Sometimes I entertain myself by Googling commentary on Bible passages. People say some funny stuff out there on the internet. Like this: “The story of Mary and Martha is one of the most treasured in the Bible.” Hah. Nope.
Or: “Take this quiz - Are you a Martha or a Mary?” Um, nope again.
And then there’s this one, in a famous and reputable Christian magazine no less: “Martha, You Don’t have to be Mary.” That article required a subscription to read, so I don’t know if it was a take on “You be You” or something else, but anyway, Capital N Nope.
Now maybe I surprised you with these declarations. But some of the traditional interpretations of this story do not make my heart feel warm and sentimental, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Traditional interpretations have served to pit women who have different vocations or personalities or spiritual gifts against each other; they have fueled resentment and divisiveness in and out of the church. I have it on good authority that some of those without a contemplative nature feel put down by Jesus here. And in an unfortunate effort to rehabilitate the story, we find the “You Be You” take, where Marthas get Marys back by wearing “Proud to be a Martha” buttons and re-writing the story to have Jesus get up and wash the dishes at the end when he realizes that he was wrong and how hungry he would have been if Martha hadn’t fixed a great dinner. So there.
And all of this is understandable when we go along with the interpretation that this is a story about competing women’s roles, or that this is a story about dinner rolls. But, truly, it’s not about women and it’s not about dinner, either. It’s not even about contemplation. It’s about the urgency of God’s mission - a really really big idea - told through a very short story that takes place in a certain home in a certain small village - a specific example of how people might respond when the cosmic Kingdom of God comes near.
We actually heard a snippet of this very same kind of story a few weeks ago when a would-be (male) disciple responded to Jesus’s command to follow him by saying “First let me go and bury my father,” and Jesus shocked him and us by curtly upbraiding him with the reply “Let the dead bury the dead.” Wait, what?
So let’s connect the dots.
It all started when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. This is a pivotal point in Jesus’s life and ministry. He has been spreading the good news throughout the land. He has been healing and teaching and feeding and his fame has spread. People are flocking to him to be touched, to be healed, to be fed. Obviously Jesus could keep doing these things every day for ever and ever, because there seems to be no end to sickness and grief, ignorance and hunger - there wasn’t then and there isn’t now. But after a while there was something even more urgent for Jesus than all these other things, as important as they were. And that urgent something was going to happen in Jerusalem. He knew it was time, his time, the Kingdom of God was being manifest in Jesus himself, the salvation of the whole world was in view, and everything else had to fall by the wayside.
And so he went purposely forward along the way and as he met people he said to them, “Follow me.” The time is now, and there is no time to lose. It’s a matter of life and death. There may be a time for those other things - there is a time for those things - but not now. Not when the Kingdom of God appears on your very street, at your very door.
And so Jesus calls, not softly and tenderly this time, but starkly and matter-of-factly. Let the dead bury the dead, man. Woman, leave off the fluffing the pillows and the garnishing of the deviled eggs. I’m telling you this is urgent, a matter of life and death.
Again, it isn’t that these things aren’t important - taking care of our parents, raising our children, providing warm hospitality; farming, feeding, cleaning, working. Jesus isn’t saying that we should not care about these things or that we should not do them.
He is saying that if we are too busy and distracted, or too bound to convention, or too caught up in the ordinary stuff of life, we might miss an extraordinary moment of God coming into our midst with an urgent mission at hand. And further, when that moment comes, our response should be to just drop the other stuff. It’s not going anywhere.
So Martha is not inherently wrong to be concerned about providing hospitality. Hospitality is a good thing and Jesus praises it often. It isn’t wrong that the man wanted to bury his father. It’s not an either-or thing, it’s not about one’s essence as a “kind of person.” One is not either a Mary or a Martha, a dutiful son or a callous one. It’s about recognizing the moment. We are all called to be disciples, and sometimes that means dropping everything and going with Jesus on an urgent mission. I feel certain that Mary herself was no stranger to slaving in the kitchen, but she chose to let that go this time because she recognized the moment when the kingdom of God was appearing in her very own living room.
And God does appear even on our streets and even in our living rooms. You can be sure that God is not afraid or too holy to be on TV or on the internet. And I don’t mean through TV preachers. When we see rank injustice in a news story, God is there. When we see certain stories of poverty, sickness, violence, despair playing out in the news, Jesus is pointing to them and saying emphatically, “Follow me.” He is not restricted to the year 33 A.D. And we even now are all Mary and we are all Martha and we are all that poor guy who is just trying to do the right thing. It’s not about our nature, it’s about our response to God’s call.
And so, for everything there is a season, the Bible says. And a time for every purpose under heaven. Moses stops watching his flock and attends to the burning bush. The Virgin Mary stops her devotional reading and listens to the Angel Gabriel. Peter and Andrew get up and leave their father and their nets in the fishing boat when Jesus calls out to them. For there is a time to herd sheep, and a time to recognize holy ground; a time to read prayers, and a time to hear the rustle of angel wings; a time to fish, and a time to leave fishing behind, because Jesus has come and it’s a matter of life and death.