Saturday, July 20, 2013

Martha, Martha...

Thanks to the work of D. Mark Davis, Delmer Chilton, Robert Hamerton-Kelley, and Paul J. Nuechterlein for their insight and scholarship.

Luke 10:38-42
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, 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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Gospel reading this week takes up right where we left off last week, with the parable of the Good Samaritan. With that in mind, it's kind of confusing that Jesus would go from telling a lawyer to show and receive love, caring, and hospitality to and from all people, to wagging his finger at Martha for trying to show Jesus and his disciples love, caring, and hospitality.

In a historical context, Martha is doing exactly the right thing. We know from elsewhere in the Gospels that Martha and Mary have a brother, Lazarus. It is entirely possible that Lazarus invited Jesus and everyone else to his house. Martha has welcomed Jesus and his disciples into her home, and is very likely making sure the feet of thirteen-plus people (one of them a celebrity) are washed, all their cups are full, and that dinner is on the stove.

In the historical context. Mary is doing exactly the wrong thing. First off, yes she should be helping Martha with the chores of hospitality. Secondly, the very idea that, in that day and age, a woman would sit among men as an equal, sitting at the very feet of Jesus, no less! But sit she does, and no one – not Jesus, not Lazarus, not one of the disciples – thinks a thing about it.

And yes Martha blows up and yes Jesus corrects her and says Mary has chosen the better part. But to just look at this as a sibling rivalry, or a battle between an active life and a life of contemplation, or for a preacher to wag his finger at the congregation and say “take time to listen to Jesus,” then go sit down for lunch without a thought as to how much actual work goes in to preparing that or any other meal... well, I think those approaches either oversimplify or completely miss the point of the text.

First off, let's look at today's reading in the context of last week's reading: it sounds delightful, the idea of spending all of our time and attention “at the feet of Jesus,” listening to and meditating upon the Word of God. Yet a life spent only in contemplation leaves no room for action. The lawyer who challenged Jesus in last week's reading knew the Law, meditated and studied it and memorized it day after day, but he didn't know who to act compassionately toward – he had never really put all that thought and study into action.

So sure, we should understand that balance is necessary to a well-rounded life of faith. We should study, meditate, pray, and we should act. We should help and love and show support and hospitality.

Yet is it not true that there are times when action is vital, when there simply isn't time to meditate and contemplate and vegetate. In last week's reading, the Samaritan didn't pause to ask “WWJD” or remember that he was on a dangerous road or that this guy was a despised enemy. He saw an immediate, pressing need and he acted.

We have seen that kind of response many times in our lives, and relatively recently. I still remember how, on 9/11, people were running from the Pentagon until the word went out that people were trapped in the collapsed, flaming section of the building. As a person the wave of people reversed, and they ran back to help. I saw the same reaction right after the bomb went off at the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Following the April 27, 2011 tornadoes in Alabama, people and money and goods flowed into the affected areas from all over the world, and no one stopped to make sure the recipients of the aid were good people, or were the right religion, sexual orientation, or color. The same is true for Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, and the list really does go on and on and on.

Martha was doing exactly what needed to be done. Aside from the cultural expectations, there is the reality that these people were tired from the road, they were thirsty and hungry, and they were under her roof. If she had done what Mary did, nothing at all would have happened.

I think it isn't entirely my imagination that sees Martha rushing around, frazzled. The Scripture says she was “distracted,” and the Greek there, “perispao,” means to be overly occupied with a thing, to be obsessive about a task and all the details involved; like the bride before a wedding, or a director on opening night of a play. Martha is a flurry of activity, so much so that things are starting to fall apart. There are cooking utensils hitting the floor and the bread is getting burned because she is trying to fill cups and pick up behind the disciples, and her nerves are getting more and more frazzled, and she stares a hole through Mary every time she rushes past, and she is banging plates down on the counter and slamming the oven door – I know, there weren't oven doors back then, but you get the idea – and maybe she is grumbling under her breath about the nerve of that lazy, ungrateful, insolent Mary!

By the time she talks – probably interrupts – Jesus, she is about to blow a gasket. “do you not care that I am working my fingers to the bone while that sister of mine does nothing? Tell her to get up and help!”

I imagine that everybody fell silent when that happened, but everybody there has been around Jesus for long enough to not be shocked at a woman speaking directly or even sharply to Jesus anymore. They are worried for Martha, and maybe a little embarassed that they hadn't lifted a finger themselves to help.

Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things...” but I think the Greek for “worried and distracted” carries a stronger feeling than our translation gives it. “Thorubaz─ô” means to disturb greatly, terrify, strike with panic... it also can mean a noise, tumult, uproar, perhaps the noise of persons wailing, of a clamorous and excited multitude, and so on. In Acts 17:5, it means an uproar or a riot. In Mark 5:39 and Matthew 9:23, it refers to those who are wailing in grief. In Acts 20:10, it refers to the alarm that people had over someone who had fallen from an upper story window.

Martha isn't just stressed or distracted. She is in a panic. There is too much to do, too many expectations, too much need, she can't do it all and the walls are closing in on her.

So I think it is a mistake to read Jesus' words to her in a tone of condescending rebuke. I hear real concern in Jesus' voice: “Martha. Martha! Honey you are freakin' out, take a breath...”

Part of the backstory here is that in Luke's ninth chapter, we are told that Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Everyone knows that Jerusalem is the center of power for all those who oppose Jesus, ground zero for the men wanting to see the itinerant Rabbi dead by any means necessary. Jesus knows this, and he knows that he must go there, and nothing will stop him from fulfilling his Father's plan.

When Jesus walks in to the house, I can imagine that Mary realizes something: this is the last time she'll probably get to see Jesus. She is one of those people who knows – knows – who Jesus is and why he came, and maybe she doesn't understand it any better than any other disciple, but she knows it as well as any of them. So she sits as close to him as she can, and she listens, hanging on every word.

We have to appreciate Martha’s position before we critique Martha. What if Martha feels the same way Mary does, and her way of reacting to this terrifying knowledge is to determine to do the best job ever of providing comfort to the King?

And what if the responsibility overwhelms her? She is having what looks like a panic attack. She certainly sees what she is doing as a struggle and she feels completely alone in it. Until we sympathize with the genuine challenge that Martha is facing, the internal ‘riot’ that she is experiencing, then we will only dumb down this story into “Martha, Martha” as a condescending pat on the head.

I want to be careful here, because I think Martha's situation connects to the parable of the Good Samaritan, but I in no way want to paint Martha as a bad person. The man who is beaten and left for dead in last week's parable gets passed up by a priest and a Levite before the Samaritan shows up. One way of looking at why they cross to the far side of the road to avoid him is that they don't want to chance becoming unclean by touching a corpse. Of course the Scriptures compel them to help much more strongly than they compel them to be clean, but their culture expects them to be able to stand in the Temple and make sacrifices and do priest-y and Levite-y things.

They let cultural expectations block out the clear Word of God. And perhaps Martha has let her obsessive attention to the task at hand, her determination to serve Jesus, the noise of the riot and panic in her mind and heart, actually block out Jesus.

In a way, the lawyer who challenged Jesus in last week's reading and Mary are similar: they are deeply invested in experiencing the Word of God. Martha is similar to the Samaritan, in that they are doing important, necessary work, acting as the hands and feet of God in this world.

Both are important, both have their place, and sometimes you can't do just one and not the other, but I think the key is focus. The lawyer, and Martha, let the minutiae drown out the truth.

Perhaps we read this account and want to be Mary, but the reality of our particular life situations, or the persistent noise of living in the twenty-first century, make us far more like Martha – obsessed and busy and in a low-grade panic from time to time. But busy-ness isn't wrong. Jesus never says that Martha is irrational or wrong-headed. He merely says that he will not stop Mary from sitting and hearing.

Mary has chosen the good part out of the many things by sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing the word. She is entitled to be there and not obligated to leave there – either because of her gender or because of the real, overwhelming work that calls to be done. She has chosen the necessary part. She needs to be there.

I think Jesus is calling on Martha to calm the riot within – to listen as she works, to experience the joy of being near her Lord within her activity. She needs to be there, too.

And we can work, and pray, help, and meditate, love, and listen, too. We need to be there, too.

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