Sorry that I’ve been a little AWOL – it’s been like a hospital ward at my house. I’ve been administering medicine and wiping noses all week. We’ll be looking at the account of Mary and Martha two more times, this time focusing on Mary, and what she was actually doing in all of this:
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
So hopefully to this point we realize that despite what we may have believed, Martha’s work wasn’t good and healthy work on Jesus’ behalf, but instead a distracting busyness that alienated her from God and from her own sister. But what about Mary? What was Mary actually doing in this passage, and what was so good about it? Well first, we should realize that Mary wasn’t just listening to jokes.
To me, when I imagine this account, I usually visualize Mary adoringly sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to encouraging lessons and parables about the forgiving father and the lost sheep, just kind of soaking in the gentleness and love of Christ. And I think that image isn’t completely wrong, and that part of what Jesus was sharing was very affirming and encouraging, and easy to listen to and enjoy.
But I’m also sure that wasn’t the entirety of what Mary heard, because that’s not the only type of teaching that Jesus gave during His ministry. Mary was also probably hearing some much more difficult teachings as well. In the same gospel that we are reading from today, in Luke 14:26, Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” In Luke 12:4, Jesus says this,
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
8 “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. 9 But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
And so assuming that what Jesus was telling Mary that day was very much in line with what he taught in the rest of his ministry, then we know that Jesus wasn’t just telling jokes or anecdotes, and making Mary feel comfortable and welcomed. Mary was also hearing some very challenging words, yes, filled with wisdom and grace, but also very tough at the same time. And so we have to consider the possibility that out of the two women in this passage, that it was Martha who had the easier time, cooking dinner in the kitchen. Because it’s very possible that Mary was hearing a tough teaching from Jesus about forgiveness for enemies or hypocrisy or about taking up one’s cross, while Martha just gets to mindlessly make dinner in peace.
And I think that is important to know on a personal level as well, that sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him does not mean just listening to the positive, acceptable, encouraging things that Jesus has to say, although that’s definitely part of it. Listening to Jesus means listening to everything he has to say, including the parts that are very hard for us to easily accept. And sometimes it is easier for us to throw ourselves into busy but generically good work, rather than listen to the incisive words that Christ teaches us.
But just as this passage teaches, we should now realize that the latter is better than the former.