Let me confess to you: I have never much liked the story of Martha and Mary. Maybe it is because there is a part of me that likes “to do,” to see measurable progress, and know we are moving ahead. Don’t get me wrong, I treasure my quiet time, but… Most of my life I have heard that the point of this story was that Mary’s attention to Jesus’ teaching is better and more important than what Martha is doing – the work of hospitality. The women in Kenya heard it that way and it rubbed them the wrong way. They quickly pointed out the biblical importance of their work: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2) They also could have just stayed here in the Gospel of Luke where hospitality is evangelical. In the end, these women felt that the story undervalues or dismissed their efforts to be welcoming, hospitable and to serve.
Lately, however, I’ve been persuaded that despite the language of “the better part,” this story isn’t about favoring contemplation over action, or learning over service, or devotion over hospitality. Rather, it’s about seeing what is possible.
In our gospel narrative, Jesus and his disciples are coming and Martha gets busy making sure everyone has what they need. This is what was expected of her – not only expected, but at the same time valued. As I mentioned, hospitality is a core evangelical charism in Luke’s gospel. That same effort and focus on hospitality was also expected from Mary.
But when Jesus comes, new things are possible and old expectations fall to the wayside. The old expectation was that the men would take up the posture of the disciple and sit at the teacher’s feet to learn, reflect, and grow in wisdom. What was not expected became the new possibility as Mary took her place as one worthy to sit at Jesus’ feet to listen and learn, right alongside the men…as one worthy! As one called.
So perhaps Jesus’ admonition to Martha about “the better part” is not about the roles each plays – both have tremendous value in the gospels – but rather that Mary has seen the possibility of doing something different, actually of being someone different – a disciple of Jesus – in a way few would have expected or allowed a woman to consider. In other words, perhaps it’s Mary’s assumption that she is worthy to sit at Jesus’ feet that he commends. She imagines and lives into a possibility that stretches the cultural expectation because she is in the presence of the one through whom God promises that all things are possible and that all will be lifted up.
Lifted up to be more than you think you can be, more than you were told you could be, more than you dared-to-hope that you could be, to be fully alive. As St. Irenaeus wrote centuries ago: the glory of God is the human being fully alive. Maybe that is the admonition to Mary about “the better part.”
And what about Martha? So often, in Jesus words, “Martha, Martha” we hear a little exasperation, as in, “that is so sad…don’t you get it?” But here’s the thing: the double name address is a Hebrew expression of intimacy. It’s use in the Old Testament is also a call to something more than you thought you might/could be. Wasn’t that the case for Abraham, Moses, and Samuel?
I would suggest that when Jesus repeats Martha’s name, he is not expressing exasperation but deep affection: Martha, Martha, precisely because I love you I want you neither to be distracted nor trapped by your work and others expectations but instead imagine all that is possible for you, as Mary has done – she has heard God’s call to her and chosen the better part, the path for her to become fully alive in God.
Last week, a lot of my homily on the Good Samaritan centered on truly seeing. Maybe it’s not much different this week. Jesus is calling us to stretch our imagination in how/what we see as viable options for our lives and for others. Jesus calls us to see beyond our own self-imposed limits. Last week the scholar of the Law was called to see beyond his own prejudices about Samaritans and to see the mercy of God in action. This week Martha is called to see beyond, to imagine. Martha may well see she is right where God wants her to be. Martha may also see that God is calling Mary to another valued role in God’s Kingdom.
Today, you are called. Hear your name called in affection to come for Eucharist. Hear the call to receive this amazing grace that will enable you to truly see – and then dare to imagine more for yourself, your family, your loved ones. Or to discover you have already followed and are right where God would have you be.
This is not a gospel of this-is-better-than-that. This is a gospel to hear Jesus’ voice, follow, be lifted up, and in these things become more than you ever imagined. The gospel that calls you to be the glory of God, to be fully alive.