Monday, July 22, 2013

Understanding Martha: We're Doing it Wrong

Pentecost 9 (Year C)
21 July 2013

Genesis 18:1-10a; Luke 10:38-42

            With this cartoon in mind, I think that the common interpretation of this story might have been wrong for several hundred years. Each story in Scripture has three contexts, all of which we are relying on the Holy Spirit and God’s gift of reason to help us interpret. With today’s gospel reading, we have to determine what was happening when the actual event occurred, why the writer thought it was important to include over nearly fifty years later, and what God is saying to us today with regard to the story.

         When Jesus first came to Bethany and stayed with Martha and Mary, he already knows them. They are friends of his. Martha is apparently the older sister, since the house is listed as hers. Maybe there is some sibling rivalry between Mary and Martha (younger and older) or maybe Martha has always done most of the work. Regardless, Martha has begun the culturally appropriate tasks of preparing her home to host a guest (or several) and Mary is not helping. When Martha complains about her burden, Jesus tells her Mary has made a different choice.

         The implication of Jesus’ words is that what Mary has chosen is more important that what Martha has chosen. It doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t understand that dinner has to get made, but that Martha shouldn’t be consumed with what has to be done, but should instead focus on who she’s hosting. Having Jesus present means that the focus isn’t on what you can do for him, but what he does for you. Mary is learning from him, hearing his radical teaching,… she is actually paying attention to who their guest is, as opposed to what has to be done for a guest. Even when we hear this story this way, most of us still have a lot of sympathy for Martha and what it takes to get things done. We are able to understand, however briefly, what Jesus is saying about Mary.

         When Luke is writing sometime in the 70s A.D./C.E., the early church is struggling with what to say about the role of women. Are they able to sit and learn with men? Do they have the capacity? Is it appropriate? When Luke includes this story in that context, it is a rebuke to those who believe women are better suited to the tasks of hospitality at the edges of the early church, rather than the work of discipleship through learning (and maybe teaching!). Luke’s story makes the space for people to hear Jesus say that a woman learning is right and proper and even part of their duties as his followers. Luke understands the importance of hospitality and the work of the community, but it is not to be done solely by women to the exclusion of their ability to participate otherwise in the life of the community.

         When we hear that interpretation, we are a little more able to understand the meaning and the layers of the story. Furthermore, in that context, we are able to see how wrong later church interpretation has been around this story. How many years have Marthas- people who are on the go or active or who get things done- been denigrated instead of Marys- people who want to sit, perhaps let someone else do things, and who learn well in traditional classroom settings? How many women have felt frustrated and hurt by this story? How many women have been told that they can learn, but then they can’t teach? How many men feel frustrated by this as well, but left out because the parable mostly seems to be about women?

         And, in all this, what if we’ve been very, very, very wrong about what the parable means for us in our time? The following saints have their feast days in the coming week (among others): Macrina (early church monastic and teacher), Margaret of Antioch (martyr), Mary Magdalene, Bridget of Sweden (mystic), James the apostle, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, Bach, Handel, and Henry Purcell. None of these were content with sitting, but all worked… all were active in their faith- even in doubt- to the glory of God.

         Every single one of those people probably related more to Martha of Bethany than to her sister, Mary. By venerating Mary over Martha all these years, the church has mistakenly promoted the idea that orthodoxy (right thinking/teaching) will always trump orthopraxy (right practice). Jesus never expected anyone to sit at his feet forever, but to learn and to go out into the world- knowing he’s with them!

         The gift of the Holy Spirit is not so we can continue to brood over Scripture, waiting and hoping for complete clarity. If we understand anything at all, it is that the love of Christ compels us to go out into the world and live- asking God to help and guide us. We are called to the hospitality of Martha, without her worry, knowing that we will be hosting Jesus everywhere we go. We will be encountered by Christ in the store and the school, in music and in art, in knitting and in running, in cooking and in shopping, in study and in action.

         The lives of the saints teach us that the church has been carried forward not merely by Marys, but primarily by Marthas. Marthas who have learned that Jesus is for them as well. Marthas who cannot be still, but learn on the go and on the move. Marthas who appreciate the call of hospitality, but also know whom they are hosting and Who is hosting them. Marthas who compose, teach, learn, make, and wait on the Lord.

         Mary and Martha of Bethany… we’ve been thinking about them all wrong. The grace of God is for both doers and thinkers, for teachers and students, for active learners and introspective ponderers. The grace of God is for all of them. For all of us. And so is the work of the kingdom. Amen. 

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