If you’ve ever cooked and served a meal for a table full of hungry people, you know how it goes. No matter how much experience a woman my age has had at it, it’s hard work, even if you’re not doing anything fancy.
You want the table to look nice, all the dishes need to be ready to serve at the same time, the drinks should be iced and poured, and the cat needs to be locked in the bathroom (well, our cat does).
When you finally get everybody to the table, you find you forgot to soften the butter, so you jump up to stick it in the microwave, and melt it accidentally. You traipse back and forth to the kitchen to refill serving bowls, make sure all the dishes get passed, and reassure your guests that no, the yowling from the bathroom doesn’t mean the cat is dying, he’s just upset not to be part of things, but really it’s better that he stay in there. That’s the first act. Act two involves clearing plates, taking coffee orders, and remembering who wants ice cream on their brownies and who doesn’t.
I do love having dinner guests, but, like anything worth doing, it’s an energy-draining activity. It could make you a little cranky. So when I read the account of Mary and Martha in Luke 11, my heart goes out to Martha.
Not only was Martha serving dinner, she was serving it to at least fourteen hungry men – Jesus, twelve disciples, and Lazarus. Dinner wasn’t going to serve itself. There was no pizza delivery in Bethany, no bagged salad at the marketplace, no bakery to run out to and get a pie. It was all up to Martha, and if you’ll excuse the pun, she had a very full plate.
In every sermon I’ve heard on this passage, Martha gets the bum rap. Somehow she should join Mary, sitting and listening to Jesus, while dinner is served by whom exactly? Yes, I know what Jesus says to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 11:40). But I’ve never been satisfied that all those sermonizers were giving me the whole story.
I was recently delighted to hear author and seminary professor Mark Buchanan speak on this passage. Buchanan points out that in speaking to Martha, Jesus says her name twice. This is a signal that Jesus is about to say something momentous.
God speaks people’s names twice when he gives them a mission. It happened with Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Samuel in the Old Testament, and later for Saul on the road to Damascus. All of these people were given an assignment in order to further God’s plan for the world. It is no less for Martha. According to Buchanan, Jesus isn’t rebuking Martha’s serving; he’s actually affirming what she’s doing, and making serving her mission. She needs to accept her mission with joy and change her cranky attitude.
This likely isn’t the first time Martha was out of joint about Mary. Maybe Martha was the oldest of the two sisters (I’ve always thought so), and Martha gets stuck with the work while Mary sits around. It made Martha kind of mad. So was Mary superior to Martha because she sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to him talk, while Martha was concerned about the stew being hot and the drinks being cold? Not at all. Jesus had separate but equal missions for these two sisters. We don’t know what Mary’s mission was, but Mark and John both tell us of a later incident where Mary anoints Jesus in preparation for his burial, an act Jesus praised. This tells me Mary had remarkable spiritual insight, and she used her gift at precisely the right time.
We are all Martha at one time or another. It starts with comparing what we’re doing to serve God with what someone else is doing, or not doing. It bugs us. We get cranky. But enthusiastically taking on our own mission clears those angry and resentful thoughts out of our heads. We can stop fuming.
“Martha, Martha. Don’t be anxious and upset. Feeding us is your mission; do it joyfully, as Mary sits joyfully at my feet. Let Mary be Mary, and you be you.” Could this be what what Jesus means by “the better part”?
I like to think Martha understood Jesus’ words and perked right up. Maybe she eavesdropped on Jesus and Mary’s conversation, and absorbed some of Mary’s joy at having Jesus in their home.
Every Martha, take heart. You have an important job. Serve with gladness. And while you’re at it, eavesdrop from the kitchen. Jesus has a lot to say to you, too.