New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, 42 but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Several years ago, a phenomenon occurred. Groups of young people wandered the streets with their cell phones – not that unusual in and of itself. Except they went to libraries, churches, and other public buildings. They were playing a game called “Pokémon Go” on their phones. You probably haven’t heard of it, but it was an overnight sensation! I even had the app on my phone and played (of course that was so I could “be conversant” on the game).
The basics of play: you had to walk from one poke stop to another. These were locations where you could collect virtual characters on your phone. The more you found, the higher your level.
As the groups walked from place to place, there were interruptions and even a few injuries because they were paying more attention to their phones than their surroundings. They were distracted. Of course, this wasn’t much different than texting each other and not paying attention. The real difference, though, was that these young people were outside walking even if they weren’t paying attention!
The benefits of playing the game included:
· They weren’t holed up in their rooms!
· They were in groups in person rather than communicating solely via electronic means!
· They were walking and getting exercise!
The biggest benefit for churches was that many of the poke stops were at churches! The were in front of the building recognizing that the church existed (even if they didn’t come in). The church I was serving at the time even set up a hospitality station with cold water, snacks, and a chargers for their phones. It was a wonderful way to demonstrate hospitality and connect with the community. There was not an expectation that they would necessarily come to church, but there was a sign with an invitation to worship.
An example that is closer to home is our own church property. In the last two years a group of people interested in gardening gathered together to talk. They decided to clean up and beautify the front of our church, calling their group the “Gardening Angels.” They held a clean-up day to clear out the weeds and debris and to trim everything. They plant flowers and have installed benches. Neighbors stop by to look at the garden or to take a break on a bench. We might think of these new additions as distractions, but they are also a demonstration of hospitality.
You might ask how these examples relate to the story of Mary and Martha. They certainly weren’t playing Pokémon Go or walking their dog while admiring the flowers! But they were both distracted; both distracted!
The traditional understanding of this story is that Mary was the more spiritual sister, the one with better priorities while Martha was more concerned with doing than listening. She focused on making dinner for their guests.
Actually, Martha sprang into action not because dinner needed to be made, but because she was just that way. She had the gift of hospitality. Being attentive to the needs of her guests came naturally to her and she enjoyed entertaining.
Mary saw the cooking and housework as a necessity that she would rather avoid. She quickly chose the option of sitting at Jesus feet. She may have just as easily sat on the sofa reading a book or decided it was tie for a walk. Mary was a ponderer who enjoyed learning.
Martha’s expectation was that preparing the meal for their guests was to be a joint endeavor, not Mary plopping down on the floor while she did all the work. Mary should have been helping out by finding the recipes in the cookbook, chopping vegetables, and setting the table.
The sisters had different personalities and gifts. Both ways of experiencing life were perfectly fine. Being different provided the opportunity to learn from each other. At times it was important to help even if that wasn’t the first choice. At other times it was important to sit and listen even if the preference were to do everything possible to make guests feel welcome.
Each sister did what they thought best. Yet each crossed a culturally and/or socially acceptable boundary. Martha’s misstep was clearer. She was banging pots and pans and slamming the silverware drawer. Martha was exasperated, even angry, that Mary wasn’t helping. She may have been a bit jealous – she would have liked to listen to Jesus, too. Martha enjoyed serving and offering hospitality yet here she let herself be distracted from that which she was called to do. The very thing that gave her joy.
Expectations that are not met can become distractions.
Mary’s misstep was not as clear. The text says, “Mary has chosen the better part.” The assumption is that she was doing the right thing. The word “better” in the Greek text is the word for “good.” Mary has chosen a good thing – to be near to God, the One who is the source of all being, both physically and emotionally. She wanted to experience the energy and power of the Lord through Jesus’ words.
Mary crossed the boundary of social convention. In her time, a house had two designated parts – the male space and the female space. Their roles were different, so it was considered necessary to separate one from the other. The men met in a public space to discuss matters of the day. The women were excluded from those conversations and expected to stay in the parts of the house not seen by visitors, including the kitchen. Sitting in the public space at the feet of the teacher was a male role not the place of a female.
Just as Sarah, after finishing the food preparation, stood at the door of the tent while Abraham entertained their visitors, both Mary and Martha should have been in the kitchen or other separate space listening and watching from a distance.
Each sister was distracted in a separate way. Martha, who had the gift of hospitality and enjoyed making feel welcomed, let the expectations of following traditional household roles distract her from that which gave her joy. The very thing that truly connected her with God.
Mary ignored those same household roles so she could be at Jesus’ feet. She let her desire to learn and to connect with God distract her from her responsibilities. There would be time to listen and learn later.
A curious piece in this story was that Martha, rather than complaining to her sister about her neglect of responsibilities directed her complaint to Jesus. “Don’t you care…?” The reality was that Jesus didn’t care. Not that he agreed or disagreed with Martha. He didn’t care who was or wasn’t helping with the meal. This wasn’t the important thing to discuss.
Jesus did care just not about how much each women did in preparing the meal. What mattered most to him was their connection to God through him as the incarnate God. The better/good thing. Mary sought to do that at the expense not only of her responsibilities, but also her relationship with her sister. She was busy seeking what she wanted and enjoyed with little regard for Martha’s feelings.
Martha’s connection with God came in large part through her joyful service. We can imagine her humming or singing, praising the Lord, while preparing the meal. She knew she was doing exactly what she was created to do. Her unmet expectations of what her sister should be doing also impacted their relationship.
Relationships are the key to this story. Relationships with others and, most importantly, with the Lord.
The passage in Luke just before this one includes the parable of the Good Samaritan. Before Jesus tells the parable, a lawyer asks him what the most important of the laws is. Jesus answered that it was to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself. These relationships are the foundation for connecting with others. Without the time spent loving the Lord your God, the ability to really love one’s neighbor isn’t possible.
Loving God takes many forms. Listening, prayer, worship, and study are the ones people think of first. Service according to one’s gifts and talents is another form of loving God, the one who created each person, is just as important.
All forms of expressing love to God are needed. One is no more important than another. Each creates a connection with the Lord both visibly and internally. Each recognizes that God is connecting and relating to us all the time and in a variety of ways. One way is not better than others. All are acceptable and encouraged.
Our connection, our link with the living God who is the source of strength, is what matters the most.