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.” (Read the whole passage)
As we continue through the summer, we are rolling through the scenes from Jesus’ ministry. Healings, exorcisms, forgiveness, parables and more. Last week Jesus challenged the young lawyer’s views on what it means to be saved and who our neighbours are, by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan whom we found out is not someone we are supposed to be, but who God is. The one who comes to find us and rescue us from the ditch.
Today, we take a break from ministry and work. Instead, Jesus goes to dinner. Dinner with his friends, Mary and Martha. These two sisters have have become icons and symbols of hardwork, effort and busyness on the one hand and reflection, attentiveness and faithfulness on the other.
Jesus is waiting for the meal to prepared, something we have all done in the living room of someone else’s house. Presumably Martha is not just cooking for Jesus, but for his disciples, and maybe even Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother too. This is probably a big job to get the meal ready. And Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he has to say. Martha is annoyed that her sister is not helping cook the meal (we will just leave the fact that she isn’t mad at her brother aside). So Martha comes to Jesus and tells him to set her sister straight and send her into the kitchen. And then we get this famous line from Jesus: “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.”
Mary and Martha can become two of the ways we categorize and label each other in the church. This week, church members from congregations across the interlake gathered together in Arborg to talk about ways that we can work together in the midst of declining membership and resources. The leader of the meeting began with a short bible study on Mary and Martha. We were asked to self identify as either one or the other. Martha was understood to the be do-ers of the congregation. The ones ushering, folding bulletins, pounding in loose nails, planting flowers, making coffee, keeping things neat, tidy and clean.
But Mary… well, Mary was a little harder to define. But we assumed Mary was understood to the be the ones interested in faith, in learning, thinking, praying. The ones at bible study, looking for books on spirituality, asking questions about faith.
Once all the hands had been raised, there were a lot more self-identified Marthas than Marys.
I wonder why that is in the church?
There is something universal about these two women aren’t there? It is easy to see ourselves in either or even both. Yet, the way this story is told, there are two opposing approaches to hospitality, to faith, to being in community.
But two things about the story of Mary and Martha has always bothered me.
The first is that Martha seems to get an unnecessarily bum rap from Jesus. Sure she is frantic and whining when she could take it a bit easier. But Jesus seems to have no sympathy.
The second is that despite Jesus’ emphasis on the value of Mary’s choice to slow down and listen, we tend to value Martha’s work ethic above Mary’s desire to learn and grow.
And I will confess, for a long time, I didn’t know what to do with this story… particularly, Jesus’ apparent scolding of Martha.
But then just a few weeks ago, I read something that put this story in a new light.
Jesus’ issue with Martha is not her work ethic or busyness. While he does say that Mary’s desire to learn and grow in faith is good and important and something to value. Jesus is setting a boundary with Martha. A boundary about being drawn into her conflict with her sister. When Jesus’s pushes back against Martha’s request, is not because he is judging her choice of activity. Jesus is refusing to be drawn into a conflict between two others. If Martha has a problem with her sister Mary, she should take it to Mary directly. Jesus is refusing to be triangulated.
Usually, the good news sounds like Jesus healing, forgiving, exorcizing demons, raising to life, rescuing us from the ditch of sin and death. Yet, while it may sound odd, Jesus setting a boundary is good news too. Jesus refusing to be triangulated is good news too.
When Jesus sets a boundary refusing to be drawn into our drama, it means that God is free from the burdens our of conflict, the burdens of our sins, the burdens of our suffering. God is free to let go and forgive. God can act to take hold of us and care for us. God can respond in a way that we need, rather than the one we want.
When Jesus refuses to be triangulated, it means that God will not be distant from us, that God makes no obstacles for our salvation, that God does not operate through intermediaries. Rather God deals directly with us. God does not talk about our salvation with someone else, but deals directly with us.
When Jesus refuses to get involved with Martha and Mary’s issue today, Jesus is showing us something much more important about how God deals with us. And that is directly.
God speaks to us directly through God’s word.
God washes us directly in the waters of baptism.
God feeds us directly in the bread and wine of the Lord’s supper.
God saves us directly, not through works or laws or prayers or righteousness.
When God saves us, God just saves us.
Today, we might wonder if we are Marys or Marthas, we might feel like both.
But there is no question about how Jesus deals with us. Directly.