July 17, 2016 by Emily Rowell Brown
Are you a Mary or a Martha? If you have encountered today’s gospel before, you likely have heard that question raised, whether explicitly or implicitly. The line of interpretation typically sounds something like this: Martha misses God by staying in the kitchen while Mary makes herself present to Jesus. Listening to God’s Word is better than doing busy work. In short, Mary=good. Martha=bad. Sound familiar?
While there is much in the text to commend that perspective, I am not sure that we need to subscribe to such an either/or framework (and I say that not only because I am an unabashed Martha). That is, we need not to choose whether to model either Mary or Martha, but we might have something to learn from both women.
For one thing, we read today’s gospel especially attuned to theme of hospitality because our lectionary has paired the story of Abraham’s demonstration of hospitality to strangers with Martha’s hospitality in preparing for Jesus. Both Abraham and Martha recognize that it is material comforts–food, water, respite–that make anyone feel cared for, welcome, and as though they are at home. Providing for human beings’ physical needs may seem overly basic or undistinguished, unfitting for God’s work, but we cannot forget that the theme which appears over and over again throughout our scriptures, and what Jesus made clear himself, is that following God is not simply an intellectual endeavor. It involves meeting people’s hungers–spiritual and bodily. Abraham did not realize that he was actually meeting angels when he attended to the three unfamiliar men, but he did so as an expression of his faith and its call to show hospitality to the stranger. And Jesus may not have spoken as eloquently to Mary, after all, had he been ravenous and exhausted.
Another laudable thing about Martha’s work is that it is, according to the Greek, diakonia, or service. We know that word from our role “deacon,” who, in the Episcopal Church, serve God by providing a link between the church and the world. Understanding Martha’s tasks not as insignificant or tedious but as divine work means that she too plays an important part in Jesus’ ministry.
But the story would not be very interesting if it simply stopped with Martha welcoming and preparing her home for Jesus. The problem lies in her distraction by the tasks, not in the doing of the tasks themselves. Some feminist interpreters, however, have had a good time suggesting that this text actually is helpful to women who do not believe that their place is in the kitchen since it praises Mary and condemns Martha for her preoccupation!
Mary acts as a complement to Martha. In Mary, we witness a beautiful model of the ministry of presence. She shows up and listens attentively, a role not typically afforded to women at that time when teaching was concerned. She is a disciple as much as Peter or James or John or any of the other twelve (or seventy or however you choose to count); she immerses herself in Jesus’ teachings and dedicates herself to following God’s way. She honed in on the one thing, or being present to God.
So if we were to create a hierarchy, Mary would come out on top because, according to Jesus, she chose the better form of discipleship. But imagine his words less as a rebuke and more as a gentle reassurance to Martha. “What you are doing is enough,” he seems to imply. “You have taken me into your own home. The hard part is done. Come, be with me now. That is what matters.” Martha already has taken that first step, the one which so often is most difficult: she opened up herself, and her home, an extension of herself, to this man named Jesus who was traveling to Jerusalem and needed a place to rest. She welcomed her neighbor.
Making that initial move might actually prove as challenging as remaining present. How hard is it to have someone over, knowing that piles of laundry decorate the couch, children’s artwork and bills cover our counter-tops, and dust bunnies dot our baseboards? Or to invite the new neighbors over for dinner, fearing that conversation will be stiff and awkward? Or to try to get to know the person in your office of another race or religion or class? As Matt said last week, it is so much easier to love the neighbor who is just like us. It is those who are different that trip us up.
Hospitality is one of the ways we love our neighbor. We learn first and foremost about hospitality from God, for what did God do for us but invite us to share the incredible universe? Hospitality is about creating space on our turf and no longer claiming it as our turf but making room for the other. Martha, as we saw, began but lost her way. Part of welcoming Jesus into her home not only meant honoring his hunger but allowing herself to be transformed by him, something which proved impossible if she continued to plow single-mindedly through her elaborate dinner preparations.
Martha comes across as a bit of a caricature, and her mistake seems so obvious, but we fall into the same habit all the time, even churches. Perhaps especially churches. We make refreshments for the visitors we say we are excited to get to know but then forget to greet those visitors because we are too busy arranging the platters of treats back in the kitchen. Or we bristle when we hear what we consider to be an “extreme” opinion in a Bible study or someone in the carpool circle espousing provocative political ideas. Or, equally important: we struggle to be on the receiving side of hospitality, making excuses for why we cannot accept an invitation from a distant acquaintance or a lavish offer which we fear we can never repay.
But, lest we forget, we find God in those opportunities for hospitality. Every single one of them. Sometimes we resemble Abraham, welcoming strangers out of duty and kindness, none the wiser that it God’s messengers who stand before us, and sometimes we follow the examples of Martha and Mary, carving out space for Jesus to reside beside us, and embracing his many possibilities. Whether we register it or not, the face on the other side is always God.