July 21, 2013
Just when we think we have the formula all worked out, the path to success all laid out, the one easy answer for earning us an A-plus for discipleship, Jesus goes and throws a wrench into the works. Last week we heard the story of the Good Samaritan, where the point was: Go and do. Love is shown in verbs. Remember? The Samaritan sees, goes, bandages, lifts, takes, gives, pays, promises.
This week we meet a woman who is doing and doing and doing – and all to exercise the virtue of showing hospitality. But this time, doing doesn’t seem to be the key. “Stop and listen” seems to be the right answer. What happened?
Jesus, and perhaps some of his disciples with him, have come to visit Martha and Mary. Martha rolls up her sleeves and goes to work preparing the dinner. She’s gone to the market, purchased fruits and vegetables, and had a nice lamb butchered. She’s cleaned the house, shaken out the rugs, chopped the vegetables, set the bread out to rise, made the salad, and changed her mind three times about which dishes to use. One set is too formal, but the everyday plates seem too plain. She’s put the soup on the fire, but isn’t sure the seasoning is quite right. She’s called Mary in to give it a taste, but so far Mary shows little interest in helping. She knows the lamb could get tough if she puts it in the oven too soon, and she doesn’t want to over-bake the bread. Perhaps it was a mistake to try a new recipe on such an important guest, but since Mary wouldn’t help her decide on the menu, she decided to try it and hope for the best. Should she have gone to the trouble of making seating assignments? Maybe the place cards are a little much, but she wants it to be perfect. Maybe she should switch Mary’s place to farther down the table, since it seems she’s already spending so much time with Jesus.
Martha pokes her head into the living room, hoping to get Mary’s attention, but Mary’s still just sitting and listening to Jesus. Martha goes back to stir the soup, which has started to simmer. So has Martha.
This story can really irk us. And it seems so natural for the story to turn into an exercise in choosing between the two sisters. Whom do we choose, Mary or Martha? Which of the sisters are we most like? Who is more important? More faithful? More valuable? It is so tempting to launch into an enthusiastic defense of Martha, especially with all those Marthas in the pews. Where would we be as the church without the Marthas, those who act and give and plan and budget and do and shop and cook and make bag lunches and organize and sort and throw rummage sales and scrape the wax off of brass candlesticks and wash acolyte robes and make sure there is enough wine in the altar-guild sacristy and unjam the copier and set up the coffee and cut the coffeecake and make the name tags and stuff the folders? All so that the rest of us can be like Mary and listen at the feet of Jesus, and when the workshop or worship is over, we can go enjoy a nutritious meal that, in case we haven’t noticed, someone else has prepared. Our common life in the church is dependent on the activity of many.
Martha wants help. Is that so wrong? “Lord,” she asks, “do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
We might wish that Jesus had said, “You are absolutely right, Martha. Let’s just all come into the kitchen and help with the dishes. Let’s visit while we put the plates away. Many hands make light work!”
But he doesn’t. Instead he says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” She is described in the translation in the New Revised Standard Version as “distracted by her many tasks.” More literally, it would be “she is with much serving”; even more literally, much “deaconing.” Jesus says, “You are worried and distracted about many things. There is need of only one thing.”
We know. We understand. Martha is not just busy. She is not just multitasking. She is not just overbooked, overscheduled, and overwhelmed. She is distracted with much serving. Distracted. Distracted by too much. There is need of only one thing. But some days it is so hard to remember what that one thing is.
What if the point of the story is not to further divide Martha from Mary and Mary from Martha, not to pit the sisters against each other, not to choose either of them, but to choose Jesus? What if this is not a story about choosing between Bible study and outreach ministries, between making time for nightly devotional study and hands-on service to others? What if it’s not a story asking us to choose between being Mary and being Martha, but of keeping our focus on Jesus, choosing Jesus, choosing just one thing he’s asking of us, or offering to us, just now?
But what is the one thing?
Just before he visits Mary and Martha, in the tenth chapter of Luke, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan as an answer to the lawyer who wants to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,” he says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus asks him, “What is written in the law?”
In Luke’s gospel it’s the lawyer, not Jesus as in Matthew and Mark, who gives this summary of the law, this all-encompassing picture of whom and how to love. The lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. ”
And Jesus says to him, A-plus. “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” “Do this,” Jesus says, as if it’s a simple thing – a whole slew of words that mean all encompassing devotion and commitment – all boiled down to one little word: “this.”
But Jesus himself seems to play fast and loose with the math when he answers the question in Matthew, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” “This one,” says Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What’s the one thing? This – and this.
Do this one thing: loving the Lord your God completely, and your neighbor as yourself. The story of the Good Samaritan shows how one loves one’s neighbor with actions of compassion and mercy, going and doing. Then Jesus goes to visit Mary and Martha and we see Mary loving God without distraction, without worry, resting and listening. Do this one thing: choose Jesus, through compassionate action, through single-hearted, focused listening. In this one thing – going and doing and stopping and listening – you will choose Jesus, and love your neighbor as yourself.
But wait, we say. That’s more than one! How will I know which one really? How will I know when it’s time to do and when to sit? When to listen and when to act? When will I meet Jesus in serving the wounded stranger and when in quiet contemplation and prayer?
Do this and you will live. Jesus doesn’t spell it all out, doesn’t give us all the details. But listen one more time to how he helps Martha, or tries to.
Community is important in this story. In the story of Mary and Martha, Martha does the right thing. She invites Jesus into her home. But she doesn’t spend time with Jesus, or with Mary. And at least within the narrative arc of the story as we have it, rather than speak with Mary directly and ask Mary directly for help, Martha does what we are all warned against for the well-being of community. She triangulates. “Jesus, make Mary help me.” It’s a divisive move.
In asking Martha to choose the one needful thing, Jesus invites Martha back into community. He does not command. He does not shame. He invites. He gives a choice. Come into the living room, he says. I want to be with you. Will you choose me? In choosing me, you will also gain back your sister. In choosing me, you may see your way clear to loving yourself, as well as your neighbor.
In her frantic rush, in her distraction by much serving, Martha is showing neither love to Jesus nor love to herself.
Put down the lamb shank, Martha, and come join us by the fire. There is nothing you need to do to earn God’s love, or impress God, or prove anything to God. Nothing. There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any less or any more than God already does. Jesus looks upon you with compassion. What if you see yourself through the same compassionate eyes? What if you gaze on yourself with the same love Jesus has for you?
Do this, and you will live.
— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.