The Trouble with Mary and Martha

*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video

GOSPEL: Luke 10:38-42
38Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Once again this week, we hear a familiar story from the book of Luke. Last week as we unpacked the parable of the Good Samaritan, we looked at the way in which that parable was less about loving our neighbour through good deeds, as it was a metaphor for God’s mercy and grace given for us. When we read the parable through the lens of the lawyer’s question regrading inheriting eternal life, we discovered that in fact God was the Good Samaritan and we were the one in the ditch. God is the one rescuing from sin and death when our efforts to justify ourselves fall short. 

Today, we pick up just after that story with the story of Mary and Martha, another familiar story from Luke. A story for which there are countless pieces of art, bible studies and sermons that all warn against the distracted fussing of Martha and lift up the quiet listening of Mary. Another sermon when the brain can be turned off early on, because we think know what the message is here. 

If I am honest, I can go back into my files and find sermons about the version of Mary and Martha that I just described. About two versions of hosting and “women’s work.” 

And yet a deeper dive into the text reveals a story very different than the one we so often imagine, 

Biblical Scholar, Mary Stromer Hanson and Pastor Amy Courts have done some excellent work to re-visit this text and a lot of what to come is based on their work. 

Following Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer who prompted Jesus to tell parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to a certain village. Presumably this village is Bethany, the home of Mary and Martha. 

Upon their arrival, Martha meets Jesus but exactly how and where is not so clear. What reads as “welcomes” Jesus may also be heard as receives Jesus, as in receives his message or teaching. And while we might imagine Jesus the disciples crowded into Martha’s home, the earliest manuscripts of Luke do not include this detail. So this interaction between Martha and Jesus might be taking place anywhere, on the road, in the town square or some other public place. 

Then the story notes that Martha has a sister Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus. This of course has led to the many paintings or other pieces of art depicting Jesus and Mary sitting in a living room of sorts as he teaching, while Martha scurries about the kitchen. However, “sitting at the feet” is well known 1st century phrase which means to be a disciple of or follower of a teacher or rabbi. 

So Mary is not quietly siting at Jesus’ feet while he id waiting supper, but rather is named as one of his disciples. But it isn’t just Mary. In many English translations the word ‘also’ is omitted. Martha had a sister named Mary who ALSO sat at the feet of Jesus. 

In other words, Mary and Martha are both disciples and followers of Jesus. Jesus who earlier in Luke declares that his disciples are the ones who hear his word and do it. 

So rather than two women taking different approaches to hosting a guest for super, we have two sisters and two disciples of Jesus.

The story goes on to say that Martha is distracted by many Diakonen, a greek word you might know from Diaconal Minister or Deacon. We have traditionally translated that Martha was distracted, but the connotation is being troubled and in an ongoing way. Martha is troubled by diakonen, not the tasks of keeping a home, but ministry. Martha is troubled, almost being split and divided in herself by all the work of ministry around her. 

Martha is not distracted by cooking dinner, but by tending to her village. Feeding the hungry, caring for the widows, visiting sick and imprisoned. Doing all the kinds of things a disciple of Jesus would do locally in her village. 

And being troubled, Martha comes to Jesus to confront him about her sister, Mary. Now, ever why wonder why Mary doesn’t speak in this story? It is likely because she isn’t even there. Again the connotation in Greek is that Mary has left her sister, Mary has gone off with the rest of Jesus’ travelling disciples to preach the good news throughout Galilee. Martha does not know where Mary is but Jesus does. And so she is relaying the message through him, that she wants her sister to come home. 

And just maybe Martha isn’t only stressed by the task of ministering to her community. Maybe she is worried about her sister who is out on the road, out doing the things that are usually reserved for men, out in the world which is not a safe place, especially for a woman (remember the bandits we just heard about in the story of the Good Samaritan). 

And so in the midst of her troubled spirit and worry about her sister, Jesus brings Martha back to herself. ‘Martha, Martha’ Jesus says her name twice. Like a good friend grounding another, Jesus helps her find her feet. 

Jesus looks around the village of Bethany, knowing all that Martha is tending to in her community, all the care she is giving. “You have much that troubles you Martha, but there is only thing.” Jesus tells Martha that despite the many jobs and responsibilities of caring for her community, that there is only one call to discipleship. The same call that both sisters are following each in their own way.

And so this story that we used to think was about a couple of sisters fighting over the domestic duties of hosting a guest in their home is something completely different. It is the story of a disciple who confronts Jesus when he arrives in her town with her narrow expectations for what the work of the Kingdom of God might look like, only to have Jesus remind her that ministry and God’s work happens in a variety of ways, and through a variety of people. 

Sound familiar? 

As churches we have had the habit of being Marthas, not in the distracted busybody way, but as communities that have often and long expected the work of the kingdom to look and be a certain way. We have preferred ministry to take place among us according to our vision and expectations. And lately — say in the past 20 years or so — keeping up with it all has been troubling us and stressing us out. Especially as we think there are folks who should be here with us doing this work. 

But Jesus meets us where we are and grounds us too. “Church, Church, you are stressed and troubled by many things, but there is only need of one thing.”

There is only one thing to keep at the forefront, one thing to press us on, one thing that guides us as followers of Christ:

There is only one call to ministry. That each who is called to serve is called by the same God with the same call.  That one call is expressed in the variety of work that God is doing in and through us and countless others. 

We have been hearing this message over and over again in the Gospel of Luke. As Jesus and the disciples have gone about Galilee proclaiming the gospel, Jesus has ben constantly challenging the displaces to expand their understanding of what God’s work in the world can look like. To be open to others and their different forms of service, who have also heard that one call to discipleship.

And so as we enter this new age of being church together, Jesus is challenging us to too:

Jesus is hearing our complaints and struggles and stress, hearing our prayers and pleas. 

Jesus is calling out our names and grounding us again in the Word of God and the sacraments. Jesus is reminding us that God us the one who calls us to serve, and we don’t get to decide what what service looks like for everyone. 

And Jesus shows us that this call, this ministry, this discipleship, this preaching of the good news is going to look and be different than we expect. 

But it is still the work of the gospel, still the work of the church, still part of the body of Christ to which we all belong. 

Today we are called to be like both Mary and Martha, disciples following God calls, using our diverse gifts to take the good news first given to us, good news of mercy and new life, out to the whole world. 

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