I can still remember the first time I heard this story of the conversation between Martha and Jesus, and I felt something within me say, "YES!"
As I read about Jesus not only allowing or tolerating but affirming what Mary was doing, my heart jumped with joy.
Sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening might not seem very radical for us, but in Mary's day it was a violation of both cultural and religious rules and practices.
I don't know what gave Mary the courage and audacity to do this, but her example and Jesus' positive response encouraged me to follow through with my own heart's desire to go to seminary and become an ordained minister.
For a woman to want to become a minister in the 1970's in the South was not only unusual but almost as radical as what Mary did when she dared to enter into that conversation with Jesus.
If I'd been there in Martha's home on that day, I would have cheered Jesus on, pumping my arm in the air, giving him a high five, not only for telling Martha to get off Mary's back, but for settling the whole matter once and for all by declaring that Mary was right and Martha was wrong. Declaring that Mary was right and Martha was wrong. That's how I once interpreted this passage.
As I think back to that time in my life and my attitude not only toward this Scripture but toward most everything, it strikes me how caught up I was in a dualistic way of thinking--a dualistic way of thinking that assumed if one person was right, the other person must be wrong. If one person was praised and affirmed, then the other person must have been criticized.
There was little room for BOTH ... AND.
This kind of thinking caused me to approach situations where there were conflicting points of view with the assumption that the only way to resolve them was by having a winner and a loser.
This kind of black or white, right or wrong, win or lose thinking and attitude certainly made my life more challenging than it had to be, and it probably made the lives of many around me more difficult as well.
It was interesting for me to come back to this story about Mary and Martha and their interaction with Jesus, attempting to listen for its message with ears and a heart that didn't require this winner/loser, good guy/bad guy kind of approach.
As I listened to the story in a way that attempted to move beyond my own biases regarding the good guys and the bad guys and beyond my assumptions that there even had to be good guys and bad guys, I began to consider some different possibilities, different possibilities about how that culture's roles and expectations affected what happened in this story. Different possibilities as well regarding what we can learn from the story.
As a young woman who was attempting to transcend the rules of my religious heritage and the gender roles and expectations of my culture, I always identified with--and attempted to tell--this story from what I imagined Mary's perspective might be.
As an older woman, who now realizes at least a bit more about how complex we are as human beings and how extremely complicated family dynamics can be, I chose this time to attempt to hear and tell the story from Martha's perspective.
I do this
- with some awareness of the historical context regarding gender roles and expectations;
- with some awareness of the Gospel of Luke's overall intent and purpose in telling the story of Jesus;
- and perhaps most importantly, with some awareness that a story does not have to have winners and losers, those who are right and those who are wrong.
So this is my attempt to put this story in a context that at least tries to understand where Martha may have been coming from when she came into the room and asked Jesus to tell her sister to come out and help her.
Well it happened again today--just like it always seems to do these days. I've been cooking and cleaning all week because we heard that Jesus might be coming to town.
In the past when Jesus came to town, the first place he stopped was our house.
As would be expected, my brother Lazarus always invited him to stay for dinner. It's our duty and obligation to provide this kind of hospitality for anyone who comes to our home. This is one religious practice and custom that I not only understand but fully support. If I were traveling, I would appreciate someone along the way offering me a meal.
The troubling part, at least for me these days, is the fact that Lazarus does this before checking with me, checking to see if we have enough food to offer someone else. Things are tight for everyone now. With the new taxes we have to pay, we're never sure if we'll have enough food to feed ourselves from week to week.
As the oldest member of our family, I've been feeling the weight of this responsibility since my parents died. Technically, our home belongs to Lazarus since he's the man of the family, but in reality I'm the one who has to make sure the taxes get paid so we can stay here and not get kicked out like so many of our neighbors have when they couldn't pay their taxes.
Things have gotten so bad that if I don't stay on top of everything, from tending our garden to preserving what it produces, we won't have enough food to make it through the next dry season.
Lazarus and Mary haven't faced this reality. The truth is that I haven't really told them everything because I don't want them to worry as much as I do.
Worrying keeps me awake at night. Do you know what it feels like to have the weight of your entire family resting on your shoulders?
That's part of why I'm grateful that Jesus may be coming our way today. He is the one person in my life with whom I can talk about these things. He doesn't try to fix everything or even tell me what to do. He simply listens.
Jesus is the most incredible man I have ever known.
Please don't tell anyone else about this, but when he shares a meal with us, he insists on helping clear the dishes. When no one else is noticing, he even comes out to help me wash the dishes. Can you imagine a man doing women's work like that?
When Jesus sneaks out to help me, he always asks me how I'm doing, especially since our parents died. There's something about him that causes me to open up and tell him the truth, not only about what I'm thinking but about what I'm feeling.
When I heard Jesus was coming to town, I wanted to prepare a special meal. I've been so worried about him being out on the road all the time like he is now. He travels from place to place trying to help people understand what God is really like. The word is that people are beginning not only to listen to what he has to say but to take it seriously.
I have to admit that I'd be even more excited about Jesus being here today if it was just him that I had to feed, but that never happens any more. That rag-tag bunch of fisherman and tax collectors and other riffraff he calls disciples are always with him now. They eat more than any group I have ever seen. None of them have probably had a decent meal in weeks either.
While I want to feed all of them, I just worry about whether we'll have enough. To run out of food would be a disgrace, not only for me but especially for Lazarus and for our family's name.
Things are even more complicated these days by not knowing who else might stop by when the word gets out that Jesus is here. News spreads quickly in our small town. Everyone from local officials to leaders of the synagogue come by, and, of course, I have to feed them as well.
What if some tax collector came by? If he saw me feeding this many people, he would assume we have more than we do and raise our taxes again. If it was just me I was worried about, I would be fine taking that kinds of risk, but I have to look out for my family.
I like having Jesus here. It helps me feel like I am participating in his ministry by providing a good nourishing meal and a safe place to rest. You may think it's silly for me to feel that way since women obviously can't be disciples, but Jesus helps me believe that what I'm contributing is important.
I think that's what Mary felt as well, especially the last time Jesus was here. She felt like she was part of his ministry so she went in to hear what he was saying.
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm excited that Mary is so interested in what Jesus has to say. What Mary doesn't realize is the implications of what she is doing. She doesn't think about how this will affect not only her life but our family's life. She certainly doesn't realize that what she is doing could jeopardize everything else that Jesus is trying to say and do.
If I've told Mary once, I've told her a thousand times that sitting in there with the men is going to ruin her reputation. No self-respecting man in our village is going to marry a woman who does things that women are not supposed to do.
No one will believe this, but it's not only Mary's reputation and future that I'm worried about, but that of Jesus as well. Do you realize what kind of rumors might start when people see her sitting there at his feet in the room where only men are supposed to be?
People will think the worst, not only of Mary, but of Jesus. They already gossip about why he's not married. At his age, every good Jewish man is married.
People these days not only say but do awful things to each other. I've got to figure out a way to stop Mary from destroying her future as well as Jesus' future.
Maybe if I asked Jesus to tell her to come back out in the kitchen to help me, he would do it. I don't know what else to try!
So...that's my version of the story according to Martha. Attempting to hear this story from her perspective has helped me, and I hope it has helped you to remember that there is always another side to any story.
Now...I wonder what Jesus would say if he got to tell the story from his perspective.
But...that's a sermon for another day!!
Let us pray.
O God who has been made known to us in Jesus, help us to remember that what we hear and see and experience depends on where we stand. As we seek to be and become a people who live in peace and act with integrity, please enable and empower us to stop and listen, to listen to what things might be like standing in someone else's shoes. Amen.