Luke 10:38-42 CEB
While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”
The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”
Mary and Martha remind me of another famous set of sisters, Jan and Marcia from the Brady Bunch. Jan being the younger sister meant she constantly felt like she was in her sister’s shadow no matter how hard she worked. She would lament the seeming ease of her sister’s perfection by belting out the famous line, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” I feel as though, Martha could have said the same line to Jesus in this morning’s scripture. Here she is working hard, trying to be a welcoming host while her sister isn’t doing a thing to help, but still gets things perfect. I can almost imagine her going up to Jesus, and saying “Mary, Mary, Mary!” While Jesus in our reading does a lot to try and set aside sibling rivilarly in order to deliver an important message, often times we still pit these two sisters against each other, trying to determine which sister got things right. When we do this, we miss Jesus’ important message to all of us today: Jesus welcomes all of us, with our different personalities and styles of thinking, to pay attention when he is near. It is easy to get distracted, lose focus, not leave room for God, so instead we must not, to put it simply, miss Jesus!
We probably have all met people like Mary and Martha, they may have even our been siblings. Mary, the care-free and wonder-seeking child, finds herself relaxing at Jesus’ feet, while Martha, our practical and self-assured sister, seeks to make sure everything is ready, perfect, and exactly as she likes it. Perhaps you even find yourself sympathizing with one sister or the other, as we may see ourselves reflected in Martha or Mary. We all want to feel like the way we are and who we are is enough. Like Jan Brady, we may even complain from time to time about the other sister, wishing that people would see and value us too. The good news is that Jesus does see and value both sisters. In this short passage, he takes neither the time or space to tear down Martha or lift up Mary. They are not in competition. Both are needed in God’s kingdom, and both can, in their own way, love God.
In this short passage from Luke’s gospel, we have a story about hospitality and making room for the Lord. Jesus comes to the hometown of Mary and Martha, and he is welcomed into their home. Martha begins the work expected of the hostess, she gets to work in the kitchen to prepare a meal for him and the other disciples. She’s working hard, darting back and forth to get everything ready for the table. Imagine, if you will, that thirteen people, some missionaries and their leader, suddenly popped into the church this morning looking for a place where they might rest and share a meal before heading on their way, and you said you would host them. How many of us are ready and prepared to host that many that quickly and easily today? More likely, if we said we would host, we would immediately have to start planning in our heads where we could fit them all, whether there is enough food in the house, and what would we make for so many! Once we got home, we would probably look a lot like Martha, rushing around to get things done to take good care of our guests! Martha is supposed to be playing host, making Jesus feel welcome, but she is so frazzled that she is a ball of anxiety more than anything!
To make matters worse, Mary, who is supposed to be helping her and perhaps make things a lot less frantic, is instead hanging out at Jesus’ feet listening to him teach while Martha is doing all the work! Mary has failed to be hospitable by failing to help Martha with the meal. However, instead of directly speaking to her sister about this, Martha also fails to be hospitable by instead telling Jesus to tell her sister what a lazy good for nothing she is! She commands that the Lord tell her sister Mary to help her! Rather than being a welcoming host, she has put Jesus, her guest, on the spot. Jesus sees her anxiety and frustration for what it is when he responds, “‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.’” Here, Jesus is not condemning Martha for her hard work, nor does he uplift Mary over Martha when he adds, “‘One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.’” What he praises is that Mary has chosen to make space for the the good thing, the Lord’s presence, in her life at that moment.
Last week, we talked about the lawyer and the Samartian, where Jesus honed in on loving neighbor as ourselves in an active and real way. Here, in our scripture this week, he is reminding us of the first part of what he calls the “‘two commandments’” upon which ‘“hang all the Law and the Prophets,’” namely to “‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind.’” In order to go and do, we must also love our God. We must ground ourselves, in the better part, the good part. Just as the greatest commandment is actually two parts, so following it is two parts, not either/or but both/and. We need to love the Lord our God to be connected to a God who both sustains us in our spirits while calling us to a life of service. Mary is being sustained in our story while Martha is being called to service. Neither is wrong or bad. The true issue is found in the worry and distraction that has consumed Martha.
Tell me, how many of you feel busy today? Does your schedule feel full? If I asked you to serve on a committee, start a ministry, go out on mission, or go do one more thing, how many of you could say you have the time. Your spirit might be willing, but your calendar has no room to breathe. Going further, how many of us today have space in our lives at all? Not just in our calendars, but what about space emotionally, physically, or spiritually? Do you have the capacity to handle much else? Exhaustion and stress have become all too ordinary in our everyday lives. In response to this, Dr. Richard Swensen, a physician and author, wrote a book called Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. His thesis is a simple one, so many of us are so busy these days that we live without margins. In other words, we are always living and working at or above capacity. We are constantly running at 100% with no room for the unexpected, like thirteen people coming over to your house who you now have to feed. Being overloaded negatively impacts our health and our relationships. You can see this with Martha in our story, as she is so overloaded that she lashes out at guest and sister alike.
What Jesus praises in Mary is that she has left space in her life to see Jesus, the one most needed thing, and makes room for him in her day. She sees that this relationship with God, loving the Lord with all her heart and mind and strength cannot happen if she has no room for God. We all need space. We all need margins. We need these to make space for God to show up, for Jesus to give us the better part. What does this mean for us? It means two things, first, we have to get better at knowing our limits and expressing them. We have to cultivate the difficult practice of saying “No.” Our “no”s are not just for when we are overloaded, they are for those times precisely when we would otherwise say we could probably squeeze in just one more thing. To make space in your life is a sacred thing, but it is a lot harder to maintain that space without doing the second thing, sharing your limits. Setting your boundaries. Tell your neighbors, family, and even telling your pastor what your limits are! For instance, I recently found out that a long time person in our church family has never joined as a member because they do not want to sit on the church board. That’s fair! That’s a limit that is good to know! I am glad they know what their boundaries are! It is part of that practice of leaving space, leaving a margin on the page of your life rather covering every little square piece with something.
When we leave a margin, when we leave space, we make space for God. We make space for the most important relationship in our lives. This is the relationship we need in order to be disciples and to do ministry, as we cannot go and do without the one who sustains, our living and gracious God. In other words, its not Mary versus Martha, but Mary and Martha and all us making space and not missing Jesus. Amen!
Pastor Paul Grossman