So these few verses tell a story of drama and passion, a conflict between two sisters, and in it Jesus is a hero – he is the model for us – we are each called to be heroes.
So let’s start the story. We all know that hospitality is a massively important aspect of middle-eastern tradition. In desert countries the welcoming of the stranger is the difference between life and death. And in Luke’s Gospel in particular hospitality is hallowed.
And Martha is doing it – or trying to do it perhaps. Martha is probably the older sister and she has invited Jesus and his mates into her house. She suddenly has a dozen or more people to feed with no warning.
Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching. Women were meant to be in the kitchen – why was she doing this? How dare she mess with roles and take the place of a man?
Martha gets a bit fed up – she starts banging the pans, hoping that someone will notice that she’s having to do everything. She looks forlorn. She glares at her sister. She gets more and more upset until she explodes… storming in to confront Jesus:
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”.
Have you ever done that? Mary must have been very upset and angry indeed to ask a guest to intercede! She accuses Jesus of not caring for her – presumably she felt if he had cared then he would have sent Mary into the kitchen. I can relate to Martha – that dreadful feeling of hurt… that feeling of being overlooked, not cared for, that feeling of anger that others aren’t honouring her when she was trying to be hospitable. However, the fact is that it was terrible hospitality – how embarrassed everyone must have been.
Jesus responds “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”.
She was so distracted that she couldn’t do hospitality – she couldn’t be attentive and gracious to her guests. Instead, she was grumbling and complaining. She was nasty to her sister and unfair to Jesus. There was a power play – she wanted to control Mary and she enlisted Jesus in this struggle.
But Jesus doesn’t play these games – he is a hero. Heroes respect the dignity and honour of all people, heroes rise above social contructs that demean and inhibit others. Heroes are almost always lone voices because people get sucked into ‘group think’. Heroes speak out – they aren’t passive.
Jesus could have colluded with the social convention and told Mary to get into the kitchen.
Jesus could have told Martha that this was between her and her sister and he didn’t want to get involved.
Jesus could have berated Martha for embarrassing him and the disciples.
Instead he recognised the pain inside her. Perhaps she had often been overlooked and this anger was about more than the events of the day. Perhaps she had many worries – perhaps she worried that if her sister behaved like a man then she would never marry. We don’t know, but it is an act of kindness to recognise the worries, to acknowledge then.
And then an invitation. Mary has chosen the better part and it won’t be taken away from her. Perhaps Martha can choose that too… “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” That thing is to know the love of God and to rest in it.
So what about us? Are we so busy that we can’t sit at the feel of Jesus? Are we so worried and distracted that our efforts of hospitality go awry? Do we end up resentful of others?
The story reminds me a bit of the Prodigal Son. The father being with the younger son, and the older son who is cross. Then the father pleading with the older son. In this case the story is suspended once again. We don’t know whether Martha joined the part or remained aloof. We don’t know whether everyone enjoyed the meal together and whether Mary and Martha reconciled their differences.
Where do you see yourself in the story – are you the one carrying pain, working so hard, worrying so much? Are you the one that has been attacked because you are following your heart? Are you the hero that can stand up for others without dehumanising anyone? Are you all three?