Third Sunday in Lent
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Jesus comes in to town, and he’s knocking door to door. One opens, and inside’s a woman Martha who lives there with her sister. A woman named Mary. Jesus, the man standing at the door is a bit of a controversial figure. Some have welcomed him in, others have flatly turned him and his people away out of fear. But this woman, Martha, she invites him in. She takes the risk and welcomes this stranger of ill-repute in to her home.
And she immediately gets to work preparing for her guest. As soon as he’s in the door.
In the bible, the practice of hospitality, welcoming an unknown stranger and preparing a meal for them is a big deal. In Genesis, chapter eighteen, three strangers show up at the tent of Abraham and Sarah. When Abraham and Sarah see these strangers coming, they rushes out to them, offer to wash their feet, bring them bread, and serve their finest veal. All under a nice shady place to rest. Soon we discover that in accomodating these guests, Abraham was actually hosting the Lord. In providing an extravagant welcome to these three strangers, they extravagantly welcome God. It’s the same reason why we try our best to offer a similar welcome at St. George’s. No questions asked.
So Martha is just carrying on the tradition, working diligently, serving this stranger named Jesus. Offering welcome, showing hospitality. Just in case of angels.
But even though Martha’s doing everything right, somehow she ends up getting the short end of the stick.
She looks up from her many tasks and sees Jesus and her sister hanging out in the living room. Jesus is speaking. Martha can’t really hear what he’s saying. But she can see that Mary is slacking off, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, while she’s busy doing the responsible thing. Martha approaches Jesus. “Don’t you care?” she asks, “that my sister’s left me to do all the heavy lifting preparing for your visit? Tell her to give me a hand.” But Jesus doesn’t seem to agree. “Martha,” he says, “Martha, Martha, you’re worried and distracted by so many things. But there’s only one thing you need. Mary’s chosen the good part. And it won’t be taken away from her.”
So Martha’s done everything right. Rolling out the red carpet. Making everything perfect for this holy guest. But it’s Mary, the slacker, she’s the one who gets the accolades. Mary wins Jesus’ approval, while Martha receives a rebuke. From Jesus, no less.
Martha’s missing out on something here, missing out on the “good part” that Mary has somehow chosen. Even though she’s done everything right. She’s done the biblical thing.
The problem, though, is that even the right task has become a distraction. She’s become so caught up in the task at hand, that she’s ignored the guest, Jesus, altogether, and hasn’t been able to hear him. In her rush and single-minded drive to do the right thing, she ends up worried, missing the point of the visit altogether. Martha’s problem is that her tasks, her service has been an end in itself. But even our best deeds are always temporary. For her, service, her many tasks and duties have just become obligations. One of many “to do’s.”
Martha thinks that her worth in Jesus’ presence is determined by what she does, what she can do, rather than by what Jesus can give her. As a result, she’s completely bypassed Jesus, and she’s missed out on the “good part,” the “one thing she needs.” I like the original King James Version–that Jesus gives Mary the “one needful thing,” something that can not be taken away. Martha misses out.
Like Martha, we know a bit of something about worry and distraction we know something about missing out.
Someone once described our modern culture as “the age of distraction.” Another says as a society we’ve fallen in to something called the “busy trap,” another going so far as saying we worship at the “cult of busy.” I recall seeing a movie (a comedy) where a working mother of two living in a large Canadian city looks in to the camera. And she’s describes this wall calendar she’s created on a huge piece of white paper to keep track of all their family activities. “It really helps me visualize our schedule,” she says. “The green stickers are swim lessons, the yellow ones are music lessons, red is soccer, black is my husband’s work schedule...” and so on. She finally shows us the schedule and we see the punchline: there isn’t a single white space left on the page. It’s covered in sticky notes, without a sliver free time.
We live in a fast-paced culture, with hectic schedules, stressful careers and incredible, competing demands on our time. Busy-ness is often seen as a mark of success, or importance. A friend of mine says that when someone talks about how busy they are, they really mean “please think I am important. Please see me as productive.” I know I do it, too.
Busyness, activity is seen as the measure of our worth. And, like Martha, our hearts can be in the right place, and often we’re just trying to do the right thing. We’re trying to make a living, trying to provide what seem like the best opportunities and richest lives for our children and families. And if we don’t keep up, we worry that we might just get left behind. But we end up missing the things that truly count. And bring us life.
Where Martha is caught up in her worries and her many tasks, hoping to do the right thing, Mary is the one who, when Jesus is invited in, is able to give her attention, is able to hear.
I think we’re mistaken if we think this story is about what Martha misses and what Mary gets. And we shouldn’t just hear this story as Mary giving the example of the right thing to do–because then Mary ends up with the same problem as Martha! It’s all about spending as much time as you can in study, or contemplation, listening to Jesus and leaving all the mundane worries at the side. And there have been times in the history of the church where we’ve interpreted the faith as list of obligations, a set of do’s and don’ts that might keep us out of the fire. For some folks growing up, going to church itself has been just one more obligation. Or, on the flip side, we’ve turned social justice and activism as an end in of itself, rather than something that flows out of our own faith.
No, the story isn’t about what Martha doesn’t do, it’s not about Mary does do. No, the story is about Jesus and it’s about who God is. It’s all about what Jesus is offering to those who hear him. When Martha looks up and sees Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, she’s looking at a disciple, a follower. This identity she’s been given is the “one needful thing,” the thing that she needs the most. And it’s no surprise, especially in the gospel of Luke because God is the one who dispenses extravagant and unreasonable grace. To just about anyone you could think of under the sun. So much so that God’s own life is given up through Jesus on the cross. Mary’s given the “one needful thing.” And it can’t be taken away.
The good news is that the Christian life is not about how busy we are, about how many tasks we can complete or about a list of accomplishments. No matter how worried or distracted our lives may be, we discover in this place that our lives always begin at the feet of Jesus. The Risen Christ, the one who is carrying us with him to Jerusalem. In our frantic culture of busyness and striving, where our worth is determined by what we do, how much money we make or how much we have, we discover that it all is meaningless at the feet of Jesus. Our meaning is not derived from what we do, by our abilities or our productivity, but it is who we are that gives us our worth. It is our baptismal identity as disciples, adopted as God’s beloved children that gives us meaning and sets out agendas for living. Our tasks--what we do—these things are given meaning by who we are. Not the other way around.
So, friends, though you are worried and distracted by many things—life is difficult, full of stress and anxiety, and the world is full of even crueller things–remember that there is only one needful thing. You are only in need of one thing. And you have been given that one thing at Jesus’ feet. You didn’t do anything, you couldn’t do anything to receive it. Nothing to strive for, nothing to earn. It’s a pure gift from God. You have been given grace, and offered new life on the road to Jerusalem in the Way of Jesus Christ. Hear that you have been given meaning, you have been given a life. You have been given a vocation as witnesses to God’s extravagant love, the “better part” which will not, cannot ever be taken away. For “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).