The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

On being the church: Mary & Martha

Posted by Ron George on July 5, 2013

Women with Jesus_Sknner-Noble

Women with Jesus: Mary, Martha & Jesus at dinner, by Glenda Skinner-Noble

As I was noodling around in my e-mail account, I came across a message I’d filed as a draft in – 2007! Something for the blog, drafted but not posted, awaiting editing tweaks and a search for artwork. Utterly forgotten. It was like finding an old photo of myself wearing familiar clothes long discarded. I’m smiling. It was a happier time. Thing is, I enjoyed finding this snapshot and remembering that old me.

Luke 10.38-42

Jesus’ reply to Martha’s complaint wasn’t insensitive. His rebuke was gentle, but the point was clear: Mary had chosen the better part, and by implication, Martha had not. It’s not difficult to understand this teaching, but it’s awfully difficult to put it into play. I’d guess that most Christians most of the time, past and present, have ignored this teaching in practice, because we know in our guts — or think we do — that Martha is right. It’s just plain silly to suggest that sloth is a virtue, and if that’s what Jesus means, then he’s an idiot. It’s something we can live with in Sunday school, nodding in agreement that sitting at Jesus’ feet is spiritually more rewarding than setting the table; but then we’ll go back into the world and live as though our relationship with God in Christ were not primary but something chinked into stolen moments of our lives.

We can rationalize, too, that this story of Mary and Martha is about setting priorities, just as the New Testament teaches us elsewhere — seek first God’s kingdom, then everything else will be added. What we eat, what we drink, what we wear. Lilies of the field, and all that. Truth is, we’re not too good at that, either. We talk the talk about setting priorities, but scratch most of us on a given Sunday morning, and we’ll find folks concerned, even overwhelmed, by the things of this world. We may even will find the institution itself more concerned with such things, especially if the congregation is in the throes of a construction project.

Martha_and_Mary_by_He_Qi_China

Martha and Mary, by He Qi

This charming story turns out to be one of our rabbi’s hard sayings, especially if we truly yearn to choose the better part. If only Jesus had said setting the table was the better part, or that prayer and work are both essential, regardless of which comes first.He didn’t though, and so we’re left holding the bag. He has spoken the truth that sets us free, it’s just that most of us aren’t able or willing to embrace it, and to that extent, we’re willing to let our freedom in Christ be conditioned by the worries and distractions of life.

I take some comfort in that Jesus doesn’t condemn Martha for choosing a lesser way. He speaks to her and, so, to most of us of greater and lesser degrees of loving response to his coming under our roof. It’s not wrong to work in the kitchen; it’s just the lesser of these two ways of responding to Christ at this particular moment. Can it be that this is one of those moments in our life in Christ in which many are called but few chosen, wherein all of us know the cost of discipleship, but, quite sensibly, most of us choose not the better part? Perhaps. Let’s leave it as a point to ponder, especially as regards “sensibility” as a criterion for evaluating vocation.

I find myself in this story as neither Mary nor Martha but as a member of the household where two or three are gathered, and there is Christ in our midst. I find myself in a tension between two strong women, but I am also aware of our unity the longer Christ stays in our house. I am taken in by the love of God in Christ, and I yearn simply to let go, to sit quietly and hear the word of God borne by the Spirit of wisdom who leads us into truth, to follow God my brother on the way of the cross, giving no thought for the morrow.Then I hear in the clatter of the kitchen a call to duty, to routine, to discipline, to constancy and to service that partakes of the providence of God, who would withhold nothing from us and from whose hands all good things come — through my hands, by God’s grace, not only to be sisters and brothers in Christ but also to the sick, the friendless and the needy. I find myself in this story not having to choose one way or the other, but letting God’s love plot whatever course of action is needful, be it the better or the lesser part, content that whatever part there is for me to play, I am of the Body of Christ, no member of which would ever say, “I have no need of you.”

I find myself in this story in the heart of mystery and paradox as God my brother teaches and God my mother leads among all who are gathered in the glory of God my father. I find myself pondering the ironies of the least being greatest and of servants being masters, not because they’re entitled but because they’re most humble of all, called by he who came not to be served but to serve, the One who washes our feet. I find myself in that community of love called Trinity in that holy household called Church, living in hope of that kingdom called Heaven.

There is no resolution of the dialogue between Mary and Martha, except that the middle term is Christ who reconciles and makes whole communities formed by gathering in his name, by inviting the holy family of God to become manifest in our midst. The tension is creative, though, for the challenge before us of placing spirituality in the occupational zones of life in the world while making spiritual exercise of our daily work; for we are not called to prayer or work, but to prayer and work for the sake of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

The story of Mary and Martha leaves us with two additional threads that we might weave into meaning: the image of Christ coming under our roof as we are gathered as the church; and how Christ’s teaching in this incident might be understood in practical terms illuminated by the Benedictine motto, ora et labora: prayer and work.

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