“As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion which shall not be taken away from her.’”
Here we have at the outset the essential ingredients for a grand, harmonious get-together—a lively, intriguing special guest with some interesting companions and an eager, hospitable hostess.
And then the human factor intrudes.
And anybody who has ever grown up with a sibling can appreciate what happens next—Mary plants herself at Jesus’ feet and is seemingly hanging on his every word.
Martha meanwhile has gotten a little frazzled and fussed as she scurries about, presumably trying to be the perfect hostess—laying out refreshments, bowls of cool water, and towels, and tending to the guests’ every need.
What’s becoming obvious to anyone who cares to notice is that she’s getting miffed at her sister for not helping out.
Now do you think that Mary just might have an inkling that Martha is starting to do a slow burn?—or is Mary so spell-bound, so mesmerized by this rabbi, that she’s clueless?
Well, it’s hard to imagine that Jesus’ scolding improved Martha’s attitude.
Can’t you see her leaving the room in a huff and pouting in the kitchen while perhaps one can detect in Mary’s face just a trace of smugness?
For there’s nothing more guaranteed to inflame rivalry between sisters than dressing one down in public while praising the other.
After all, Jesus could have said something to Martha that was a little sympathetic and comforting like, “Martha, you’ve been waiting on us hand and foot all night—you must be worn out—come sit next to me for a while and then later we’ll all pitch in and clean up.”
Of course, Luke is describing two characters who are very familiar to us.
He is describing the Marys and Marthas we have known; he is describing the Marys and Marthas we have been.
The story of Mary and Martha highlights the way that Marys and Marthas down through the ages have always been at odds with each other, how they have always jostled, scuffled, and competed with each other for approval, recognition and renown.
Well, are we a Mary or a Martha?
Are we naturally inclined to be a dreamer or a doer?
Are we a Mary who takes time to smell the roses or are we a Martha who tends the roses, who waters and trims them, who looks out for aphids, who makes sure there are roses to smell?
Are we inclined to ponder the great mysteries or take care of business?
Do we subscribe to the old Army motto, “Don’t just stand there, do something,” or the revised hippie version of the 1960s that maybe Mary would prefer, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
William Faulkner was a very productive writer but he had definite Mary tendencies.
As a young man, he was fired from a job as postal clerk because, instead of sorting the mail, he kept slipping off to read a novel.
Now which was more important—his brooding over these novels in preparation for becoming a Nobel Prize author or getting the mail out?
Well, I suppose if you had been desperately waiting for a subsistence check to arrive, you could have cared less about Faulkner’s literary development.
As far as I can see, there’s very little evidence that any of us chooses to be a Mary or a Martha or some combination of the two.
It’s more a matter of discovering that we are one or the other, that, for better or worse, like it or not, this is the temperament with which we will make our way in the world.
And if we have any doubts about which camp we belong to, whether we’re a dreamer or a doer, those who have come to know us will make it unmistakably clear to us.
There was the time I was supposed to meet our West Virginia relatives at a restaurant half-way between Charleston and Dayton—somehow I got a little distracted and whizzed right past the designated meeting place—my brother-in-law saw the car come and go and said, “There goes Bob in a big old daze!”
And, of course, the Mary and Martha syndrome, the relentless, ravenous struggle for recognition, the struggle to justify ourselves, the struggle to establish ourselves as someone significant, the struggle we are all engaged in, is not just a family thing.
The Mary and Martha syndrome flourishes in every parish, every corporate office, every teacher’s lounge, in other words, wherever people gather to collaborate and work together but in some way or other also end up strenuously competing for recognition.
The Mary and Martha syndrome accounts for a lot of resentment and squabbles among parish folk as each of us tries to stake a claim to being notable and significant.
So the question is: can the Marys and Marthas, the dreamers and doers of this world, who seem to be so fundamentally at odds with each other, ever be reconciled?
The gospel says yes—for those who have ears to hear, the gospel resolves this seemingly insoluble dilemma by completely re-defining our value and our vocation.
You see, the world tells us that we earn our worth by doing something distinctive, something sensational, something that sets us apart from others.
Of course, this worth that the world assigns us is never really secure, because with the world, it’s always, what have you done for me lately?
And the world insists that our vocation is to develop the most impressive solo act, the most dazzling one person performance, we can pull off.
Sometimes the need to win recognition as a solo performer takes an interesting route.
The other day I heard a gentleman who’s definitely more a doer than a dreamer interviewed on the radio—he happens to make his living as a pickpocket—he said, “You’re telling me I don’t have any skills—I can reach around two people and fish out some woman’s pocket book from her purse without anybody knowing it—I don’t have any skills?!” –well, I guess we’ll do whatever it takes to feel special!
The gospel turns all of this on its head—the gospel reveals to us our true identity and our true vocation.
When Jesus chides Martha for flitting from one distraction to another and commends Mary for attending to the one necessary thing, I wonder if this is “the one necessary thing” Jesus is referring to—learning our true identity and vocation.
Don’t we naturally tend to understand ourselves as self-made and self-generated, that we started out with zero and have sired and authored our selves and our abilities, that our choices and accomplishments are the product of our own fashioning, that our very experience of moment-to-moment aliveness proceeds from our own self-sufficient resources?
And so perhaps “the one necessary thing” for Mary, Martha, and us is to be born into a new understanding of ourselves and our vocation.
The Good News is that each of us is a son or daughter of God, that we arrive on this earth with the most prestigious label possible, that the supremely unique, indescribable self that each of us is is God’s continuous gift to us, that the essence of you, what makes you the incomparably radiant you that you are, is God’s never ceasing, never failing gift to you, and that all that we are and all that we are capable of, even the most basic acts of thinking, perceiving, feeling, deciding, moving our limbs, is a gift.
The Good News is that the inexpressibly rich, vibrant life that pulses through us, courses through us, roars through us, the life that animates, equips and empowers us, is nothing less than God’s life unceasingly poured out for us—for God is life and to love life is to love God.
We might go so far as to say that in our moment to moment experience of this life that we so cherish, God breathes through us and circulates our blood, God sighs through us, God sings through us, God suffers through us, God loves through us, and in our savoring of pleasures large and small such as grilling out on a summer evening God enjoys through us—as the old Prayer Book service says, “we are in Him and He in us.”
The Good news is that we are intimately related to the whole garden of creation that issues from the same source of life as our own selves and thus we naturally relish and delight in nature’s abundance—Tolstoy made this entry in his diary: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Life’s task, its destined purpose, is joy. Rejoice in the sky, the sun, the stars, in grass, trees, animals, and people. Be like children—rejoice forever.”
But the Good News insists we are most intimately related to our neighbors wherever we may find them who are also sons and daughters of God, who also, whether they know it or not, have received everything including their very lives from the same God who is the life of all.
As far as I can tell, the purpose of evangelism is to somehow inform people who may think they are of little worth and don’t count for much that their very selves and the life that flows through them partake of the splendor of God.
And the Good News about our vocation is that we are not called to be soaring, stand-alone soloists who bask in the glory of their individual performances.
The Good News is that each of us is called to be a voice in the Gospel chorus—each of us is called to join the chorus that sings the music of God’s true democracy, the music that is greater than any of us—each of us, whether we’re a dreamer or a doer, is called to contribute our real but limited gifts to the chorus, for all voices are needed but no voice is dominant—and when we sing together, and, remember, everyone’s voice is indispensable, the music is greater and more glorious than anything we could produce on our own.
Whenever we sing together the music of God’s true democracy, the music of God’s universal welcome and mercy, the music of abundant life for all, then the greatness of the music lifts us and all the fussing and carrying on that ordinarily plague us fall away, and all our gifts are enhanced exponentially and the music soars and we forget ourselves and we sound better than we ever imagined—and we find that the music impels us to be more merciful, helpful, and joyous.
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, OH 7/22/07