Worried and distracted. That’s what Jesus sees when he looks out and sees Martha fussing around in the back kitchen – an worried and distracted woman. We all feel a bit of the offense that Martha would have taken over being called out in this way, can’t we? We run from activity to activity, to obligation to obligation, to engagement to engagement, all because we’re trying to be good people, put food on the table, and live as respectable contributors to society – hopefully we’re also trying to be disciples of Jesus. We hear Jesus scolding us when he says, “you are worried and distracted by many things …” We want to respond, “But I was only doing what I thought you wanted from me to begin with!”
If everyone were like Mary, would anyone ever get any work done? We’d all be sitting idly by expecting someone else to do all the hard work, only there would be no one else. To privilege Mary over Martha seems like the ultimate in naïveté, endorsing a whole system and society where people feel entitled to anything they want without working for it.
Well, catch your breath if you’re adding your voice in these objections. One mistake we constantly make with Jesus is taking his words, which were uttered in a particular time and place, to meet a particular, highly contextual situation, and thinking that he’s speaking to every time and place and every situation.
For example, when Jesus sends out his disciples, instructing them to go out into the countryside carrying neither sword, nor bag, nor purse, many think he’s speaking about what’s expected of all of his disciples for all time. We’re supposed to give away all we have if we are to be true followers of Jesus. (That’s what St. Francis thought.) Yet at another time, Jesus commands his disciples to take up their purse and bag, and if they don’t have a sword to get one. (Luke 22:36) While Jesus’ words of wisdom tend to stand for all time, this doesn’t mean you can ignore the context he was speaking within and apply it to every situation.
Think about our present story for a moment as if it happened today. If Jesus were literally to come to your home to discuss his thoughts on life, what do you think would be more important for you to do as host: make sure everyone got brownies and coffee, or make sure everyone including you is able to feast on every word Jesus has to say? Remember, this is Jesus we’re talking about, not some minor philosopher!
In Martha’s day, she couldn’t simply say, “Oh, they’re videotaping his talk so I’ll just catch it later.” You couldn’t even look up Jesus clips on YouTube. This may be the only opportunity she will ever have to hear Jesus speak in such a small, intimate setting. Is the hummus and pita really so important?
Of course, Martha might object that it was out of her high respect for Jesus that she sacrificed her opportunity to sit at his feet and provide him a few figs and dates. Yet how respected do you suppose someone like Jesus felt to have someone essentially saying, “I’ve got more important things to do than listen to what you have to say?” Is it not Jesus who once told the devil, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4; Luke 4:4). And he said this after going without food for forty days!
In privileging Mary’s idleness over Martha’s work, Jesus wasn’t privileging idleness as a permanent ideal, or putting down all work as unnecessary. He was privileging “keeping the main thing the Main Thing.” When he was speaking, the Main Thing was to set aside whatever you were doing and listen. How else were his words to be heard, remembered, and passed down to later generations?
Stay tuned for Part 3 of my reflection on Mary and Martha: “Connecting with Your Inner Harpooner” – coming tomorrow.