“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
This familiar story of Mary and Martha has been misinterpreted by so many for so long, that one generation after another of church-going women have identified themselves as either a “Martha” or a “Mary,” meaning they are either “doers” or “prayers.” It’s been a convenient, but totally misguided way, for good Christian women to label themselves and each other as hardwired for either prayer and spirituality or outreach and service, and it’s allowed good church-going men to simply “check out” completely whenever this passage comes up. After all, it’s clearly a story for women.
Only it’s not. This story is no more a story meant just for women than the story of the Good Samaritan we heard last week is meant for men. And it’s no more a story about the virtues of “being” versus “doing” than the story of the Good Samaritan was a story about the virtues of ritual purity versus uncleanliness.
Consider that it’s no coincidence both of these stories follow on the heels of Jesus’ affirmation that the Great Commandment is the key to Kingdom life. The Great Commandment to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our strength, and with all of our mind– and our neighbor as ourselves. It’s no coincidence that both of these stories are placed amidst the urgency of the journey narrative we talked about a few weeks ago, when Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem” and made abundantly clear that there is no time for distractions— not even to bury the dead, to say goodbye to one’s family, or to look back one last time.
But what these stories are about is the primacy, the urgency, the critical need for all Christ-followers to make their love of God and of God’s people their number one priority; the active love that gives witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom; the inclusive love that breaks all boundaries to conventional norms—such that a powerless first century woman is portrayed as a disciple at Christ’s feet and a much despised Samaritan is the hero of a story.
“Martha, you are worried and distracted about many things,” says Jesus. Too distracted to hear God’s word, though well within earshot. Too distracted to show her love of the Lord her God with all of her heart, and all of soul, and all of her strength, and all of her mind—simply by listening attentively while preparing dinner.
It’s not what Martha’s doing for which Jesus is offering a corrective—it’s how she’s doing it. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense for Jesus to chide Martha for providing the requisite hospitality to her guest that Simon the Pharisee had so utterly failed to do the night Mary bathed his feet in her tears. No, it’s not what Martha is doing, it’s how she’s doing it. In fact, we might just as easily imagine Jesus chiding Mary– if while sitting at his feet appearing to listen to his word she were making a mental grocery list and worrying when she’d find time to pick up her dry cleaning.
Likewise, in the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite walk right past the injured man at the side of the road, so worried and distracted by their concern for ritual purity that they fail to see—or respond—to a neighbor in need or to love him as they would themselves.
The Kingdom of God has come near, Jesus tells us. And we bring it even nearer when we set our faces to Jerusalem, resist distraction, and focus first and foremost on hearing and living God’s word of love as we relate to and connect with others in our normal, everyday life. Because the “better part” that Mary chose was to love God with all she had—heart, soul, strength and mind, in the midst of whatever else she was doing. And what earned the Samaritan the moniker “good” was that he loved his neighbor as himself, no matter the cost.
Together these two “outsiders” give witness to the Great Commandment. Together they serve as a much-needed corrective for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, but all too often find ourselves following the conventional norms of our culture instead. This is no easy thing: In 21st century America, with more mind-numbing and soul-sickening distractions than ever before, there is absolutely nothing conventional about following Jesus. Yet it may never have been more critically important to do so.
So thanks be to God for giving us each other for strength as we set our faces to Jerusalem; thanks be to God for reminding us through His word to choose the better part by focusing, like Mary, on the one thing necessary; and thanks be to God for calling us back gently, as he did Martha, whenever our distractions get the better of us.