First Mennonite Church
August 27, 2017
Jesus Meets with Mary and Martha
Jesus was maybe near Martha’s and Mary’s kitchen, and the kitchen is always the best place to be in. In most real estate magazines, kitchens of houses for sale are described in much detail. Country style kitchen, you must see! Spacious kitchen, you will love it! When I was growing up in Belize, most people in my village had their kitchen in a separate house from the living house. The main reason is because most kitchens, if not all, used firewood for fuel. Kitchens were separate from where people slept because of the smoke. But these separate kitchen-houses were not only used for cooking; they were also used to store in grain, keep firewood dry, and to store the farming tools. The kitchen was not necessarily the dining room either. In many cases, it was mostly women who worked in them, except when the men needed their farming tools.
Again, just to set a contrast of kitchen styles, when I attended Mennonite World Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, meals were prepared and served in the top floor of an 18-floor hotel. The dining hall was gorgeous and beautiful, overlooking the sprawling city below. But during the almost two weeks of the Mennonite World Conference in Calcutta, India, meals were prepared outdoors. On one corner of St. Thomas High School food was cooked in giant pots set on iron stilts. As is the culture, the host crew in charge of the meals sat on the ground over sheets of tarp to peel carrots, potatoes, and onions, and to prepare other ingredients for the food to be served. The kitchen, regardless of size or luxuries or lack of them, is an important space in every home.
One thing is almost true for every host expecting guests for dinner: he or she is prone to be stressed. Even when the host is good at cooking, there might be a certain level of stress. Will the food come out as it usually does? Will it finish on time? Is everything set nicely? When it comes to hosting, any help is good. And Martha was not getting it! In Martha’s view, all the guests were already there but not all hands were on deck preparing the food.
Let us see the passage as is.
Verse 38 tells us that Jesus, his disciples and other followers were on their way to Jerusalem. And even when Luke does not specify which village Jesus has come to, taking from John’s stories about Martha, Mary and Lazarus, we know he came to Bethany. Bethany was about two miles from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha opened her home to him. In other words, Martha cordially welcomed Jesus to her home.
As Jesus’ death was fast approaching, he dedicated every moment available to teaching. Therefore, once inside Martha’s home, he began to teach.
Mary in contravention of social and cultural rules for women, sat at Jesus’ feet to listen. Women were not only not allowed to study the Torah, they were discouraged from doing so. Parents were ridiculed if they encouraged their daughters to study the Law. Rabbi Eliazer in the first century AD said, “If a man gives his daughter knowledge of the Law, it was as though he taught her lechery” (lasciviousness), and, “Better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman.” (Emswiller 1977:22) But Mary chose to break away from the norms of her day to listen to Jesus. Mary’s sitting at the feet of Jesus meant she was playing the role of a disciple. She sat as a disciple, a role that was only proper for men at that time.
But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. While Mary savored every word Jesus was teaching, Martha was boiling inside. She could not understand why her sister was not at all worried about the meal that should be served, and even more, many guests were there and only a pair of hands hard at work. Martha threw the spoon, wiped her hands with her apron, and burst into the class as Jesus was speaking. She was a little out of breath not because of physical exhaustion but out of frustration. Lord, don’t you care that Mary has left me to do all the work by myself? Don’t you realize this is an unfair game going on between Mary and me? Tell her to help me!
What Martha did is called by psychologists a triangulation. She had a problem but did not want to address it with the person she should. Instead, she went to a third person to discuss the problem. The problem with this approach in dealing with conflict is that the third or middle person is required to choose sides on the matter. And this, too, happens not only in families and organizations but also in churches. And guess who happens to be caught in that triangulation most often? Yes, it often is the preacher!
In the context of family, Lilian and I have witnessed that too. More than once we were invited for dinner by a family and when everything seemed to be going just fine, suddenly the husband began spewing accusations against his wife, hoping we would get on his side.
In Martha’s case, unfortunately, it was a different story. Jesus in very much a parental attitude says: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Martha’s abrupt interruption to Jesus teaching was not overlooked. Jesus plainly analyzed the situation. Martha was worried and upset about many things! Martha was distracted and stressed out because in her view she had the responsibility to host the guests. She was stressed out because she was losing control over the situation. The work was too much for her to handle herself. She felt alone and overlooked. Martha was upset about many things, but Jesus says, “Only one thing is needed”. Some versions put it as: “Only one thing is necessary”! From what follows it was obvious that Jesus was not referring to the fact that only one dish was needed and that Martha should not be worried about serving a four or five course meal. Jesus was referring to the fact that Martha’s trouble was that she believed order, good hosting, and housekeeping depended on her. Yet when she realized she could not do everything by herself, she got frustrated. This is what she says to Jesus: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” And that is the trouble for many of us who are like Martha in one way or another. We can come to believe that our home and church runs because of what we do.
Jesus showed Martha that “only one thing is needed” and Mary had chosen “the better part which will never be taken away from her”.
My friend, no matter what is it we do for the Lord, let us not lose sight of him. Intimate relationship with the Lord is the one and most important thing in life, at home, in the kitchen, the workplace, in the church, and even in ministry. So even if it is church work we are doing, let us not forget to stay in close relationship with the Master. He will help us keep everything else in perspective and in the correct order of priority. Do what you have at hand. It might be tough at times. You might feel lonely or overlooked, but do not neglect your intimate relationship with the Master. Sit at his feet and be a humble disciple. Keeping a close relationship with the Lord is and should always be our priority even when it comes to ministry.
This story raises some important questions. Martha earnestly wanted to be a good hostess to Jesus. But somehow Jesus wanted to remind Martha that “man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Martha was too busy and distracted with too many things.
What consumes most of your time? How much time do you spend at the feet of Jesus, listening and learning from him? We can be like Martha who have willingly opened our homes and our hearts to Jesus and then got busy with something that is not the priority for his visit. And by this I mean, it is not that Jesus would not have eaten Martha’s food. Jesus’ point is that what is first should be first. I have been like Martha on some occasions. On occasion I too have gotten distracted. I have prioritized reading books, seeking resources for ministry and not seeking guidance from the Lord. I have prioritized human relations at the expense of my relations with the Lord in prayer. At times I have felt left alone doing a certain job; I have felt my work deserves attention. I have believed that if more hands would help we would be able to accomplish more. And I too have come close to the point of starting to bang the pots and pans and call the attention of Jesus to send others to help me. And in small congregations like ours, it is easy to have the Martha-complex. Most leaders have more than one hat to wear. They could be a trustee member, treasurer, Sunday school teacher, worship leader, caretaker, and so on. And at times you might feel abandoned and disregarded for what you do, yet in your good sense of responsibility you would not want to see something go undone, or halfway done. With this in mind, I want to invite each of you to join in. Ask the Lord how you can serve best. Tell me how you would like to serve.
A second major issue that arises from this story is Mary’s view of what discipleship is. Mary did not abide within the typical role of women and Jesus amazingly affirmed her action. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet along with Peter and his friends. And when Martha came demanding Jesus to send her back to her typical role, Jesus showed Martha that gender roles in his kingdom do not prevail. Women just like men can be both disciples and servants in his kingdom. Loving God and his word takes precedence over gender roles. Jesus did not say to Mary, “Mary, I am so sorry. Go back to where you belong. The word of God does not have the same power in your mouth as it has in the mouths of Peter and James.”
Let me close with Jesus’ words to Martha: “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Let us choose what is better, which will never be taken away from us. Amen.