Today’s lectionary passage is a familiar one – on Mary and Martha. It is rather short – 4 verses in total.
10:38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.
10:39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.
10:40 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.”
10:41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;
10:42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
What is your interpretation of this passage?
What other interpretations have you heard?
Some may summarise this to:
This is Martha. Martha is busy and distracted.
This is Mary. Mary is listening to Jesus.
Don’t be like Martha. Be like Mary.
During the past few weeks, Pauline has given us a great way of looking at our sermon series “A New Testament.” She says that there is a Sunday School interpretation, and there is a super cool interpretation.
It is well and good when we have a good Sunday School interpretation, but here, I feel that the Sunday School interpretation is far too simplistic and can be unhelpful to our growth.
I sourced around to get a feel of how many folks interpret this passage. They are usually similar to this interpretation from Biblestudytools.com
“Moral and Meaning of Mary and Martha
This Bible story is a great example of focusing our whole awareness to the presence or Word of God. There is a clear dichotomy in behavior between the sisters Mary and Martha when Jesus arrives at their home. This could be interpreted as a metaphor for how we can react to the teachings and presence of Jesus and God in our own lives. While Martha becomes preoccupied worrying about the preparations of their home, she misses the opportunity to listen and learn from the direct wisdom of Jesus. When she pleads to Jesus that Mary should help her, He responds with, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” It is better to give our full attention when in the presence of the Lord, whether personally as Mary was or when reading the Word of God as we do now. Doing so provides us with the best opportunity to fully understand and incorporate the wisdom from scripture into our beliefs and actions!”
What is the problem with this interpretation?
It sets up Martha and Mary as opposites – and in this comparison, Martha is the metaphor for action, and Mary is the metaphor for contemplation / reflection.
I think it is a misunderstanding of what the passage is trying to say.
What does the passage say?
1. Martha was distracted by her many tasks.
2. Jesus says to Martha “you are worried and distracted by many things.”
Jesus was not chastising Martha for attending to her many tasks, but rather pointing out that Martha was anxious and distracted.
What was Martha anxious / worried about?
Was there enough food to feed everyone? Are the beddings ready for the guests to stay overnight? Is there enough water?
Martha was distracted by these tasks – but what she was worried and anxious about isn’t about these tasks, but how she would be seen if these tasks weren’t done. Her self-worth was dependent on how much work and how well the work was done.
Jesus tells Martha – “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
What is this one thing?
Hint: it isn’t about sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to Him.
What Mary has chosen – the one thing that is needed – is to understand our worth is not based on our work.
It is understanding that we are God’s beloved, period. We are loved not because of what we have done. That is grace. Like the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:38-39 – “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Martha couldn’t ground herself in the understanding that she was beloved, and she didn’t have to earn her place at Jesus’ feet.
We, too, have often equated our self-worth to our work. We think we are valued only as far as how much we contribute. When we dig deeper, we realise that this stems from our insecurities. We think that if we are no longer useful, we would not be valued and loved.
There are also situations where we are using our work, our tasks to distract ourselves. Sometimes, even I end up distracting myself with work, instead of dealing with issues and problems at hand.
I will confess – do you know the amount of housework I have done while writing this sermon? I was on medical leave and writing this sermon at home. I cleaned the kitchen countertop, laundered the kitchen towels, mopped the floor, pruned the plants, cleaned the windows while I was writing the sermon.
This is the lesson – in my anxiety, I was distracting myself with “work.”
Some of us are distracting ourselves with “work” – whether consciously or unconsciously. We are not centered or grounded, and not able to be fully present – bogged down with worry or anxiety that we do not know how to deal with, or do not want to deal with. I wonder if Martha was distracting herself with the tasks, because there was something she didn’t want to deal with?
Work comes in many forms. One of the things we can do to distract ourselves is to immerse ourselves with helping other people. There is a danger that we immerse ourselves with other people’s problems to distract ourselves from our own. Engaging in an honest self-evaluation about our motivations will help us see ourselves more clearly. This is not to say that we stop helping others, or stop doing work – but ask ourselves engaged in these activities to distract ourselves?
We live in a time full of distractions. We are not only distracted by work and tasks today, but by many other things. Technology now gives us instant access to distractions – social media, mobile phones, games – all feed into this culture of distraction. Addiction to drugs, games, gambling, porn, alcohol are often connected to distracting oneself from worries and/or anxieties. We hear of people saying “I need shopping therapy” as though material things would resolve our problems.
It is running away. What do you think we are running away from? Ourselves. And we can’t run away from ourselves, so we distract ourselves instead.
It may not be easy to discern if what we do are distractions. I have recently been into plants – watching them grow, (and sometimes watching them yellow, brown and die). It can be a distraction (like when I was writing the sermon, and I went around pruning and watering them), and it can be a grounding practice. I have discovered a way to discern if it is a distraction, or an act that grounds me in God’s presence – does this “thing” offer me only temporary escape from my worries and anxieties, only to have these concerns come back later, or does it leave me with a sense of peace and stillness, despite my worries and anxieties?
Part of our growth – is to find the space to be still. Be still and know that you are beloved. Be still, in the midst of all your worries and anxieties. I would recommend that you find a practice, or some practices so you can be still, be mindful, be in the present moment.
However, after all that is said, this passage isn’t about pitting Martha against Mary, or action against contemplation.
I don’t think Jesus is telling Martha to stop attending to her tasks, and just sit and listen to Jesus like Mary.
What Martha did was important – it was important then, it is important now. Without Martha, I wonder how Jesus and the whole entourage who arrived at Martha and Mary’s home would be fed. Someone had to prepare the food to feed the people, someone had to prepare to host all the people who came to see Jesus. Today, someone has to arrange the chairs for service every Sunday, prepare the coffee, prepare the communion elements, the worship team has to practice the songs and the AV team has to set up in advance. Without people who give of their time and energy, we won’t have worship, AV, prayer, communion and service leader teams to support our Sunday services. We won’t have people welcoming folks at the door.
We won’t have the different ministries that serve the different needs of our community and beyond our community – we won’t have the T-mart project that is collecting and delivering food donations to the T-shelter, or monthly visits to the 2 wards we adopted in Institute of Mental Health.
You see, without volunteers, all churches today would not be able to function. Without volunteers, there would not be hands and feet of Christ to serve the least amongst us.
Thinking that Martha is a metaphor for action, and Mary for contemplation is over-simplifying the situation. Martha in this narrative is not about action – but rather about distraction.
It is not either-or but both-and. We need to connect action with contemplation, connect the work we engage in with our faith – allowing our knowing and experiencing of our belovedness pour into our actions. It is channelling love into the work of the kin-dom – the work of justice, the work of peace, the work of healing, the work of love.
I have one final thing to add here – something that you may find troubling.
Jesus can also become a distraction from “the one thing that is needed” when Jesus becomes an idol.
With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before God with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.
Focusing on Jesus can sometimes be just bowing down before God, going before God with burnt offerings, and offering thousands of rams and rivers of oil, and even offering one’s firstborn for one’s sin. That is just distracting ourselves from what is needed. Jesus becomes an idol when loving God is not connected to loving one’s neighbour.
The Prophet Micah asks – what is required of you – and connects justice to love to our relationship with God. Misunderstanding the “one thing that is needed” to be sitting at Jesus feet can mean that we make Jesus into an idol we sit at the feet of, and we are disconnected from God’s call for us to be part of the unfolding of God’s will in the world.
May we be ones sitting at the feet of Jesus in humility, listening, learning and being transformed into the followers who are grounded in our belovedness so we act as the body of Christ in justice and love out in the world.