Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Mary or Martha? No Thanks.

I’m 99.9% sure that I have never used the phrase “in the Greek text” during a sermon. Unless you’re speaking to a seminary community or the rector of a church full of classicists, it’s pompous. No one needs to know that I know the Greek and that I am thus the well-educated dispensary of proper knowledge without whom the masses would be ignorant. In other words, boasting in a sermon about what the Greek text says is a lot like the priest who does everything in Latin back when only the wealthy and educated knew Latin.

That being said…the Greek text behind this Sunday’s gospellesson has two points that I am desperate to get into a sermon this Sunday (even though I’m not preaching), and I’m going to have to figure out how to do it.

One way I’ve tried in the past is to say something more casual and slightly less boasting when comparing the English translation (usually the NRSV) with the Greek text: “The word ‘xxxx’ can also mean ‘yyyy.’” Another way is to read from a different English translation that gets closer to the sentiment I have in mind. This week, if I were preaching, I might have to do both. That’s because, when I read the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10, two words jump out at me with bold, flashing, emergency-red lights: “distracted” and “better.”

Luke, the narrator, writes, “But Martha was distracted by many tasks.” I like that word. I like what it says about Martha. I like that she isn’t being criticized for her hospitality, nor is she being singled out for her busyness. The point of contention is the distraction that the work of preparing to host Jesus and his friends has become. The Greek word in verse 40 that is translated as “distracted” is “περιεσπατο.” Apparently (I had to look it up), that word literally means “pulled about.” In other words, Martha is being pulled in too many directions. She needs to “let go and let God”—advice this unrecovered obsessive has never found all that helpful.

Later on, when Jesus speaks to Martha, the NRSV uses the words “worried” and “distracted” to convey Jesus’ gentle criticism, but the Greek words are “μεριμνας” and “θορυβαξη,” which literally mean, “anxious/mentally troubled with cares” and “turbid,” respectively. In other words, Martha is letting her anxiety and turbidity “cloud” her spiritual sight. She has stirred up too much of a fuss.

For someone like me—who resents Mary both for her torpidity and the fact that she gets praised for it—hearing Jesus call her choice the “better” gets under my skin. Sure, I need to become more like a Mary and less like a Martha, but I doubt we could say that all of us should become “Maries.” (What’s the plural of “Mary?”) How would anything get done? The Greek word for “better” is “αγαθην,” which means “good, useful, pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy.” There is probably implied a comparative use of that adjective, but many translations render it simply as “the good part” without throwing Martha totally under the bus.

As strange as this might sound for someone who’s getting all uppity about the Greek text, I think I like the rendering that The Message gives for this passage best:

38-40 As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.”

41-42 The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”

Martha is getting “pulled away”—the literal for “distracted”—by her many tasks. Jesus notes that the is “fussing far too much” and “getting…worked up”—which convey the turbidity implied by the Greek. And then Jesus commends Mary not for being a better disciple but for choosing the only “essential” portion, which gives me enough wiggle room to sit at the table with that lazy good-for-nothing.


Maybe it’s not right for me to tweak the text until it says what I want it to say. Or maybe we live in a word that forces this gospel into a dichotomy that it isn’t really supposed to present. This isn’t about choosing to be either a Mary or a Martha but about not getting pulled away from what’s important. The Message isn’t approved for use in public worship in the Episcopal Church (nor should it be), but I might suggest starting a sermon by reading from it anyway.

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