After his open-air classroom type encounter with a lawyer resulting in the story about the good Samaritan, Jesus and his traveling companions continued toward Jerusalem. One of their stops was at the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha. They, along with their brother, Lazarus, are reported to be good friends of Jesus.
It had to have been a welcome respite for Jesus after numerous occasions of being challenged by those who gathered around him who were hoping to discredit him. He had to have been weary of traveling and knowing what probably lay ahead in the beloved Jerusalem. He wasn't as welcome everywhere as he once had been. People were becoming concerned about the tension growing between him and the religious authorities over his teachings and his growing following. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that it was going to end badly. Some probably began to have second thoughts about being seen with him.
But, the doors to Mary and Martha's home were always open for their friend, Jesus. Upon his entering their home, they sat him down in the front room, washed his feet, and offered him water to refresh his face and hands. Then Martha excused herself to better ready the house for their guests. She started cooking and cleaning and putting clean sheets on all the beds. She had built quite a reputation for being the perfect host. Because of her attention to details, visiting her was always a pleasant experience.
It was obvious though that things were different this time - there was the louder than usual banging of pots and pans - the smell of burning food in the air instead of the usually pleasant smell of bread baking. Maybe it was because of the pressure of so many stopping by unexpectedly, or, maybe it was because of it being a special friend. There's no question though that she thought her sister should have been helping. The heat in the kitchen was the result of more than her cooking.
Finally, she’d had enough. She stormed out of the kitchen and got right in Jesus' face. Knowing full well that he knew she’d been in the kitchen by herself – she shouted her concern to him: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” And she didn’t stop there, informing Jesus what she wanted him to do about it: “Jesus, tell my sister to help me!”
Now, to properly understand Jesus’ response, it’s important that we remember what was happening in his life – where he was going – what was going to happen to him. He was on his way to Jerusalem for a confrontation with the religious and political power-brokers of his day. He was on his way to the cross and to his death. Jesus’ whole being was wrapped up with the intense battle going on inside him between his will and God’s. He sensed that despite a group traveling with him, few understood the turmoil going on inside him between self-preservation and carrying out the will of God – few understood his need to be listened to.
When Jesus went into the home of his friends, excitement filled the air. But, the crowds that followed him – even his disciples – didn’t quite get it. They didn’t sense the struggle in his heart. They only knew there was something significant, something exciting about their going to Jerusalem. Their sense was that it might mean something special for their future. Martha was eager to celebrate it and tried to do her part by creating the very best spread she could – the most comfortable setting possible – so she rushed, fussed, and cooked. But, it wasn’t what Jesus needed.
It was peace and quiet – an attentive ear – hospitable hearts and minds – open hearts and minds in addition to the open doors that he needed. He had stopped on his journey to Jerusalem seeking an oasis of calm in the home of friends – to get away from the demands of the crowds so that he could think and reflect with friends who cared about him – who would listen to him. And that is what Mary did. Despite all her good intentions at being hospitable, that's what Martha missed out on. And so, to Martha’s question and directive, Jesus kindly responded, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” “Martha, Martha, a simple meal would be fine today. I prefer your attentive ear and heart.”
Martha’s mistake is really one many of us make when it comes to being hospitable to those who come to visit us. So often those who visit us are in need of our ears and our hearts rather than the more elaborate dessert that means we have to spend most of the time they are visiting out in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on it. It’s a good thing to keep in mind when friends simply stop by unannounced or when we go to visit our grown children or our parents or when we are making plans to do things with our teenagers or when our parents ask us to go out to eat or to go somewhere with them or when we are trying to help someone fix up their home on a mission trip. Being hospitable means being ready to stop our busyness - our work - and make ourselves available for others to share what’s on their hearts and their minds. Being hospitable means being able to relax and to sit at the feet of those who come into our lives – to listen to their life stories and to offer them the opportunity to find healing through our attention to the needs in their lives.
In a way, this encounter between Jesus and Mary and Martha was as scandalous as the parable of the Good Samaritan which preceded it. Jesus again ignored the social taboos of the day when he went to the home of a woman for a meal and when he allowed a woman to sit at his feet like a male disciple. The rabbis who were observing Jesus’ every activity had a very different understanding of the way men should relate to women in that day. A couple of the well-known teachings were: “It is better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman,” and, “It is better to teach a daughter to be a prostitute than to teach her the Torah.” Just as the parable of the Good Samaritan upset the traditional notions of who was a person’s neighbor, so this narrative dramatically challenged the place of women in the community of faith.
Jesus’ acceptance of women as vital members in the community of faith is not the only message to be gleaned from this text though. Again, Luke records this encounter as having taken place while Jesus’ was on his way to Jerusalem – a journey toward the cross and overshadowed by the cross. The question thus becomes you see, who will perceive the true character of his journey? Who will understand that the kingdom of God has drawn near in the person of Jesus? Who will receive him?
While there’s no question Martha loved Jesus and was willing to serve him, still, because of her attentiveness to other things she neglected to do what Jesus needed in that hour – having her spend time with him. At the heart of this story is the ongoing tension between those things which are a part of life and those things which are necessary for life: listening for and receiving the word of God. It’s a tension that continues to be a problem for we followers of Jesus. To each one of us Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” And many of us have done as we have understood Jesus’ instructive word. We have served as Sunday-school teachers – we have held numerous offices in the church – we have prepared meals for the homeless and the grieving and the families with a new baby and people returning home from the hospital – we have ushered one Sunday a month for years – and on and on the list goes. Many of us are uncomfortable with Jesus’ response to Martha. We find it ironic – troubling - that Jesus applauded not the one who served but the one who sat and listened. That seems to us a bit like praising those who worship on Sunday morning but never do anything else in the life of the church or for the suffering in our world. We want Jesus to tell them that they should help us more rather than affirm their simply listening to the sermon or reading a daily devotional.
The point of the story in Luke though is not to force us to choose between service and worship – inner spirituality or outer service. It is not to make a case against social activism or doing church. It’s not to make a case for those who reject such activism. Rather, I believe the text speaks a needed word to a church that has too often tried to educate without Bible study and to serve without worship. Christian service grows out of followers spending time with God and God’s word and God’s people. It’s loving God AND serving our neighbors – it takes both pillars to hold up the temple of faith.
In a Scandinavian country there is a statue of Christ. A tourist standing in front of it appeared dismayed. A local resident asked what his problem was. He replied, “I cannot see his face.” The resident explained, “If you desire to see his face, you must kneel at his feet.”
There is a chapel somewhere in Wisconsin that has a stained glass window over the entrance, showing the figure of Jesus with open arms. Some, seeing it for the first time, have remarked, “How meaningful! He seems to be inviting us in to worship.”
“That’s true,” the pastor will say. “He is indeed inviting us into worship.”
When the service is over some persons going out the door, will again look up at the window with the figure of Jesus, with the same inviting open arms. “Look!” they will say. “Now he seems to be inviting us out.”
“Right,” the pastor replies. “The Jesus who invited you to worship now invites you out into the world to serve other people in his name.”1
A mother, listening to the bedtime prayers of her small daughter, heard the listing of requests for blessings that children often offer – Mommy and Daddy and Grandma and Grandpa and on and on. She was surprised, however, to hear the child conclude her prayer with these words: “Now, Jesus, what would you like for me to do for you?”2
The greatest need some of us have is the need to spend some time kneeling or sitting at the feet of Jesus. Our lives are out of sync. Our values are out of focus. Our priorities are hopelessly skewed. We need to stop where we are and pray, “Lord, help me to know what those things are that really need to matter in my life and help me to always put you first.”
Mary and Martha loved their friend, Jesus – their Lord, Jesus. And he loved them – both of them! And he appreciated the attention he received from them – their listening and their serving. It was just that at the moment Martha had overdone her doing and Jesus sensed that her spiritual strength was waning – perhaps even the cause of her irritableness. Both the journey inward and the journey outward are important – both are spiritual – neither can exist without the other.
Service, devotion, meditation, reflection, the healing words of friends – there’s a time and a place for each of them. Jesus was simply saying to Martha that what he needed and wanted at that point in his life were her ears and her heart – her undivided attention so that he could pour out his heart to her. If you’re anything like me, you probably have to confess along with me that more times than not Martha’s way has been the way the journey of faith gets lived out. May all of us hear our Lord lovingly whispering in our hearts and minds this day: “Calm down – slow down – spend some time with me – sit and listen.”
It takes loving God and serving our neighbors to be truly welcoming of all who come to our doors. In order to be hospitable we need to prepare our hearts and our minds as well as our hands. In order to serve all who cross our paths or enter our doors, we need to spend time loving God. The Gospel of hospitality invites us to keep our minds and our hearts and our doors open to all.
Let us pray.
We do so want to please you, Lord. We know our need to sit in calm – to strengthen our inner being for the challenges the world puts before us – but our need to be busy and to get on with it overshadows our knowledge. Slow us down, Lord, so that we might be better able to fight for your causes in this world. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Peace, brothers and sisters in Christ!
1. Carveth Mitchell, The Sign in the Subway, “Complaint From the Kitchen,” (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Company), 1-55673-056-x.