Martha . . . came to Jesus 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.” But the Lord answered her, “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.
The story of Mary and Martha is one of the most famous in the Gospels. It is also one of the shortest. Luke tells it in just five verses. It is a little story with a big lesson; a simple encounter with far reaching implications.
Martha welcomed Jesus into her home and set about preparing the meal. Although the picture shows Mary alone with Jesus, it is more likely that she was sitting with a group of his disciples. While Martha worked, Mary sat and listened to Jesus’ teaching. In frustration, Martha interrupted the group to ask Jesus to reprimand her sister. In his answer, Jesus makes at least four points:
1) He suggests that a simple meal will fulfill the requirements of hospitality.
2) He approves Mary’s choice of listening to his teaching, and thereby makes clear his belief that a woman could be a disciple.
3) By contrasting Mary’s choice with Martha’s, he questions the traditional expectation that a woman’s place is in the kitchen.
4) And finally, he says something profound about the grace of doing nothing.
Any one of these points is worth a morning’s meditation, but as I contemplate this on another uncomfortably warm day, I want to look at the last one. I have to begin with confession, since I tend to be more Martha than Mary. I am more comfortable with doing than with being. And I can’t help pointing out that if Martha had been sitting with Mary there would have been a lot of hungry people at dinner time. It’s also worth noting that Jesus makes the very opposite point in the story that immediately precedes Mary and Martha. In Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus concludes by telling the lawyer to “Go and do likewise.” The story of Mary and Martha is the perfect counterpoint to the story of the Good Samaritan.
Doing nothing, in the sense that we see it in the story, is not the same as wasting time. We can waste time in all sorts of ways, many of which are closely tied to the false business that Jesus questions. The nothing that Mary is doing is not wasting time. It is making space and time to receive another person. Doing nothing is the empty cup into which Jesus’ teaching is poured.
At the end of the summer, we will ask each other, “What did you do on vacation?” It is a polite question, intended to show our interest in each other’s lives. But it also tells us something about ourselves. It is a “Martha” question, because most of us tend to be more Martha than Mary.
What would it mean, “to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching”? The answers will be as varied as our lives. Bible study is a good place to begin. But it’s only a beginning. We might find ourselves listening to flowers, friends, family, sunsets, spouses, books and music. Some of us are listening to the mountains this summer. Others are listening to the ocean. As Mary listened to Jesus, she was also listening to her heart, and hearing there the whispers of the person God was calling her to be.