The 6th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 11(16) is the third week in a quick journey through Luke chapter 10.
The lectionary Gospel is Luke 10:38-42, one of the stories where Jesus interacts with the people who seem to have been his closest friends outside of the twelve apostles. We see Jesus here with Martha and Mary, as we do in John 11 when Jesus raises their dead brother Lazarus, and in John 12, when a grateful Mary anoints Jesus feet and wipes them with her hair. We don’t see him with anybody else as often.
It is a much discussed story. Jesus comes to their house for dinner. Martha does all the work. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet with the boys. Martha complains. Jesus lets Mary stay.
There are matters of detail and historical significance to ponder here. I won’t say much, this busy July week, but I’ll note things that have been on my mind since I started swimming around in this text on Monday.
Martha the Matriarch
One fact that hasn’t really struck me before is that Martha is portrayed as the senior member of the family. It is Martha who invited Jesus to come to dinner, and Luke tells us that it was Martha’s home.
I’ve always pictured the three siblings has sharing a home, maybe after their parents died. I unconsciously pictured them as having an egalitarian relationship, sharing responsibility for the family’s tiny property.
If I’d thought harder I probably would have assumed that in a patriarchal society Lazarus would be the one in charge.
…a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” (Luke 10:38 NRSV)
It isn’t just that Martha was more practically minded than the others, more dutiful, and therefore taking care of the meal preparations. Martha was in charge. If Martha was the matriarch, maybe she was used to giving the orders to Mary and Lazarus.
That role of being large and in charge shapes her interaction with Jesus. Luke notes that she “asked” Jesus a question. But even with Jesus she had the confidence of her role: the question was a grievance.
Lord, do you not care
that my sister has left me
to do all the work by myself?” (Luke 10:40 NRSV)
It seems pretty appalling to accuse Jesus of not caring. But really it seems she wants Jesus to uphold the social status quo.
Maybe we could paraphrase and rephrase the question:
Lord, I’m the oldest, and this house belongs to me.
You know that the younger should respect the older,
and guests should respect the host.
You care about people showing respect — don’t you?
You care about the right ordering of society — don’t you?
And then, though she called Jesus “Lord,” Martha the matriarch turned immediately to giving him an order:
Tell her then to help me.” (Luke 10:40 NRSV)
Though it is different from my analysis above, I find Jesus’ diagnosis fascinating:
you are worried and
distracted by many things…” (Luke 10:42 NRSV)
Luke, in verse 40, echoes the verdict: Martha was
…distracted by her many tasks…” (Luke 10:41 NRSV)
Jesus is looking to the heart issue, I’d say. Martha the matriarch has come to feel responsible for all kinds of things. She gave the invitation, now she has to provide the feast, and probably do a dozen other things to keep her guests happy.
The fact that her focus has spread to these multiple things means she hasn’t stopped to think about the relative importance of her tasks.
Mary the Disciple
That’s not the case with younger sister Mary. Mary has taken on none of her big sister’s burdens. While that bugs Martha, it does mean that Mary has looked at the situation with relative objectivity.
I suspect her thought process went something like this:
What? The Son of God is in my living room? I think I’d better go listen to him.
Really, it isn’t an opportunity that comes that often.
So she sat at Jesus’ feet — that’s the place of a disciple, a learner, with her master teacher.
And while Jesus says nothing do denigrate Martha’s priorities, he does praise Mary’s choice.
While Martha is distracted by “many things,”
there is need
of only one thing.” (Luke 10:42 NRSV)
There is, in life, a need for discernment. One has to look and figure out what is the more valuable thing to choose in any given moment. Jesus praises Mary’s choice.
Mary has chosen
the better part…” (Luke 10:42 NRSV)
We often have to choose how we spend our time. Of course we don’t feel the choice. What we feel is that we are driven from one demand to the next, quite apart from any autonomous decision.
But here, in this house in Bethany, choices were made. One chose to work in the kitchen. One chose to sit with Jesus.
In most of our lives both things need to be done.
- We consciously feel the pull of the kitchen — we need to do our job and earn an income, or we need to engage in some active service of others in the world.
- And whether we feel it or not, we also need to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. That means taking a bit of time away from active service, whether at home, at the office, or at church.
Active and Contemplative
That’s what this passage was about for Christians in the middle ages. Back then, they assumed that Christians would be called to one of two primary forms of life.
- Most, like Martha, would be called to the “active” life. They would have jobs, raise families, serve the needs of others in society.
- But some, like Mary, would be called to the “contemplative” life. They would sit at the feet of Jesus and listen, living lives of prayer — mostly in monasteries and convents.
In my Protestant world, we don’t really do monasteries and convents any more. But we need to make room for the idea that choosing to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen is a legitimate life calling.
There are various ways to live a life of contemplation. Some are called primarily to a life of prayer. Some are called primarily to a life of study. Both can be listening at Jesus’ feet.
But many of us are called to both. That might well be true in this story, just beyond the bounds of the text.
That is, later on Mary probably helped clean up the dishes. And Martha probably listened to Jesus during the meal, or whenever.
Most of us do well to think in terms of life having a rhythm that includes both active service and contemplation. We need to work for the welfare of others, and we need to have active lives of prayer.
But whether it is a whole life, or a part of each day, it is a choice.
Mary has chosen
the better part,
which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42 NRSV)
Jesus values the choice — so make it. Choose to have a life of prayer. Start by making at least a short time of prayer a daily priority. It won’t be taken away from you either.
Choose the Better Part
If you want to work on your own life of prayer, sitting at Jesus’ feet, click this link to get on the info list for my online prayer classes. The next one will be this Fall. “Pray Like a Reformer” looks at the prayer practices taught by Luther and Calvin. They were most famous as theologians, but were also amazing teachers of prayer.