I do feel as though sometimes we need to acknowledge that some interpretations of particular stories are better left in the past. The story of Martha and Mary… I’d like us to use our imaginations as we look at this familiar story today. This story sadly has often been used to justify the appreciation of some personalities over others, or it has been used to pit one kind of Christian activity over another, and the fact that Martha and Mary are female, well that’s been simply used badly. The problem is we read this with quite a few of our cultural assumptions out in front. Martha is the slightly hysterical woman who is grumpy about being left in the kitchen to prepare the food while her sister ignores all that needs to be done so as to sit in on the bible study happening in the living room. I’d like to suggest that actually what is really going on here has not much to do with any of these. As we go through, I’d like you to imagine that you are there that day, a first-hand observer as to what was happening. Perhaps try and imagine yourself as Martha, she is the one who tends to come off second best a lot of the time. If you were Martha, how would you feel? What would you be thinking?

Our story today actually doesn’t begin with Jesus arriving in the town where Martha and Mary lived. It started a couple of chapters earlier when Jesus and his group of disciples started their journey towards Jerusalem. That’s the journey this story is part of. Not long before this story, as you heard from Robin Humphreys a couple of weeks ago, Jesus sends out 70 odd disciples ahead of him on the road. He sent them on ahead in mission and then rejoiced, reflected and taught with them as they gathered back together. It’s important to note the number of disciples who were travelling with and learning from Jesus. It wasn’t just a few, or even simply the 12. There were 70 something of them! It’s easy to imagine that there were a few others tagging along as well, Jesus seemed to have that effect. We could imagine that perhaps there were close to 100 people travelling together by the time you add the disciples, perhaps some families, plus others as well? This might change how we view this situation with Martha and Mary. Here’s the first thing to note today. As you are putting yourself in Martha’s shoes, imagine what you might think and feel as Jesus and his large entourage turned up in your town and it became up to you to be the host. It doesn’t seem likely, given what we know about hospitality in the middle east in those times, that you would invite only Jesus as your guest. It’s probably more likely that in inviting Jesus, you actually ended up responsible for hosting everyone who was travelling with him as well. This might change how we feel about Martha!

Hospitality is a good point to note as well. Generally in the gospel of Luke and in the sending out of the 70 disciples in particular, Jesus seems to highlight hospitality and the receiving of it as a sign of, or at least as a context in which the good news of God is made known. The freely giving and freely receiving of Hospitality is a sign to say that the ground is fertile for the seeds of the Kingdom to take root. After the disciples are back travelling with Jesus again he tells the story of The Good Samaritan in which we see that to the answer of the rich man’s question, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus instructs him to show extravagant hospitality to his neighbour. “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) is Jesus final instruction. Hospitality is central in Jesus’ understanding of the good news of God becoming real in the world. And so, Martha in this story really is ‘doing likewise,’ she is showing extravagant hospitality in an impossible situation. Is it a contradiction then when Jesus seems to tell her not to worry about it? As you imagine yourself in Martha’s situation what does this apparent contradiction say to you?

As you’re imagining yourself in the scene. I imagine everyone is speaking a language that you understand. They probably aren’t speaking ancient Greek. Which is a shame because in losing the original language, we’ve lost some of the original feel, tone, and meaning. One of my favourite Greek language experts, Dr. Mark Davis, talks about how the tone of the language used when describing how Martha felt in this situation, and describing how Jesus responds to her, isn’t necessarily how we have taken it.[1] The Greek language seems to suggest that Martha wasn’t grumpy about Mary but rather seems to be panicked or having a sense of being utterly overwhelmed with the task that is at hand. It’s quite understandable given the situation! She does the right thing in inviting and welcoming them all, but it is seriously affecting her mental health! Overwhelmed and so focused on being hospitable in an almost impossible situation, she begins to crack under the pressure. In the narrowing of the mind that inevitably happens when we are beginning to be snowed under by the task at hand we lose sight of the bigger picture, at what else is going on; we lose sight of our place in the bigger picture, of our part in the whole and perhaps most importantly, we lose sight of the people and their situations who are around us. Perhaps this is why Martha doesn’t address Mary directly? She had lost sight of her sister. As you imagine yourself as Martha, can you identify with how she is feeling? Jesus’ response to Martha, the “Martha, Martha” isn’t condescending, it isn’t a ‘tut tut’ but rather its use in this way in the original language shows compassion and understanding. It is as if Jesus looks at her knowing exactly the feelings she is feeling and meets her with compassion. He sees her intention, acknowledges her pain and in his compassion names what is happening for her. When Jesus says, “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” it is as if he is saying ‘“the one necessity among the many distracting, anxiety-ridden things”[2] won’t be taken from your sister. Yes, hospitality is important, but not at the expense of your own well-being, not at the expense of your relationship with your sister, not at the expense of what she needs at this point in time.’ Perhaps one way to understand this is to ask ourselves the question, if Jesus represents the presence and the message of God in this story, then what is this? I don’t know about you, but I see not only compassion, but also a non-anxious presence. A reminder to trust in God and remember that God is the one who truly shoulders the burden of all that is needed, not us. Does this change how you imagine this story?

All these things. The enormity of the task ahead of Martha, the importance of hospitality, and the tone of the conversation all point to this not really being about bible studies vs service, or contemplation vs action, or certain personalities vs others. We don’t see Jesus praising Mary over Martha and he doesn’t say that Martha is being an irrational or bad-tempered female – which is what a lot of our interpretations say between the lines if we’re honest – he simply meets Martha with compassion while saying that he won’t stop Mary from doing what she is doing. The issue is that Martha is overwhelmed – her preoccupation and its effects on her mean that it’s not doing her any good. The state she is getting into is negatively affecting her relationship with her sister and the mood of Jesus and his disciples’ visit. In her blindness, caused by her feelings of being overwhelmed, of feeling as if it all rests on her shoulders, she is causing fractures in her community – did you notice she can’t even talk to Mary directly? Martha loses sight of what is someone else’s necessary task in that particular moment. She loses sight of what her sister needs at this point in time. This is why Jesus addresses her with compassion and names what is at the heart of the issue.

The importance of hospitality really is something I believe we agree with. It is in true hospitality where we experience the love and grace of God taking root and becoming real. The importance of listening at the feet of Jesus is also a given. It is in our listening and learning from Jesus that our understanding of God’s ways develop and grow. Both are necessary. I would argue with regard to hospitality that it isn’t simply an invitation to eat, but rather hospitality is an invitation to relate, both to God and to one another. It is an invitation of the soul. It is not a new thing to say that our culture is obsessed with ‘doing all the things’ – there are many ‘things’ to be done. In the church we can fall into this trap easily, getting ourselves busy with this that and the next thing. It’s certainly a trap for Ministers has I have come to understand a number of times already! It can feel good to be busy. Especially if it is in the areas that Jesus seemed to approve of… serving our communities and sharing in hospitality. The danger is that in our busyness, we lose sight of the main thing – trusting that God has it all in hand, rather than it being all up to us. The danger in thinking that it is all up to us (whatever it is we are trying to do) is that it starts effecting how we are in ourselves, and that starts effecting how we are towards one another, how we ‘see’ one another. In fact it seems that when we are being consumed by our worry, by our anxiety about all that needs to be done, we simply stop seeing anyone else and I would add we stop seeing truly who we are as well.

So, if, or maybe when, the task of hospitality, the task we could say of any activity or ministry in our community preoccupies us so much that we lose sight of what is at the heart of it, then it is time that we need to stop what we are doing and hear the compassionate words of Jesus who reminds us of what is really important, of what sits underneath it all. Trusting in God, our attention as disciples of Jesus, and our living as one community united together in our love and care for one another, is what is necessary and we should not seek to take it from anyone.

As we come to Christ’s table this morning and participate in Communion together. Perhaps we could continue involving our imaginations. As you partake in this sacrament, imagine yourself again as Martha, the one who was bearing all the responsibility, and hear the words of Jesus as he speaks to your soul. ‘One thing is important,’ he says, ‘remember, it is God’s hospitality we truly participate in, it is God’s responsibility and as such God provides all we need. This is the necessary work, to trust in God and not be overcome with the task that is at hand. We are all in this together.’

‘Follow me,’ says Jesus,

‘I am leading the way.’

[1] See here for his full discussion – http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/07/marthas-anxiety-struggling-alone.html

[2] See comment on verse 42, from the above.