Mary, Martha, and My Dad

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

As you well know, there are few passages that have caused more consternation among Christians than this one. It almost feels like a set up — an intentional contrast between the contemplative and active life or, if you’re prone to identify with Martha, the contemplative life and the responsible one.

This consternation has been felt especially keenly by women, who often by necessity played the role of Martha, making sure the kids were in school, supper was on the table, the bills were in order, and the household ran smoothly. For so much of history the primary if not exclusive domain of women was domestic, and so it’s perhaps understandable if women, upon hearing this parable, felt like Jesus was somehow belittling these roles and responsibilities. After all, Jesus commends Mary, who has not worried about any of the chores that attend hospitality, as having chosen “the better part.” Little wonder responsible women (and many men) everywhere cringe at the apparent favoring of one sibling — and personality type — over another.

To tell you the truth, though, I don’t think this parable is about Mary, or Martha either, for that matter. I think this parable is about my dad. Let me explain.

Just before I entered the 10th grade, my dad, a pastor, took a call to a new church, and so my family moved to a new town. This church had a different sound system than the church we left, with lavaliere microphones that the pastor controlled from a little handset that you kept in your pocket. That was new for my dad and sometimes he’d forget to turn it off after saying a prayer or preaching the sermon, which meant that if we started singing a hymn you could hear the sound of my dad singing just above everyone else.

Now my dad…was not a great singer. He wasn’t tone deaf, for sure; it’s just that he pretty regularly managed to sing more than a few notes slightly off key. I was 15 at the time, brand new to this church, school, and community, and eager — okay, make that desperate — to make new friends and to be accepted, and so when I heard the sound of my dad singing just off-key and a little louder than everyone else, I would cringe.

This went on fairly regularly for much of the fall. But on one of those Sundays when we were still relatively new to that church and town, when my dad had again forgotten to turn off the mic so that you could hear his off key-singing just above everyone else, and when I was again cringing in embarrassment, my mom noticed what was happening. I’m pretty sure she didn’t approve of my reaction, but she didn’t frown, or roll her eyes, or do any of the things parents are prone to do when they see their children overreacting to something. Instead, she leaned over to me, smiled understandingly, and then whispered, “You know, when your dad is gone, I’ll miss his singing.”

My mom understood, you see, something that I had totally missed: that sometimes you get so caught up in the act of singing that you forget all about yourself — you forget your insecurities and embarrassments, your limitations and your failings — you forget all the stuff you usually worry about and you just sing.

I think that’s the “better part” Jesus is talking about. He’s not favoring Mary over Martha, and he’s not lifting up one way of living the Christian life over another. Rather, he’s inviting us to get caught up in the joy of being in his presence such that we forget, if only for a little while, all the usual things that hold us back, all the usual worries and headaches and concerns, and simply be, as the Apostle Paul was wont to put it, “in Christ.”

The invitation Jesus makes to Martha — and I do take it as invitation rather than rebuke — is particularly poignant given where this scene is placed in Luke’s larger narrative. Jesus, after all, has “set his face for Jerusalem” (9:51) and is marching steadfastly toward his destiny. And yet as purposeful, even hurried, as his march toward the cross may seem at this point in the story, here he tarries, lingering in the presence of his friends and inviting them to do the same. Even amid the hustle and bustle of fulfilling one’s mission, Jesus seems to say, there is still nothing more important than to live in the “eternal now” of one’s relationship with God. (And this immediately following the “Go and do likewise” of the parable on the Good Samaritan!)

Here, then, is a spirituality as easily practiced in the kitchen as in the study, at school or at play, while working the farm or looking for work. What matters is not so much what you are doing, but the attentiveness to God’s presence and purpose in, with, under all our varied activities and responsibilities.

And here’s where you come into the picture, Working Preacher. Because I — and maybe many of us — need you to remind me of what’s important, of what matters, of what is of ultimate significance. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in the necessary busy-ness of our diverse responsibilities in this life that I forget the overarching import and telos toward which all those responsibilities point.

But I want to be clear: by “reminding,” I don’t really mean just telling me again, and I definitely don’t mean scolding. (You know, like when you’re feeling stressed out and a well-intentioned friend orders you to relax?) What I need and want is for you simply to proclaim to me the gospel, to remind me of all that God has done for me and the world in and through Christ, to proclaim once again God’s great love for all of us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once described preaching as holding out a bright and shiny apple such that hearers couldn’t help but want a bite. I think that’s right. Preaching isn’t about telling us what we should want or do, it’s about making us hungry for God’s love and kingdom by showing us — actually giving us — a taste of it. In the end, I suspect that it’s only when one is arrested once again by the love of God that one can truly leave behind the ordinary wears, tears, and cares of the day and live in God’s grace-filled embrace.

So, I guess this story isn’t about Mary, or about Martha, or even about my dad. I guess it’s really about Jesus and how much Jesus wants to draw each and all of us into a relationship that lifts us beyond the everyday limitations of this life that we might glimpse, if only for a few moments at a time, the sacred in the mundane, the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the holiness with which each and every moment of this life is imbued. Thank you, Working Preacher, for helping us to recognize and receive this “better part” for ourselves by pointing us to Jesus.

Yours in Christ,