A newcomer was sitting with a circle of women as they reflected on the sermon after the service. Suddenly she said, ‘Wow! I’ve never seen THAT before!’ I asked her what she noticed. She gestured to the men heating food and setting the table for our common meal. ‘Everywhere else, men talk and women serve,’ she said. ‘Not here,’ I replied. ‘Here, people take turns. And if you stay for the meal, you might see men doing the dishes afterwards!’
If ever there’s a story which makes women angry, it’s probably Mary and Martha. Mary, that goody two-shoes, is lazing adoringly at Jesus’ feet; while I—well, I’m stuck in the kitchen washing the bloody dishes and making sure there’s food to eat. Because someone has to serve the guests, and someone has to clean up afterwards, and someone has to sweep the crumbs off the floor. And if everyone just lolls about listening to Jesus, we’d never eat and the house would be a total mess. And yet … Jesus praises Mary. Typical.
Do you hear the envy? The frustration? The grief? The longing? Martha is crashing around the kitchen, clanging pots and pans and muttering under her breath. She feels obliged to offer hospitality, but she wants, oh! she so desperately wants, to be sitting with her sister at the feet of Jesus.
Because we see the world through patriarchal eyes, we tend to mishear Jesus and we keep those sisters apart. We think he’s telling Martha to stop cooking dinner, because we all know that typically male prerogatives, that is, reading the Bible and listening to preaching and wrestling with the Scriptures, are best. And so women the world over feel belittled and resentful as they stir the pot and serve the meal and do the dishes afterwards, while men sit around doing “the good thing” of listening to Jesus.
We don’t often ask why women are usually the ones in the kitchen, and why so few men take real responsibility for cleaning up. We don’t often ask why, in our cities, restaurants are filled with white customers talking, while people of colour chop, cook and plate their food. We don’t often challenge those people who say complacently, “I’m very much a Mary; I always sit and listen to Jesus,” as a Martha rolls her eyes and whisks away the dirty dishes. We don’t because we think in binaries—Mary, Martha; contemplation, action—and we preference the powerful, who have the luxury of choosing to sit. Jesus says sitting and listening is the better part; who are we to argue?
But actually, he doesn’t. He does not criticise Martha’s activity per se; he has no problem with her cooking dinner; and it would be completely inconsistent if he did. Throughout the gospel he praises those who serve, and he raises them up as models for everyone else. On the night that he is betrayed, he takes on the role of the lowliest slave girl, and he washes his disciples’ feet. If you want to be like me, he says, wash each other’s feet; wash your children’s stinky feet; wash the cracked and damaged feet of the homeless; wash the feet of the sick, the suffering and the dying; invite the poor and marginalised into your homes and serve, serve, serve.
And he does not pit sister against sister: that was Martha’s doing. Jesus came not to divide but to unite: to bring people together in love; to lead sisters into healthy relationship. But how does he do this?
First, we must remember that this is a story: every word matters. And in this story, Martha invites Jesus into her dwelling. “Dwell in me,” Jesus says in John, “and I will dwell in you.” In other words, the writer is telling us that Martha is inviting Jesus Christ into her very self. But for Christ to make a home in Martha, some things will need to change.
This is what happens when we invite Christ in: We will be renovated from the inside out. Maybe our heart of stone will be transformed into a heart of flesh, able to feel both joy and lament. Maybe our tight grip on our money will be relaxed into an open-handed generosity. Maybe fear and anxiety will no longer control us, and we will begin to live with trust. Maybe we’ll feel called to upset some gender norms, and more women will start preaching, and more blokes will start listening, and cooking, and enabling the women to sit.
Or maybe, like Martha, the unacknowledged envy and longing which chew us up and drive us to distraction will be rebuked; the voice of accusation, which accuses a guest of not caring and a sister of not contributing, will be challenged. For this is what Jesus tackles. Not Martha’s domestic work, not her cooking, for in God’s kingdom-culture, service is ministry. Instead, Jesus rebukes the voice of the accuser, more commonly known as Satan.
For Martha is being driven to distraction by envy; she is still living in chains. She wants to sit with her sister; she wants to engage with Jesus: but she cannot claim that freedom, so she pushes them both away.
She does this through passive aggression. Notice that she doesn’t speak directly to her sister. Instead, she triangulates. She tries to rope in a powerful guest, using him for her own purposes: Jesus becomes an object to her. “Don’t you care?” she grumbles to Jesus. “Tell her to do something!” And Mary is right there, listening.
Martha blames Mary for not helping, even although Martha herself invited the guest in; and she blames the guest for not caring. She implies things are unjust and unfair; she is self-centred; she is accusatory. In other words, Martha’s heart is deeply troubled and not yet grounded in God.
It’s into this heart that Jesus speaks, saying “There should be only one thing.” And this one thing is not any particular action or approach. It’s not Mary versus Martha, scholarship versus hospitality, spiritual versus material, contemplation versus action. Instead, this one good thing is to connect with God, the source of overflowing life. It’s to invite Jesus to dwell in you, and to let him make those necessary renovations so that you, too, become Christ-like: centred, grounded, whole, and at peace with the world and yourself.
When you are whole, Mary will no longer be the object of your envy; and Jesus will no longer be roped in to justify your position and uphold your grievances. When you are whole, you will trust your sister is following the Spirit’s call on her life; you will not blame her for the Spirit’s call on yours. When you are whole, you will notice the voice of accusation when it rises in you, and confess it in prayer, and let it go.
Then you will put down your wooden spoon and go sit with your sister, draping an arm around her as together you listen to Jesus and open yourselves to his word; as together you allow him to dwell ever more deeply in you and form you into the people you were called to be. Then, confident and true, you will carry his spirit into your God-ordained God-filled God-led work, whether it’s raising children, teaching people, serving the vulnerable, advocating for the powerless, welcoming strangers, reconciling relationships, caring for the earth, praying for the world, or simply staying and listening to Jesus that little bit longer.
Or maybe your work is indeed to cook dinner. And if so, then, when you are ready, go back to the kitchen. But this time, as you tie on that apron and pick up that wooden spoon, you might lift up your voice, and sing. Ω
Reflect: How are you being renovated by Christ? How do you stay focused on the good thing? In your faith community, do you usually do more serving or more sitting? Do you sense an invitation or challenge to do anything differently? If so, ask God to show you the next step.
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Luke 10:38-42 (Proper 11 Year C) given to Sanctuary on 17 July 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. Video for our sister church, South Yarra Community Baptist. Image shows Eileen Kennedy, Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary, found here. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here.
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