Friday, June 14, 2013

Be Like Mary, Don't Be Like Martha...Really?!?

If you've been in the church for any amount of time, you've probably heard a teaching or lesson from this passage:
"Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed 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 up 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, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42
Typical interpretations of this portion of scripture go something like this. Mary is devout, Martha is worldly, or, Mary is spiritual, Martha is distracted, or, Mary is better than Martha because Mary is choosing Jesus over cooking and cleaning, or, Mary made sitting at the feet of Jesus her priority and Martha made cooking her priority.

Be like Mary, don't be like Martha.

One commentary put it this way:
Piety is the chief ornament in a female...Nothing is more lovely than a female sitting at the feet of the meek and lowly Jesus, like Mary; nothing more unlovely than entire absorption in the affairs of the world, like Martha. The most lovely female is she who has most of the spirit of Jesus; the least amiable, she who neglects her soul - who is proud, frivolous, thoughtless, envious, and unlike the meek and lowly Redeemer. 
(Jeesh! This leaves me out in the cold - I am not meek and lowly, and I am often proud, frivolous, thoughtless and envious.)

Recent interpretations are a bit more diplomatic. Not wanting to offend anyone we apply it this way: Are you a Martha or a Mary? We need both - some serve with their hands and it's OK if God has given you that gift; others are more reflective and that's OK too.

These interpretations are troublesome on many levels.They almost always pit Mary against Martha pointing out that Mary has achieved some higher level of spirituality. They end with pointing out how we should be like one or the other - it all comes back to us. In this remarkable account, our conversation focuses on what Martha and Mary are doing or not doing, completely missing Jesus and what he has done. (Now is probably a good time to stop and remember that the Bible tells one story of one Hero. The Bible is not a compilation of God making good people better. The Bible is the story of a Redeemer making dead people live.)

Based on the interpretations above, I can go one of two ways with feeling guilty. When I look at Martha and see how her homemaking skills are lauded I often feel inadequate in that department. I confess that my first thought is not necessarily cooking and cleaning. Then I see Mary and her immediate devotion at the feet of Jesus and I am instantly reminded of all the ways I fall short of my devotion to Christ. Is sitting at his feet my first thought in the midst of my busy schedule? I find that I fail at both ends.

Thankfully, the story of Martha and Mary is less about who is doing what, and  more about Christ and what he has done. 

Steve Brown commented on the passage saying. "Martha is not a monster and Mary is not a saint." 

The truth is, Mary lived life just as Martha did. We don't see the times she cooked and cleaned and carried on with the daily needs of living, but I'm sure she did. And, Martha lived life just as Mary did. We don't see the times she attended to devotional practices like church or praying. If we only look at those outward behaviors we miss the point.

Jesus came down to save sinners like Martha and Mary. In Christ, they are free. Free to serve, free to love, free to sit, free to clean, free to worship. By the way, Jesus loved them both. "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus." (John 11:5)
I love how Martin Luther puts it;

The grace of God which brings salvation is the one thing needful. It was God's grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ, to both Martha and Mary that prompted their responses of serving and sitting.

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