Mary and Martha, by Pastor Noel

July 29, 2017     Mary and Martha


      Last week I asked the folks at St. John’s if they were wheat or weed. The weed in that story Jesus told was an innocent looking predator, that looks just like the plant it surrounds.

      How can we tell which is which?

      The story of Mary and Martha offers that same puzzlement, but in a different way.

      I think that this story is an acted out parable. And not just because I acted it out for you.

      Jesus has been asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He answered with the parable we call “The Good Samaritan.”

      Immediately afterward we have this story of two sisters.

      Today is their feast day, and an important day in the life of the Episcopal Church, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to share it with you.

      On this day in 1975, eleven women deacons were ordained as priests at Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. They are known as “the Philadelphia Eleven.” This was before General Convention voted to allow women to be ordained priest.

      You may think that they were foolish to take something that the church wasn’t offering yet. You may think that they were showing courage to hear and respond to God’s call for them.

      I just give thanks that they did this, and opened the way for me and many other women to answer the call we heard, too.

      Those 11 women are like both Mary and Martha. And aren’t we all?

      I think this is a parable that Luke gives us about Jesus, rather than a story Jesus told.

      As I say, probably more than you want to hear, parables are comparisons, and tell us that the kingdom of God is like — something.

      Or the kingdom of heaven — or, maybe the community of God——.

      This story leaves me with many questions and no firm easy answer, just like the other parables.

      Let’s take a look at this very short story, because there are facts and features we may be missing or misunderstanding.

      I have thought that Jesus and the disciples went to Martha’s house.

      But, Luke tells us only that Jesus went to a certain town where Martha welcomed him into her home.

      Does that matter? Does it make a difference if Martha was fixing dinner for one or a dozen?

      And, was Martha even fixing dinner?

      It doesn’t say, does it?

      Martha was “distracted by her many tasks” but we don’t know what those tasks were.

      Since I’m reading this as a parable, there are many possibilities to all parts of the story.

      One possibility about Martha’s tasks is that she was doing what we call ministry, or service.

      The Greek word used is diakonia, from which we get our English word deacon.

      Luke’s gospel was told and written long after Jesus died. By then there were house churches, and many of them were led by women.

      Perhaps Martha was not fixing a meal, but taking care of others as her ministry.

      If you know anything about helping others, serving others, you know that it can be tiring and even frustrating.

      That may be what Martha is complaining about. Hmmm….to call her words “complaining” labels them negatively, doesn’t it?

      Martha has welcomed Jesus into her home. And then she, apparently, ignores him! That is not being very welcoming!    

      A real welcome, real hospitality, means giving the guest what they need or want.

      What if you came to my house thirsty and wanted a drink of water and I offered you a peanut butter sandwich instead. You’d not feel welcome.

      We can read all sorts of ideas into this short gospel story. One thing that seems to be obvious is that Jesus wanted to sit and talk.

      Mary was willing to sit and listen.

      That word “listen” may be the “one thing” that Jesus says is necessary. Listen and find rest and refreshment, and also encouragement.

      Mary sat and listened. Like the women who were ordained as priests in Philadelphia, Mary broke some rules.

      Women did not sit at the feet of the teacher. They did not listen to instruction and encouragement. That was for men.

      Jesus is encouraging Mary’s behavior, even though it’s breaking rules.

      Jesus often broke cultural rules.

      This story may be telling us that Jesus approved of women serving in ministry.

      But then why his words to Martha that seem to be scolding her.

      Martha was distracted by many things. Perhaps she was focused on the doing, and had lost sight of the love and compassion behind the doing.

      Jesus says one thing is necessary, and that Mary had chosen that one thing, and it would not be taken from her.

      When we spend time in prayer, in listening to God’s voice in the sounds of the cosmos, we are strengthened in ways that cannot be taken from us. This is what Mary has chosen.

      Martha seems to have forgotten this.

      Her many tasks are good ones. They are necessary, too, as service to others. And, they are taking the place of listening. She is distracted by what she is doing and has lost the reason for the doing.

      Mary and Martha are two sides of a coin. Both are doing what would benefit us all.

      Caring for others—letting others care for us when we need it—that is what the kingdom of God is all about.

      This caring, these “many tasks,” can be tiring, challenging, frustrating. So we do well to have a solid foundation for our ministry.

      We need time for prayer and recharging. We do well to “sit at the Lord’s feet” each day and soak in all God offers us.

      Then we can be both Mary and Martha, and no one can take that from us.

The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details