Please raise your hand if you have ever left a bed unmade on your way out the door to work. Now raise your hand if you have ever had a supreme pizza delivered and called it a balanced meal because, hey, it has protein, carbs, veggies (onions and mushrooms) and even fruit if you asked for pineapple. Who among you has neglected mowing the yard that one last time in the fall because the frost is going to kill it anyway? Have you ever called the dog over to the table after supper so you don’t have to sweep up the crumbs? What about those times when you screen your phone calls and let the answering machine pick up so you don’t have to speak to anyone?
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 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.’ 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.’ [from Luke 10]
Whenever I read this scripture passage in public, I can just see some of the women stiffen. And I know I’ll probably hear about it later. The story may touch more feminist nerves than any other gospel story! It may be that some women feel they have been labeled as a Mary or a Martha, when in fact they see themselves as a bit of both. It may be that they’ve heard this story used against women. It may be that they hear the words of Jesus as degrading to the work they consider very valuable. After all, people have to eat, and if somebody doesn’t do the work, Jesus, you know it won’t get done by itself. I don’t see any of your twelve male friends getting up to help out in the kitchen. Often, women are the ones who do the work of taking care of those around them. And they don’t appreciate being told that it isn’t enough.
It is interesting that Luke puts this story right after the one we call The Good Samaritan. It seems to be a narrative which celebrates the active caring of the Samaritan traveler as opposed to the inattentiveness of the other two passersby. Then comes this story of Martha and Mary, where the doing is said to be too much, and the sitting and being is rewarded. What are we to make of it all?
I think we must make of it exactly what it is. Life with Christ is rarely an either/or kind of life. It is more often both/and. Or rather, it is a flowing between the various manifestations of our faith. To say both/and sounds as though we must do everything all the time—the doing and the being—when today’s story specifically challenges that idea. We are human and, generally, can only do one thing at a time if we want to do it well.
That’s not the way we live much of the time, though, is it? We watch television while eating a family meal; we talk on the phone while working on the computer; we sit in a meeting and make lists of things we need to do when the meeting is over. I once passed a car on the interstate, and the driver was reading a paperback book open on the steering wheel. Now that’s double tasking! Most of us won’t do anything so physically dangerous, but sometimes our doubling or tripling up on things can be dangerous to a balanced life.
You know what it’s like. When you’re double tasking on the phone and computer, your full attention is in neither place. When the kids are getting home from school and want to be with you and you know you have to start cooking the evening meal and the laundry is so backed up you have to do a couple of loads or nobody will have clean underwear the next day, you will probably not have enough attention to go around.
The way Luke’s gospel arranges these stories, they appear to strike some kind of balance for us. A man walking down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho must make a decision whether to continue on his way toward whatever business he had there, or to stop and help, a proposition which cost him both money and time. Yet it does not appear as though he struggled with his decision about whether or not to help. He simply did what had to be done.
Martha, though, struggles with what to do. There are competing interests in her story as well. Should she care for the needs of others, or attend to the needs of her own soul? It appears that she is used to taking care of others and leaving herself and her needs for last. The problem with making caregiving our only way of life is that we stop listening for the voice of God. It is easier to do than it is to be still, even for a few moments. And so we just keep moving.
Maybe we, like Martha, have forgotten that we have choices to make. She seems to assume that all the work must be done before there is any sitting and listening. You and I know that all the work is never done. And of course, we have to mention the gender elements of the story. It was a woman’s place to serve the men, not to sit with them and listen to the teacher talk about God.
Jesus turned both of these ideas upside down. Of course a woman has the right to sit and listen. How could it be otherwise in God’s kingdom? She is given an equal place at the feet of Jesus. And, please, just let some of the work wait. You haven’t given yourself permission to sit and listen in a very long time. Do you even know what that feels like anymore?
So, I’m giving you permission to order that pizza. Okay, maybe not every night or the food police will arrest both of us, but when it’s been a long day and you want to reconnect with the people you love, go for it. Allow yourself to make decisions about what is right for you, about what will remind you of the important things. Allow yourself to do the things that take care of others, and allow yourself to stop doing for others and take care of yourself by being in God’s presence.
© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier