Be careful with this one, Dear Working Preachers. The story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s Gospel has been subject to feats of hermeneutical acrobatics that usually never end well for women.
In particular, by pitting the sisters against each other, women for centuries have had to justify their discipleship, their lives of faith, as either following Mary or Martha. As if these two women in Jesus’ life are the only way women can imagine what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus in the present day; an assumption that both limits the faith of women and the role of women’s ministry today, but moreover, constrains Mary and Martha to positions and tasks that stereotype and scapegoat.
And in the ongoing fight for the rights of women to have leadership roles in our society, particular leadership roles in the church, I have no doubt that this story has exacerbated the antagonism between women, just when we think that women in our same or similar roles should be our most vocal allies. If you are a woman in ministry, you have very likely experienced what I mean — and it hurts, a lot.
But here is where tone is everything. Is Jesus scolding Martha, chiding her, which is often, of course, how this passage gets interpreted? I am not convinced that, “Martha, Martha” necessarily and without question intimates admonishment. Perhaps Jesus is simply trying to get Martha’s attention so that she can know the Kingdom of God is near — really near. Jesus needs Martha to hear this truth. Time is of the essence. Taken in the larger context of Luke’s narrative and Jesus’ ministry, remember, Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. There is not a lot of time left to be in the presence of the Kingdom of God. There is an urgency here that necessitates a reset.
Now is the time to set aside duty and sit beside Jesus. Now is the time to postpone what you have to do and take time for what you want to do. Now is the time reschedule some items on your “to do” list and re-prioritize. This story is not unlike the “but, firsts” of the Gospel reading for June 30. “But first” and “now is not the time” have a lot in common.
But, “now is the time” does not then have to mean one is better than the other. “Now is the time” does not then have to mean there is an “either/or” when it comes to following Jesus. “Now is the time” does not then have to mean comparison and judgment.
I suspect that we all need this reminder every once in a while. I know I do, all too often. Now is the time to look around and see what difference the Kingdom of God is making in your life and maybe, how your life needs to change, if even for a time, because of it.
When we have “both/and” in mind, we start to realize that faith is seasonal. There are times for doing and times for listening. There are times for practicing and times for learning. However we choose to describe the discipleship expressed by Mary and Martha, if we are honest, we have been both, we need to be both, for different reasons, and we also realize that there is a lot of possibility in between.
This year, at this moment, I feel like Jesus could be saying the very same words to me as he said to Martha, “Karoline, Karoline, you are worried and distracted by many things; maybe there is need of only one thing, or a better portion, another option, at least for now. What might that be?” OK, of course this is a bit of a paraphrase after some translation comparison, but you get the point.
And so, Dear Working Preachers, for the next several weeks I’ll be sharing the Dear Working Preacher column with my colleagues in the Bible and Preaching faculty at Luther Seminary. Now is the time for a break. Now is the time for some different voices, some different takes, some different angles on the biblical texts from my colleagues who have some amazing insights to share with you.
What is your “now is the time?” What is that is worrying you, distracting you, or maybe what is that you have ignored, set aside, that Jesus’ calling your name might get your attention?
And, isn’t the summer the perfect time for such reflection? To imagine the season of your faith and to what you might be called to do or how to be?
Before you read other commentaries on this passage, before you start to ponder your sermon, before you wonder about the story’s meaning, just hear Jesus calling your name, and take it from there.