Martha and Mary - Action and Contemplation

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

 The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, June 21, 2019, The Rev. Meg Lovejoy+

We continue to follow Jesus in his travels in Luke’s gospel today.  After his interaction and lesson with the lawyer regarding the question of who is my neighbor (Lk. 10:25-37), Jesus and his followers continue on their way to Bethany, to the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary.

 Jesus settled in to teach, as he did throughout his travels, and Martha was busy making sure the guests were comfortable and well fed.  When she saw her sister, Mary, sitting at Jesus’s feet and listening to his teachings, she became exasperated and angry.  Why should she be the one to do all the work?  Why was Mary allowed to sit and listen when there was work to be done?  So Martha went to Jesus and complained about Mary leaving all the work to her and asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her. 

 If you’ve raised children, I’m sure you’ve heard similar complaints.  “Why do I have to do (fill in the blank) when my sister, brother (fill in the name) gets to sit around and watch TV, or hang out with friends, or (the list goes on and on).  Jesus was very gentle in his response to Martha, telling her she was “worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing”. (Lk 10:41-42)  Maybe part of what he was telling her was that she needed to provide one dish instead of many.

 And I can identify with Martha.  Martha was a doer.  She wanted everything to be just perfect during Jesus’ visit into her home.  Hospitality was an important social obligation in the culture of the ancient Middle East, but in Martha’s attempt to make everything perfect, she broke one of the primary rules of hospitality.  Martha neglected to pay proper attention to Jesus; therefore she missed out on his teaching.  Mary, on the other hand, was fully present to the Lord, treating him as she would want to be received.  As Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, she took on the role of a disciple.  Jesus didn’t deny her that role.  In fact he applauded it saying she chose the better part. And Jesus didn’t downplay Martha’s service but, he taught that her service needed to be grounded in the kind of love that Mary showed. 

 If you’ve ever hosted a large dinner party and put lots of planning and meal preparation into it maybe you can understand the situation here.  Trying to get the timing right so that everything comes out at the same time and is beautifully presented can all too often cause us to be distracted from our guests.  It’s nice to have those fancy, well planned dinners, but those dinners that are thrown together at the last minute with family and friends often are even more fun and enjoyable.

 This story of Martha and Mary tells the importance of discipleship that is characterized in both service and listening to the word.  Each action is dependent upon the other and we shouldn’t try to force a choice between the active and the contemplative responses to Christ.  What is the good of doing without listening or listening without doing?  They go hand in hand. 

 It seems that too often Martha is placed as the poster child for all that is wrong with an overly busy life filled with distractions.  Yet, Luke’s gospel speaks of the importance of hospitality as one of the most important signs of the coming of God’s kingdom.  This is known as the covenant of hospitality and it is an important part of our Christian moral life.  Martha showed her love of Jesus through service and Mary showed her love through relationship. 

 We also know that Martha was strong in her belief of Jesus as the Savior from the story of the raising of Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother.  When Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” he asked Martha, “Do you believe this?”  (Jn 11:25-26)  She replied that yes, she believed he is the Messiah which puts her theology right alongside Peter when he confessed his belief.  I suggest the negative portrayal of Martha by some early church fathers contributed to the dualistic thinking that has been present in the church for a long time.  Action or contemplation?  It can’t be both.  But this story tells us that it takes both and there must be a balance so that one doesn’t outweigh the other.

 Today’s society has given up on the importance of taking a Sabbath.  For hundreds of years, a Sabbath was a time of rest and a time of prayer and contemplation, yet too often, the idea of working hard is viewed as a form of success.  We know we must rest and we must take time to pray.  We understand that without contemplation and prayer we lose the ability to hear that still, small voice which guides us in all that we do.  We also know that we are called to action.  That action may be at home, in our places of work, in our places of worship, even in our recreation.  This story of Martha and Mary helps us understand that we must have a balance of action and contemplation in order to do God’s work.

 We understand that Jesus was a radical.  He allowed Mary to sit at his feet to listen and learn, something uncommon for women at that time.  He touched and loved the untouchables and the outcasts.  He ate without following the proper Jewish law procedures and dined with those who were not considered worthy.  As we follow in Jesus’ path, may we be radicals.  May we break the current belief that the busier we are, the more successful we are.  It is in rest, prayer, and contemplation that we are renewed and it is in action that we are able to do God’s work.  So, as we go out into the world, may we remember to keep the proper balance of action and contemplation.  They are both necessary and important.