Wednesday, July 13, 2016
It's Not About Mary
If you are preaching this week, please resist the temptation to urge your congregation to be more like Mary. If you plan to show up at church this week and intend to pay attention to the gospel lesson, please don't walk away thinking, "I'm a Martha, but Jesus is calling me to be a Mary." When we hear the story of Jesus sojourning in the home of his friends, it is tempting to conclude that sitting at Jesus' feet is where we all belong. But please, in the name of proper exegesis, southern hospitality, and type-A personalities everywhere, don't stop there. This isn't a story about Mary. It's a story about distraction.
The first thing I noticed about the lessons this week is that, in the Track 2 lectionary, the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) is paired with the hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18:1-10a). If the point of the gospel lesson is to emphasize contemplation above action, why would we read about Abraham hurrying about to prepare a meal for his three guests? Read that story and feel again the urgency behind Abraham's actions. Abraham "ran from the tent entrance to meet them," "hastened into the tent," and said to Sarah, "make ready quickly three measures of choice flour." The activity under the oaks of Mamre mirrored that of Martha in Bethany. She busied about the house preparing the meal, setting the table, and making ready to entertain the Lord. Even though Mary is praised by Jesus "for choosing the better part," Martha's mistake--and presumably what separates her from Abraham--is not her activity but her distraction.
Luke the editor of the story tells us that "Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to [Jesus] and said..." Notice the sequential if not consequential relationship between those two states of being--distracted and appeal. Her triangulated request to Jesus for her sister's help is the product of her distraction--literally her "being pulled about by the urgently present table service." That sounds ridiculous, but it was supposed to sound pretty ridiculous to the Greek reader. Anyone who has ever been surprised by unexpected guests understands the chaos that ensues, but, until that knock at the door comes, that we would be undone by it seems pretty laughable. Her misdirected request for her sister's assistance is issued from a state of distraction, and it is the distraction that Jesus seizes upon.
As Steve Pankey wrote on Monday, the word Jesus uses to describe Martha's state of being is a hapax legomenon, a word that only occurs once in scripture. As he concludes, this points to an "unprecedented level of distraction." The Greek word thorubazo means bothered in the disturbed, disquieted sense, which suggests to me something internal rather than external. At first, Luke uses the traditional word perispao to describe Martha as distracted by the needs of the moment, but Jesus changes that word to suggest a deeper problem. Sure, Martha was busy taking care of her guest, but the real issue was that there was something inside her that was out of sync with the situation itself. Whether making preparations for a meal or sitting at Jesus' feet, the opportunity was the same--to welcome Jesus inside. Unencumbered Mary had space for that. Despite being busy, Martha could have made space for that, too, but her disquieting obsession made that impossible.
From this place of distraction, Martha first invokes a comparison with her sister. The comparison isn't the issue either; it's a symptom. Martha is unbalanced. She is out of sorts. Her efforts have lost their true telos. Jesus responds with a mirrored comparison--Mary has chosen the better part. I prefer the antiquated RSV's "portion" here because it helps me see that this isn't about role playing; it's about gift. Mary chose the good portion not in her refusal to help her sister but in her complete and total acceptance of the gift that Jesus represents. Being busy isn't the sin that keeps Martha from receiving it. It's her misdirected busyness--the kind of busyness that asks "why isn't she helping me" instead of acknowledging "this is my portion, too."