez and it is my favorite of the three.  Martha is completely removed from Jesus' presence and the woman with her (a relative?, a friend?) is goading her about Mary's behavior.  I love the detail of the food, Martha caught in the act of preparing and the look on her face.  How can you not feel sorry for her?

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4 thoughts on “Martha serves while Mary waits

  1. wow scott, I never picked up that pronoun. It's HER house. Does it hold up in the Greek? That's really remarkable! It'd be nice to do some research into how women in her age came to be the head of a household. So there's a crowd in Martha's house; of course she's going to be busting her butt in the kitchen to lay out a nice spread for them. Truth be told, I cannot imagine how I wouldn't do exactly the same thing as Martha, if I were in her shoes. And God knows I love being a student!!! I like a lot of what you did with the text, Scott, but you still haven't convinced me to leave the pots on the stove and blow off the demands of hospitality. Actually, pushy broad that I am, I'd probably walk in with my arms frull of appetizers and announce, "It's not fair that everyone gets to listen to Jesus while I have to prepare the food. So why don't you carry this all into the kitchen and we can continue the lesson in there? While you're at it, who wants to help me chop some onions?"

    It is great to hear your voice. Keep proclaiming the Gospel, bro. That's what's important.

  2. Hey Scott, just gotta tell ya, Zac wanted to have some "Mary Toast" so I opened the stamp and made some toast. He couldn't eat it though (see, I'm raising a very good little catholic hehe) So, we fed i to the birds…. However, not before Zac asked.. "I wonder if we can sell this on ebay" hahaJust a word about Martha… Have you read Meister Eckhart's sermons on Martha and Mary? Good stuff. He sees Martha as the more spiritually mature one who is able to see Mary's need; while Mary is too busy to see Martha's need. Interesting point.

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