This week we hear the story of Martha and Mary of Bethany, sisters whose lives were transformed by the teaching of Jesus. They lived in a time during which a foreign empire had conquered their country, suppressing religious practice, and the role of women had minimal influence in the cultural or spiritual life of their people. Jesus invited them to bypass the obstacles and step into a more active and profound relationship with the Almighty.
We live in an age during which many people are walking away from Christianity, and 42% Christian ministers have considered quitting in the last year, according to Barna Group. I have been reading Brian McLaren’s new book Do I Stay Christian? McLaren articulates the obstacles to a Christian identity: our historic anti-Semitism, our hostility to personal identity, our history of oppression of dissent and support of political . (He actually names ten sins of the Christian churches). Although McLaren highlights the attractive nature of the teaching of Jesus, he also sees the disillusion that afflicts those who want to learn from Jesus.
When the church is so human (meaning broken and inclined toward sin), when the innocent continue to suffer (and the irreligious may seem to remain unscathed), when God seems to be silent and we are burdened with doubts – what is the point? Why do we do this?
Martha and Mary may offer us some insight. They are kind of like our spiritual aunts – good examples of faithfulness and kindness. We could not do much of our ministry in church without the Marthas and the Marys of all genders. Although they are individuals, the gospel keeps them together. It is not Martha OR Mary for a reason, even if we are left wondering what is the “better part” that we are supposed to choose?
It is fairly easy to turn any Gospel story into a template through which we can consider many of our current cultural, social, and political dilemmas. I have heard this gospel preached to encourage a sense of detachment from worry, to discourage sibling rivalry, and to subtly shame women who choose either to work at home or not to. While interpretations are all very interesting, anachronism – using our context to interpret the meaning of an ancient text – misses the point of the story. It is more faithful to figure out what Jesus was saying at the time.
In the ancient world, hospitality was a virtue practiced by Jews and gentiles alike. It was a well-understood social custom that civilized people needed to offer kindness, shelter, and food to traveling strangers. In many religious texts, those who graciously welcome unexpected guests discover that they are entertaining gods or angels. In the gospels, as Jesus and his friends travel all over Galilee, preaching good news and healing, they receive welcome in the homes of people who did not know them well.
This story teaches us about the value of hospitality and generosity, as well as spiritual commitment.
The story also teaches us that our best life may not be what we have always done.
Jesus stretches cultural barriers by meeting in a home with women who are not his relatives. He is showing great generosity by treating Mary as his disciple. Martha has also shown great generosity, extending herself as an ideal host. Yet Jesus seems to want more from this new kind of relationship.
The meaning of this passage derives from the “one thing” that Jesus identifies as necessary for the good life. When Jesus compliments Mary, it is not a criticism of Martha. Martha is doing the right thing. What is the “one thing” that Mary does? Mary is being true to Jesus’ invitation to hear the word of God. Jesus always emphasizes the importance of hearing the word of God, and then acting on it (cf Luke 8.15-21).
McLaren suggests that if religion has a positive role in our future [as humanity], it will surely involve specializing in the formation of holy desire. In fact, for better or worse, religion is supposed to build our desire to learn about God. Each religion does this somewhat differently, and all to the good.
Thus, hospitality is important as a context for the spread of the message about God, and it is even more important to be disciples who care for others. We cannot be Martha without being Mary also.
Martha and Mary embody the prophetic words of Sinatra: DO – BE – DO – BE – DO
This is what people of Christ can offer to a troubled world. We do great works of hospitality and charity. We give to those we do not know, or with whom we do not have close connection. Good works flow out of the theology of Incarnation – God so loved the world that God gave the Beloved Son, so that all may be saved from death – knowing that we are beloved and so are those who are different from us.
Jesus has high expectations for us. He expects us to listen. He expects us to learn. He expects us to be willing to be transformed – which means we must be ready to let go of our false sense of self. Christians must be ready to give up our illusions of what we are “supposed” to be – or what we used to be – or what we shouldn’t be. Hear the word of God: God simply loves us and all the rest of the world – and we are invited to embody that truth – and then to make it real for everyone.
Barbara Brown Taylor says it well: “[The] church is not a stopping place but a starting place for discerning God’s presence in this world. By offering people a place where they may engage the steady practice of listening to divine words and celebrating divine sacraments, church can help people gain a feel for how God shows up—not only in Holy Bibles and Holy Communion but also in near neighbors, mysterious strangers, sliced bread, and grocery store wine.”
In Jesus Christ, God has come among us, pointing us toward a new way of being and doing. The Holy One invites us to hear the Word and to persist in countercultural faithfulness.
The Holy One who offers us new life has invited us to worry less about the worthiness of others and to work harder for the building up of the reign of God through acts of love and kindness.
The Holy One invites us to live in a new way and to rely less on what we used to do.
I wonder whether we can do that? May it be so!
Barna Group. Pastors Share Top Reasons They’ve Considered Quitting Ministry in the Past Year. April 27, 2022.
Brian McLaren. Do I Stay Christian? A guide for the doubters, the disappointed, and the disillusioned. (St Martins, 2022).
Barbara Brown Taylor. Leaving Church: A memoir of faith. (HarperOne, 2009).