Several years ago a church in our area was named Saints Martha and Mary, because, as the developer said, it was going to take both Marys and Marthas for the new church to grow.
The name needed no explanation, a testimony to the familiarity of this brief story in Luke. In an era when women served the church primarily through women's guilds named for biblical women, Martha was a common name, synonymous with service. When women began to seek ordained ministries, this text was favored for its apparent biblical support. Jesus affirms Mary's choice to join the disciples and disparages Martha's distraction with less important matters. In my memory, this text's well-known story has not necessarily been a favorite.
Only five verses long, this story has fueled divisiveness and resentment, pitting women with different vocations in the church against each other. And it has prompted many attempts to justify Jesus' actions. His affirmation of one woman's choice and criticism of the other seems out of character, especially because Jesus consistently emphasizes service and hospitality. What is the justification for his dismissal of Martha's attention to the care of her guests?
Text in Context
This incident occurs near the beginning of the long travel narrative in Luke (9:51 -- 19:28). Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem" (9:51) and instructs those who would follow that the journey must be their first priority (9:57-58). Jesus sends the seventy ahead with no provisions for the journey and insists they depend on the hospitality of those in towns who welcome them (10:1-11).
Immediately preceding the stop at Martha's home, Jesus tells a story about a man on a journey who is beaten and left to die. He is saved by an unexpected merciful neighbor (10:30-37). The story of "the good Samaritan" confirms that the journey to Jerusalem is dangerous, and that disciples might welcome the compassion of someone who, in other circumstances, would be considered undesirable. They, likewise, must show neighborly compassion to any one in need. Following Jesus' visit to Martha's home, the narrative continues with another disarming incident in which a friend refuses hospitality to a friend in need (11:5-8).
Hospitality, sharing a meal in particular, is a prominent theme throughout Luke. This theme is featured in the travel narrative, with banquet parables (14:7ff; 15:11-32; see also 5:29), sabbath meals (14:1; see also 7:36), and the welcome offered to friend or stranger. In the narrative world of Luke, hospitality is multi-dimensional. According to this gospel account, we see hospitality from the perspective of receiving hospitality as well as extending it to another. We will hear these gospel stories differently from the perspective of the guest or the stranger in need than as the one who provides service. The narrative sometimes surprises us and provokes us to consider a different point of view.
In this brief vignette, we expect Jesus to affirm the one who welcomes them into her home and prepares all that is needed to make them comfortable. Our instincts tell us that Mary should help her sister. Our instincts also tell us that Jesus should not chide his hostess for suggesting that her sister should help with the work of caring for the guests. If Martha is a bit distracted by her many tasks, should he add insult to injury by praising Mary for choosing "the better part?" Our natural inclination is to justify what Jesus does. But perhaps this story intends to disturb us. We might ask what the story accomplishes by portraying Jesus in an unexpected way.
The Kingdom of God Has Come Near You
A sermon might consider Jesus' behavior here in light of the mission and purpose of the journey. Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God has come near to you (10:9), and he tells those who would follow him that nothing must distract them from this reality. No time to rest; no time to bury the dead, even a parent; no time to say goodbye to family; no looking back (10:57-62).
Jesus' presence as guest here signals the coming of God's Kingdom, and there is urgency about it. We might consider Martha's concern for hospitality as similar to the "distractions" Jesus names at the outset of the journey to Jerusalem. Seen within the context of the journey narrative, Jesus actually acknowledges the importance of Martha's service in ordinary circumstances. But in these extraordinary times they are distractions from the coming of God's reign. Mary shows this by choosing "the better part." In the narrative world of Luke, Mary and Martha show that seeking God's Kingdom is the first priority above all else, even the common customs of hospitality.
Another approach to this text might focus on the presence of Jesus as guest and host. According to Luke's story, Jesus is always a guest, always the recipient of hospitality. Often he does not exhibit good manners. As a dinner guest, he criticizes his host and other guests (5:29ff; 7:36ff; 14:1,7ff). When his host is a Pharisee, we do not notice his criticism, but his criticism of Martha gets our attention, even offends us. The narrative does not distinguish between hosts, though. Whether Jesus is the guest of a Pharisee or Martha, he is both guest and host. Jesus' presence points to the coming of God's realm and the reordering of what is customary and expected. Martha does the right thing and misses the presence of the Jesus and the good news he represents. Mary risks contempt to be fully in the presence of the guest.
This brief encounter within the gospel narrative purposely disrupts expectations and disturbs our sense of propriety. I hope to hear a sermon that resists the temptation to justify Jesus and allows Jesus the guest to offend my sensibilities. Sometimes listeners need expectations to be challenged in order to hear the Gospel. And I hope to hear a sermon that honors both Martha and Mary.