Year C, Proper 11, The Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
July 17, 2022
Year C: Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
As you heard this morning’s gospel, maybe you thought: am I, Mary or Martha?
After hearing the passage, you can probably understand the dichotomy implicit in the question.
Martha is the “active” one, rushing around, busying herself with the demanding practicalities of life. On the other hand, Mary is contemplative, resting at Jesus’ feet. So we have two sisters, two followers of Jesus, and, we are told, two possibilities for discipleship.
Jesus says that Mary’s taken “the better part” and often, therefore, is the one to which we continually aspire.
Is that what Jesus meant? Goodness knows we need Marthas in our life, those who are engaged in the practicalities of life, making things that need to be done get done.
Unsurprisingly, we tend to engage the story this way as a spiritual personality test. We love personality tests. Some of us take all those Facebook tests designed to get our email and contact information. But consider their popularity – from astrological signs to the Enneagram to those random quizzes that reveal which dog breed or Disney Princess we resemble. They tend to show that we are and always have been—people desperately seeking a glimpse of ourselves.
And so, when we hear Luke’s Gospel today, we might ask ourselves: which one are we? Martha or Mary? Busy or mindful? Striving or tranquil? Perhaps, as you hear the question right now, you can already feel the pressure of having the right answer, of measuring up, of choosing that “better part.”
But before you get too lost in all of that, think about this. It’s a trick question. It’s a false choice.
Not the part about the better choice, but the part about which are we: Mary or Martha. That’s a false choice.
It is false, quite simply, because it is not the choice that Jesus asks us to make in this text. Jesus is not pitting the sisters against one another, nor is he creating a hierarchy of discipleship. Those hierarchies are of our own choice because we like so much to categorize and label things and people. We do this all the time, in ways both benign (like the roles we take on in a group of friends) and destructive (like the stereotypes we assign to people who are different or other than we are.)
That is not Jesus’ agenda. So when he tells Martha that Mary has “chosen the better part,” he is not challenging Martha’s personality, nor is he even rejecting Martha’s busyness. Instead, I suggest that Jesus is reminding Martha why and for whom she’s doing all this good, hard, and necessary work: himself, namely God.
Martha lives and serves, as we all do, in the name of Jesus. The cooking, cleaning, mending, and tending of small, daily things are to be done, but remembered and done in mindfulness of God’s ever-present love.
I’m reminded of my own grandmother. You could often walk into her house on a Monday evening and find her ironing (and, yes, there was a day of the week for washing clothes, ironing, cleaning, and shopping). But, on Monday night, after the wash had been done earlier that day, you could find my grandmother standing with her ironing board, ironing God only knows why, t-shirts and underwear, with her rosary wrapped around her wrist. I like to think she never forgot that God was foremost in her life; for my grandmother, that was pretty much true.
That mindfulness is what we must bring to the table as disciples, and so Jesus simply wants Martha not to lose sight of him, knowing, as he does, how easy it is to become “worried and distracted by many things.”
What he offers, then, is not a competition between Mary and Martha as models of greater and lesser discipleship, nor a distinction between the relative virtues of being and doing. Instead, he offers the continual and crucial choice that each of us must make, in all that we do, between remembering Jesus or forgetting him.
The story of Mary and Martha calls us to remember. It is a Gospel story in which Martha is asked—as we are—to do this—as we hear in our Eucharistic prayers – all of this, everything—in remembrance of him.
We need that reminder right now, as we get caught up in many things that trouble the world around us. How tempting it can be to look at the state of the world, or even the state of the Church, and to feel panic, telling ourselves there’s more to be done, more to be done, more to be done.
Of course, there is more to be done. Much more, and much of it will be different from what we have done before and who we have been before. The Kingdom requires us to roll up our sleeves. But as we do so, as we make our lists, we cannot forget that we do not act by ourselves or for ourselves. We do so in the name of Jesus. We do so in and through the power of his peace and love.
That’s the “better part” that Jesus reminds Martha to remember. We must always ask ourselves what to do, why, and for whom? Why do we work so hard to keep our faith communities alive? Why do we persist with our traditions? Why do we dare to dream of a world guided by love, justice, and peace when we often see a world not driven by love, justice, and peace. The answer must always be Jesus. We work hard because of Jesus. We persist because of Jesus. We dare to dream because of Jesus. We cannot forget this; we cannot forget him, no matter what we do.
We are not given, in the text, Martha’s response to the Lord. I can only imagine. However, it would not make much sense to think that she suddenly dropped all of her work at that moment and sat alongside her sister. After all, there were still mouths to feed, places to be set at the table, and things to be mended.
There always will be things left undone, but there is necessary, unglamorous work that sustains us. It is holy work and the work that Martha did. So Jesus asks us to remember. Remember him.
So no, we are not a Martha. We are not a Mary. All of us are both at different times and in different contexts. We might be more one than the other. Yet if, in your search for yourself, you still feel a longing for that one definitive identifier, that purest distillation of your soul, let it be the one name that calls each of us back to our most profound truth—Jesus. Remember that we are followers of Jesus. Servants of Jesus. Lovers of Jesus.
Will you follow him?
Will you not forget him for as long as you live?
These are not trick questions.