Updated: Jul 18
Genesis 18:1-10; Luke 10:38-42
The lesson that I just read from Luke’s gospel is a type of short, encapsulated story that is often called a pericope. I’ve always loved the word “pericope.” It is spelled like pear-ee-kope, which sounds stale and medical, but puh-rik-uh-pee skips off the tongue. There aren’t many chances to use the word, so I will today. This particular pericope is simple, but it often leaves readers scratching our heads.
We know from John’s gospel that Martha and Mary are sisters from Bethany, and they are as devoted to Jesus as any of his disciples. If you know the stories from John, these are the sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus raises from the dead, but Luke doesn’t mention any of that. In this pericope, we hear that Martha appears to be doing a virtuous thing by undertaking the chores, and her frustration with Mary is fairly relatable. After all, who among us wouldn’t be frustrated with our sibling if we did all the chores while they sat around and didn’t pull their weight? And yet, on the surface of this pericope, Jesus appears to praise what Martha perceives as Mary’s laziness and to chastise Martha for being such a “busybody.”
This surface reading is a natural one, but it misses a subtle distinction in the lesson. In order to access this subtlety, I am going to step away from this pericope, and share with you a parallel story from the boarding school in Virginia where my wife, Mary, and I live during the year. Adolescent boys provide great raw material for the human condition because they often haven’t learned to refine their emotions and camouflage them the way we do as adults. As a result, the subtle distinction that Jesus is making in Luke’s gospel with Martha and Mary is exaggerated in the following story and might be easier to access:
The premier senior leadership position for the boys at our school is called “Prefect” and eighteen of the one hundred seniors each year receive it. The application process is rigorous, including a vote by the entire faculty and student body as well as interviews with the headmaster; nevertheless, the position is sought after by well more than half of each rising senior class. Every year, when the Prefect selections are announced for the subsequent year, a wave of elation and despair spreads through the senior class. And every year, there are a number of senior boys who are upset, not unlike Martha in our pericope today. These boys tend to say something almost identical to this:
“I have done everything I’ve been asked to do at this school. I’ve done everything right, and some of those other boys who I know haven’t done everything as well as I have received Prefect! It’s not fair, and it goes to show that I did everything right for nothing.”
“It goes to show that I did everything right for nothing.” That particular phrase is an exact quote from a disappointed boy last year. His statement is raw and honest, and it admits that the he hadn’t been doing “the right thing” because it is the right thing; rather; he had been doing it so that someone else might applaud him for doing it.
I hope you might see the parallel with Martha here. When she turns to Jesus and says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me,” we might hear her saying, “Lord, I am doing the chores so that I can reap their reward, and if Mary gets the same reward without doing anything, then all my work is worthless.” Martha is revealing that she is doing the chores in order to receive recognition and reward. To say the same thing in a slightly different way, Martha is afraid that without recognition and reward for her hard work, then everything she does will be for nothing. I hope you might see here how Martha’s frustration could be rooted in the same insecurity and desire for recognition as the boy who failed to receive the title of Prefect at my school.
The important and subtle distinction in this pericope is about Martha’s intentions, not her actions. Jesus does not comment on whether or not Martha or Mary is right to do the chores or not to do the chores. I suspect that, like many of us, Jesus would find Martha’s actions virtuous; however, Jesus isn’t commenting on Martha’s actions; he is commenting on the intention behind her frustration. This internal world of our souls is the arena into which Jesus invites us.
To do the right thing for the wrong reason is just as dangerous in Jesus’ teachings as doing the wrong thing, not because the action becomes any less virtuous with poor intentions, but because of the effect that fear and insecurity have on the internal world of our souls.
Jesus’ focus on our internal life is most clearly laid out in his sermon on mount in Matthew’s gospel where he uses a rhetorical formula to emphasize that it is our intentions that ultimately matter most to the quality of our lives. “You have heard it said,” Jesus says there, “that whoever murders will liable to judgement […] but I say to you that if you are angry with your brother and sister you will be liable to judgement. (Matthew 5:21-22)”
In other words, even if we don’t actually commit murder, if we spend our lives angry and bitter enough to want murder someone, then have really achieved a virtuous life? To relate this back to Martha: her actions may be virtuous, but if her virtue causes her to lead a bitter, frustrated life, then she has kind of missed the point. This is a hard lesson for many of us to hear because most of us, most of the time, behave and think like Martha. We set about “the chores of life” in order to receive their reward, and we become embittered when our chores are cheapened or not recognized. Our understanding of our own value becomes imprisoned by what other people think and say about us, and our insecurities begin to dominating our lives. We lose our agency and freedom to this fear.
This is not good news, which is why Jesus is pointing us away from Martha and towards Mary in this pericope. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." What is the better part? Is it sitting around doing nothing? Not at all. The pericope makes clear, “Mary sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying.”
Mary wasn’t doing nothing, she was listening.
Time and again, Jesus tells anyone who will listen to him that He loves them, that God loves them, that each and every one of us has infinite dignity and value. We don’t have to be powerful or good looking or rich or famous to be loved.
God loves us, full stop, the way a Father loves a Son, not with an expectation of return on investment through virtuous living, but with a love born out of sheer joy for our existence. This is the good news that Jesus came to tell the world.
But, like Martha, we are often so busy trying to earn our value with virtue that we don’t take time to consider how profoundly transformative this love of God might be in our lives.
What if Martha, like Mary, listened to this good news that Jesus is telling everyone? The cynicism of the world will tell us that this would cause everybody to become a lazy bum like Mary, and nobody would get anything done. "After all," this reasoning goes, "someone has to put food on the table. It is all fine and dandy for the minister to talk about sitting at Jesus' feet, but the bottom line doesn't change...the chores have to get done." This narrative of fear and scarcity misses the point of the lesson because if focuses on the chores rather than the intention behind the chores. Every one of us has chores to do today, and tomorrow, and the next day.
Jesus is not suggesting that the good life is easy or chore-less. He is suggesting that there is a profound and transformative difference between a person who undertakes the chores of life out of fear that they aren’t worthy if they don’t do them, and a person who undertakes the chores of life out of gratitude for a love that they have already received.
Again, to draw an analogy for those of us who are parents, think about how much we sacrifice for our children from the moment they are born. We do this not because we necessarily expect anything back from them, but because we are grateful that they are alive. This kind of giving from a foundation of gratitude is the way of love. In our pericope today, Martha has stepped out of the way of love and into the way of fear. Fear is what the world has to offer. It saturates the newspapers and it looms over our lives. Fear is what tells us we are not enough if we don’t do the chores. But there is another way of being; another way of doing the chores of life. This alternative way of being is often entirely internal. The same action, the same chore, can be undertaken with love or with fear. As we discussed in our lesson from creation: God is not a being; God is a way of being. When we do our chores with love, we participate in God’s way of being.
I woke up early this morning to finish this sermon. I took two swings at this sermon early in the week and missed both times. I get nervous when sermons come hard and I procrastinate until the last minute, fearful that I will be unprepared and disappoint. I made some coffee in the darkness and looked for my favorite mug, which I couldn’t find because it was in the dishwasher, and a thread of bitterness entered my heart. I thought to myself: “I wish my wife Mary (appropriately named for this anecdote) would unload the dishwasher just once this summer so I would have my coffee mug this morning.”
This is a ridiculous thought. So ridiculous, in fact, that I stopped and said to myself, “Hello Martha.” I laughed at my own small moment of bitterness rooted in my insecurity, just like Martha. God must have known that I needed some help. That small moment of humility, allowed me to pause and remember that I have a beautiful, talented wife who does far more for me than I do for her. I remembered that I am blessed with a healthy body and healthy hands, and I have a sometimes-noisy-in-church-but-otherwise-perfect daughter who was sleeping upstairs, and another daughter on the way, which my wife Mary is lovingly nurturing into the world at the temporary expense of her own body. And in that moment, in that memory, I heard Jesus’ good news. I listened to the blessings and love that I have already received in this life, and I unloaded the dishwasher with a smile of gratitude. Thanks be to God. Amen.