"Martha and Mary"
It’s good to be back in the pulpit after welcoming Pastor Brian to Epworth and also hearing from Dr. Randall Miller on Pride Sunday. To those who have been travelling, welcome back, particularly our Sierra Service Project team, and to those who are about to head out on a summer adventure, may travelling mercies go with you. I had a great summer adventure of my own this week. I was in Denver for a board meeting of the Methodist Development Fund. UMDF supports churches in their own callings through loans to build, renovate and refinance, and supports clergy and lay people in new leadership initiatives. One of the churches that has benefited from UMDF’s work is right here in our own neighborhood at St. Luke’s UMC in Richmond which is now predominantly a Tongan congregation, and happens to be the congregation Pastor Brian served when he was part time at Epworth. I’m proud to be a part of this work and grateful for the support of this congregation of my service there.
But as excited as I am about UMDF’s work, the board meeting was not the best part of the adventure. I flew to Denver a day early to meet my parents, who drove over from Kansas City to see the San Francisco Giants play the Colorado Rockies. The drive is not that short. It is about a 9 or 10 hour drive. But I thought it was worth asking my parents if they wanted to meet me because my stepmom is someone who is often referred to in church shorthand as “a Martha” which comes from the scripture Jordan read this morning from Luke. A “Martha” is someone who is a do-er. A Martha gets up in the morning and has two loads of laundry done, dinner in the crockpot, and organized a volunteer project by 10am. The amount of work my stepmom can get done has always amazed me. And when I asked my parents if they wanted to meet me in Denver, she said, “Sure!”
In the story of Mary and Martha as it is commonly read, Jesus comes into a village with his disciples and is welcomed by Martha into her home. Mary sits at his feet and learns from him while Mary is taking care of the business of the home, presumably preparing food for the guests and other tasks. She’s frustrated that Jesus doesn’t see that Mary isn’t helping her and she asks him to tell Mary to help. But Jesus scolds Martha and says that Martha is distracted with her tasks while Mary has “chosen the better part.”
I remember when I was younger, my stepmom said to me, “I don’t like that story. Those people are going to be hungry. Somebody’s gotta get in there and feed them. That work’s not going to get done by itself.” Then she said, “I’m a Martha and it seems like Jesus is scolding Martha for doing what needs to be done.” This was good for me to hear, because I really am more of a Mary, preferring to study the Bible rather than cook dinner, and I had felt kind of pardoned or justified by this story. But my step mom’s honest comment made me realize, this story is really problematic with the way it pits two women against each other with these stereotypical, proscribed and reified roles.
And really, does this sound like Jesus to you? It seems like Jesus talked more about serving others than anything else. Later in Luke, Jesus’s disciples are arguing about which of them should be considered the greatest (Luke 22:24). Jesus replies that: “the greatest among you should become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. Who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? Isn’t it the one who sits at the table? But I’m among you as one who serves.”
So why would Jesus tell Martha that her serving wasn’t as good as Mary’s learning? Well, it turns out there has been some new research done on this passage by Biblical Scholar Mary Stromer Hanson and published in her book, The New Perspective on Mary and Martha: Do Not Preach Mary and Martha Again Until You Read This! Let’s look at it again. If you want to open your pew Bibles, its page 72. The passage opens, “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” Guess what? The original Greek version of this passage did not include the words “into her home.” What?! The King James translation inserted that phrase and translations since have kept it, but in the original version, it’s not there! And, the scene is usually depicted as Jesus coming into this suggested home with his disciples, but the passage really only says, “HE entered a certain village.”
Now we have a very different picture. Where we had imagined a group of men walking into the home of two women, what if the picture shifted to Martha meeting Jesus on the street in her village, and welcoming him. Then Hanson goes on to translate the next verses as “She had a sister called Mary, who also was one who sat at the Lord’s feet, always listening to his words.” In many original Greek manuscripts, the word “also” is there referencing Martha as one who also was a disciple of Jesus, learning from him. Hanson argues that the phrase “sitting at his feet” is a figurative not a literal phrase which meant simply that one was a disciple of Jesus. So both Mary and Martha were disciples of Jesus.
Then Hanson translates the next passage as “But Martha was constantly torn apart concerning much ministry. She suddenly approached him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister regularly leaves me to minister alone? Tell her therefore that she may give me a hand.’” Instead of what is usually translated as “tasks” and work or serving food, the Greek word used here, “diakonia,” actually means ministry. So, what Martha is really saying is, in my own ministry here in the village, Mary isn’t helping me. Locating this ministry in her home is not part of the text.
Interestingly, Hanson argues that Mary isn’t even there in this scene. And in fact, she has no speaking role in the passage. Hanson suggests that Mary is off on an itinerant ministry sharing the Good News and Martha is really saying to Jesus, “When you next see Mary out on the road, please ask her to come home because I could use some help.” Finally, where the text usually has Jesus responding that Mary has chosen “the better part,” Hanson says that the original Greek text actually has no superlative, and really it just says “Mary has chosen a good thing.” Now we get a very different picture of this scene. Martha has been ministering to the people of her village as a disciple of Jesus, and when he enters this village, she welcomes him. As one among many disciples doing the work of Jesus, she lets him know that she could use some help from her sister who could be out on the road with other disciples sharing the Good News. Maybe Martha’s feeling overwhelmed. But Jesus reassures Martha that she need only focus on one task at a time, and that what she is doing is what she needs to be doing while what Mary is doing what she needs to be doing. Both are doing “a good thing.”
Given this new way of looking at the passage, I have realized I am as much like Martha as I am like Mary. I am neither Martha nor Mary, and yet I am both Martha and Mary. When I get overwhelmed with trying to do too many things, it is very easy to look at those around me and think, “They should be helping me!” With the ones closest to me being the most likely recipients of this sentiment. And I realize this passage isn’t so much about a woman dynamic as it is a human dynamic. Hanson’s translation refutes the interpretation of women being pitted against each other in a working inside the home vs working outside the home stereotype and just basically says, “we each have unique and important ministry and service to do, pleasing and needed by Jesus in spreading the Good News.” When we focus on someone else’s work instead of our own, we will likely project our own opinions into what they are doing, obscuring their purpose and brilliance, their faithfulness. And most importantly, when we take someone else’s inventory, , we lose the joy of our own work.
After the ballgame when my parents and I got back to our hotel, we had one of those conversations that all adult children need to have with their parents. This is the conversation about what quality of life means for them and what their wishes are as they become less able to care for themselves. Now what you need to know is that my father has Multiple Sclerosis, and since he was diagnosed with MS nearly 35 years ago, his mobility and motor function has been declining. In 2010 he lost the ability to walk completely. And yet his quality of life is very high—he travels and gets out to see his friends and family and to see movies and the Kansas City Royals play. After retiring as a pastor at the age of 62, he still went to annual conference meetings and has taught a Sunday School class at his church. All of this has been possible because my stepmom has made it part of her ministry and purpose to be in partnership with him, with incredible strength and care. And we know that the day is coming when she may not have the strength to do what she has been doing in taking care of my dad.
I have to admit, there is part of me that has thought all that she does, though it is done with love, was a burden. She does a lot, and it is daily and physical and I have often seen bruises on her leg or arm just from the awkwardness of lifting and moving another person. But in this conversation, I realized that I had it wrong. Instead of burden, this work, this ministry is for her, joy and purpose. They told me that for them, the highest quality of life is to be together and they will do what needs to be done as long as they can to do this.
The Good News for us this morning in the story of Mary and Martha is, as my kids would say, you be you. Even when we can’t embrace it ourselves, or even when we can’t completely understand the call that others have in the world, or even when the world gets caught in limited thinking and stereotypes, Jesus sees us in all of our giftedness and says not only, you be you, but YOU MUST BE YOU. The world needs you to respond to your unique calling whatever that may be. And yes, there are times in life when we have multiple callings that distract us, but Jesus says, “honor each calling,” focus on the joy of each ministry that is in front of us. And in this we will find blessing and “a very good thing.” Amen.