Mary or Martha?

         When our parish administrator, Sue, saw what the Gospel was for this Sunday, she remarked to me that she had heard many sermons on this Gospel throughout her life and that they either made her feel really bad about herself or really good about herself. I laughed because that sounds just about right to me. This is a passage that can be turned in a few different ways. And it has a history of being used negatively. For a long time this story of Martha and Mary from Luke’s Gospel was used to value the contemplative life over the active life. A quiet life of prayer and listening was held over a life of active work. This story has also been used to say that Luke and the early church community didn’t want women in active ministry because Jesus calls Martha away from her work. These interpreters see that Jesus is pulling Martha away from an active role to a more passive role of listening and take this to mean that Jesus intended a more passive role for women in the church.

            Not surprisingly, I don’t buy into either of these interpretations. So hopefully this sermon won’t make anyone feel bad about themselves and their Martha/Mary dichotomy. Because that is what traditional interpretations of this passage have done. It has divided disciples into Martha’s or Mary’s and it has caused people to see their own identities as split.

As I wrote in the weekly enews note, I personally am very prone to this identity split. This Mary/Martha split in my identity began in my childhood. Whenever my parents hosted dinner parties I would be in the kitchen doing dishes while my sister spent time with our guests. I would often complain to my mother about this unfair setup, but she never corrected my sister, and jokingly dubbed me Martha. So for much of our childhood, the joke was that I was Martha and she was Mary. And this was pretty accurate, whenever there was something to be done, I just did it and she would not. To this day when something is spilled on the floor, my sister looks at me, expecting me to clean it up. No joke. She has this look like what are you going to do about this mess? Perhaps some of you can relate to this. I imagine that I am not the only person to have a sibling like that.

           As an adult I have felt less like the poster child for Martha-ness. But I still have some Martha tendencies. To do lists loom large in my mind. I really like getting things done and crossing things off the list. My husband calls this my obsession with logistics. And it’s true I am obsessed with logistics; sometimes to the point where logistics can distract me from all the good stuff that is going on.   

           So what is the good news in this Gospel for someone like me, who is obsessed with logistics and to do lists. The good news is that this is OK, what I am doing is OK. I believe this Gospel is calling us to merge our Martha and Mary tendencies. I think it is saying it’s ok to be obsessed with to-do lists and quiet time. It’s telling us that we can be called to both the active and contemplative life. I think this is the true message found in this Gospel text. While the English version of this Gospel reads that “Mary has chosen the better part,” a better translation of the Greek word is “good.” So Mary has chosen the good but not better part. This translation nuance immediately moves us away from a Mary/Martha dichotomy. Once we move away from this dichotomy we might be able to see the whole story differently.

            If we try to take a different perspective on the story, it’s good to start at the beginning. When Jesus arrives at their house Martha begins to prepare him a meal. This is a perfectly acceptable response; hospitality is an important tradition. While Martha is cooking, Mary gives their guest her undivided attention and listens to him. This too is a perfectly good thing to do. We all know that listening to someone carefully is a way of showing them respect. The issue comes when Martha feels like she has been abandoned to deal with everything by herself while her sister has all the fun.  I imagine that Martha was banging around the pots and pans in an attempt to get her sisters’ attention. Mary probably didn’t notice, but I bet Jesus did. I would even guess that he wasn’t surprised by her outburst at all. He saw it coming. So when Martha asks "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? I bet Jesus was smiling. Instead of running to her aid, Jesus says "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” I bet Martha found this infuriating! She asked for help but was instead scolded. This was definitely not what she had in mind. But what was Jesus scolding? Was he scolding her work in kitchen or her worry and distraction? What if we believed that Jesus was not scolding “Busy Martha” but “Worried and Distracted Martha.”?[1] Her fault lies not in being active but in the anxiety and worry she has built up for herself over this meal. Her frustration has spread not only to her sister but to their honored guest as well.

            Martha lost sight of the purpose of her busyness and Jesus gently asked her to refocus. He points out that Mary is doing a good thing, she is connecting with God. This connection feeds her and allows her to do her own work. What if Jesus’ comment to Mary was more of a call to reevaluate than a scolding? I believe the story of Mary and Martha is really a plea from the Lord to focus on him. Perhaps we need to give Him some of our undivided attention, even if we have forgotten what undivided attention feels like. If we give him some of our undivided attention, maybe some of His peace will flow to all of our busyness. Maybe this attention to the Lord will help us unify our identities as both Mary’s and Martha’s. Because I believe that we are each a little bit Mary and Martha and that is perfectly OK. Amen.


[1] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, Pg. 265.