Are you a Mary or a Martha?
So I wonder, are you a Mary or a Martha? I wonder how to find out. I know. Let’s take a poll.
How many of you identify with “Martha” in today’s gospel lesson? Don’t be shy—the Marthas of this world are the doers, the go-getters, those who get things done. No church could function for very long without its Marthas. (I see a few incognito Marthas out there; just sayin’.)
I don’t want to leave anyone out, though. Do we have any Marcellos here? You know, those decision-making, action-oriented people who make things happen. The male version of Marthas. Who are YOU?
OK, now who are the Marys (and the Marks) here? Who would rather spend time learning about how to be holy, sitting at Jesus’ feet, so to speak, while your fellow disciples slave away in the soup kitchen and on Last Saturday and at the shelter… You get the picture. No need to be shy; Jesus validates your choice. Identify yourselves, please.
Are you a Mary or a Martha?
I noticed that there are a few of you who haven’t “come out of the closet,” so to speak. I wonder if you incognito folks are Marthas and Marcellos who are just plain tired from all that moving and grooving (as we used to say), all that shaking and baking, all that channeling success. You know, the Marthas and Marcellos are those who do all that work-work, attend (if not run) all those vestry meetings, do all of our ushering, lectoring, altar-guilding, coffee houring, and Sunday-Schooling, and attend all those church committee meetings to boot.
Or maybe you incognito ones are Marys and Marks, people who have sat still so long soaking up righteousness that the spring which should be propelling you into action in Jesus’ name needs oiling. You know, we Marys and Marks are the ones among us who ONLY show up for worship, but slip out the door quickly after the service, so that no one will ask us to do anything.
Just last month, a man told me that he doesn’t attend our Church of the Resurrection because people ask him to do things every time he attends here. Or maybe he’s just afraid of this happening. See, this man has the capabilities of a Marcello, but the heart of a Mary. This man told me that I could share his comment with you. I am grateful, because his comment reflects the tension we live in: Are we to be Marys, or Marthas (Marks, or Marcellos)?
The problem with Luke’s story about Mary and Martha is that this isn’t supposed to be a story about “either-or.” Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen the “better part” of the two extreme choices. The “better part” was to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn about God. But this “better part” was never meant to be the “only part.” This is not an “either-or” selection menu.
Put another way, Mary was loving the Lord her God with all her heart and with all her soul and with all her mind. This is the first and great commandment. And people who are new at being Jesus’ disciples NEED to sit at Jesus’ feet and soak up all that Jesus has to share with us of God. Asking newcomers to be Marthas before they are Marys is a sure recipe for spiritual disaster.
BUT, the second commandment is like unto the first: We should ALSO love our neighbors as ourselves. We have to put our love of God into action, or our love atrophies.
The church has been struggling with this choice since the very beginning. We Episcopalians have devised a very clever way of dealing with these EITHER-OR choices. We simply say “yes.” Yes, we should sit at Jesus’ feet and learn about God. Yes, we should do the work in the kitchen, the “deaconal work,” as the Greek calls Martha’s activity. And this applies to you Marcellos, too.
Does loving God come first, or does loving our neighbors come first? YES! But, Jesus says, loving God is the “better part.” I have a theory about this, and I wasn’t the one to think this theory up. The theory is this: Sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning about God is the “better part” because if we try to love our neighbors as ourselves—all by ourselves—then we eventually will get all burned out and cranky and will demand that God make someone else do something to help us. When, in reality, when things are in their right and proper order, we are the ones who are supposed to be doing something in God’s name, doing something to help God bring the Kingdom of God into reality in our world.
So let’s take another look at today’s gospel lesson. Jesus dropped in unannounced on his friends Mary and Martha. Now, the text doesn’t make this plain, but Jesus wasn’t alone. We know from what happened just before Jesus arrived in Bethany, arrived at the home of Mary and Martha, that he had disciples with him. Lots and lots of disciples. How many? At least twelve, but probably more like the 70, returned from their recent “road trip,” two-by-two.
Now I don’t know about you, but if a whole host of people dropped in on me, I would be hard pressed to be hospitable, as custom and decency and the Law of God requires. I would be hard pressed to feed them, and I can hop in my car and run to the grocery store.
Not Martha. She would have had to kill some chickens, butcher an animal or two, stoke the fire, set the table, and scrounge up all kinds of things to feed their guests. But, don’t forget, Jesus was the most well-known Rabbi of his day, so there was a celebrity in the house. The meal would have had to have been JUST RIGHT, right?
Can’t you just hear Martha getting more and more frantic in the kitchen? Slamming a pot or two. Chopping things loudly. Murmuring under her breath. Clearing her throat in high volume.
Can’t you just see Mary pointedly ignoring her sister, shifting her posture so that her back was toward the kitchen? Hiding among the other disciples at Jesus’ feet? Becoming visibly more rapt at what Jesus was teaching her.
A lot of people have made a lot over the fact that Jesus allowed Mary, obviously a woman, to sit at his feet in the pose of a disciple. And this WAS a big deal, in Jesus’ day. But that is a distraction. If we strip this story to the very core, this isn’t a story about male and female. Oh, over the millenniums since Jesus’ time we Christians have made Mary and Martha speak on this subject, making Martha sit passively at Jesus’ feet while only the Marcells got to serve as deacon.
But, this could have been Mark and Marcello in this story, and the meaning would be the same. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart—first—and love our neighbors as ourselves. If we do only one of these things, either one of these things alone, life gets all out of kilter. We need to do both; but (Jesus says) love God first.
Are you a Mary or a Martha? The proper answer—and not just for Episcopalians—is “Yes!”