HOPE IS HARD WORK
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:38-42, NRSV)
My daughter, Alina, is about to turn 18. She’s a senior in high school, so the college search is in high gear. Growing up across from Copley Pond, Alina has loved turtles and frogs practically her whole life. Now she’s interested in studying environmental science or some facet of biology.
Last spring we drove upstate to tour several schools including SUNY Plattsburgh, a perfectly situated place to study nature with its proximity to Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. During our campus visit, we talked to an environmental science professor, Dr. Garneau, who focuses on wildlife ecology. Dr. Garneau’s students track turtle movement in upstate New York by attaching transponders to the bottoms of their shells. Alina’s face lit up at the very thought of this. The professor really won her over when she said sometimes she comes to work carrying her baby daughter in one arm and roadkill in the other. This is what’s called kindred spirits. It was beyond what we had hoped for.
In today’s scripture lesson about sisters Mary and Martha, we find two women, both hoping to serve Jesus in two very different ways. When Jesus came for dinner, Martha, being a good host, began preparing a feast. Can’t you picture her flurry of activity? Lighting a fire. Filling bowls. Stirring pots. Drawing water, attending to every last detail. Pausing to catch her breath with a heavy sigh, Martha realizes she’s trying to be the Galloping Gourmet all by herself. Where was Mary? Can’t you hear her calling from the kitchen, “MARY? Where are you?”
Although sitting in the next room, Mary may never have heard the question. Her ears were attuned not to the rattle of pots and pans, but to the words of her good friend and rabbi, Jesus. The text tells us that Mary literally sat at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. Perhaps Mary heard yet ignored Martha. Maybe she thought to herself, “If my sister Martha were wound up any more tightly she’d pop.” Or perhaps she ignored her sister’s demands preferring to talk to Jesus rather than peel potatoes.
Whatever her reasons, it’s worth noting that the very fact that Jesus allowed her to sit at his feet and listen to his teachings was radical for the day. In the time of Jesus, women were not allowed to sit at the feet of rabbis and soak in the wisdom. “First century Rabbi Eliazer said, ‘If a man gives his daughter knowledge of the law, it as though he taught her lechery,’ and ‘Better to burn the Torah than to teach it to women’” (http://department.monm.edu/classics/Speel_ Festschrift/vandewater.htm). (I guess he didn’t make any college visits with his daughter.) Clara Beth Speel (Van de Water) reports that, ‘There are no known examples of women reading in the synagogue during Jesus’ time’...Also, women were not counted in the ‘minyan,’ or quorum, needed for a synagogue service” (Ibid.).
No wonder Martha was at her wits’ end with Mary. By breaking societal norms, by behaving like a man, Mary brought shame upon the family and the home. When Martha had enough and she just could not take it anymore, she storms into the next room, ignores her sister, and says to Jesus, “Don’t you care that my sister is making me do all the work alone? Tell her to help me.” Did Martha know from experience that Mary wouldn’t listen to her complaint or did she hope to embarrass Mary by having Jesus set her straight? We don’t know, but we do know that the answer Martha received from Jesus was not the one she expected, but it was the one she needed to hear.
Jesus looked at Martha’s stressed face and compassionately said, “Martha, Martha you are anxious and worried about many things, but only one thing is necessary.” Many scholars believe that Jesus was referring to the impending meal. Martha worked to prepare a feast while Jesus would have been content with a single dish. Jesus goes on to tell Martha, “Mary has chosen the good portion and it will not be taken away from her.” In other words, Mary made a good choice to sit here and listen to me and I’m not going to take that away from her. She stays.
And there the story ends. The text does not tell us what happened next. Was Martha hurt that Jesus did not appreciate her extraordinary efforts on his behalf? Was she angry that Jesus refused to condemn Mary? Or did his statement strike her as a revelation? Jesus wasn’t looking for a Super-sized McFeast, he’d rather Martha leave the kitchen and spend some quality time with him. As a type-A personality, Martha never realized that being driven all the time to do more and more missed the point. While there is a time and a place for preparing a banquet, spending some time at the feet of Jesus was necessary as well.
Putting this story in the overall context of Luke offers us a balance. Earlier in Luke chapter 10, the Parable of the Good Samaritan immediately precedes the story of Mary and Martha. In this most famous of parables, Jesus not only calls us to lives of active service, but also breaks down stereotypes and narrow cultural assumptions. He says the neighbor is the person who stopped to bandage the wounded man.
The life of Jesus demonstrated aspects of both of these stories: the parable of the Good Samaritan and his dinner visit with friends. Like Mary, Jesus took time for spiritual reflection and time for his friends. Like the Good Samaritan, Jesus took time to help someone. Like Martha, Jesus fed the hungry including the time he fed over 5,000 people with scant provisions.
The life of Christ exemplified balance. Jesus knew a healthy rhythm in life of prayer and action, moments in solitude and moments with multitudes, occasions for himself and occasions for others, time to withdraw from the world and time to change it.
A balanced life widens our perspective and therefore can nurture our hope. Sometimes it’s hard to remain hopeful. We’ve all had the wind knocked out of us. We’ve all feared for ourselves and our loved ones. Hope is not automatic.
Hope takes hard work, and hope takes reflection. Hope is speaking out and listening. Hope is researching colleges and visiting a campus. Hope is sorting food for a Long Island food pantry and learning about world hunger. Hope is giving thanks for a sunset and working to help the earth.
Instead of pitting Mary against Martha as an “either/or,” let’s view them as a “both/and.” Connection to God and connection to our world are not exclusive choices. The two go hand in hand, even when it’s not easy, and even when we’re tired.
Pauli Murray, a poet and pastor writes, “Hope is a song in the weary throat…Hope becomes possible when the weary throats sing” https://faithandleadership.com/alaina-kleinbeck.
As we begin our new program year, let’s remember Mary and Martha. May we bloom our hopes by anchoring them in action. May we stay connected to God as well as God’s world. May we not feel like we have to choose. And even when weary, may we still sing songs of hope, alone or with a whole choir! AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
Edited by Colleen Brown Only
September 8, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Everlasting and ever-loving God, we thank you for your kindness and mercy, for abiding with us through thick and thin. When we are worn down by the rough edges of life, polish our hearts and souls that we might gleam with hope. If we lose our way in the shadows of the world, offer us a little light, until at last our eyes dazzle in the bright dawn of your grace and wonder.
We thank you for the blessings we see all around us in the beauty of stars and seas, in the joy of children and grandparents. Deepen our appreciation of life that we might know joy and that it might be contagious.
And now to you, O God, be all praise, glory, and honor. AMEN.
Portions of this prayer were adapted from Thom Schumann and found at http://lectionaryliturgies.blogspot.com/2013_01_01_archive.html.