9 Pentecost Proper 11: Gn 18:1-10; Ps 15; Col 1:15-28; Lk 10:38-42
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Sunday, July 17, 2016
Martha and Mary, the Felix and Oscar of biblical times. One is clean, organized, loves to cook, always bustling about the house, and often nagging the other to live up to his or her expectations. The other is, maybe not lazy, but certainly likes to sit on the couch more, doesn’t participate in any significant way in the work around the house, a bit of a slob and rather disorganized, who has obviously different priorities. But which of these is right and which is wrong? Our protestant work ethic would declare that Martha and Felix are the more responsible, but a simple reading of the Gospel lesson this morning seems to value a more contemplative approach to life and would thus favor Mary and Oscar.
If you’ve ever seen The Odd Couple, movie or TV show, you get the shtick. Oscar is always in some mess”as amplified by his character both physically and emotionally and Felix is always just on the verge of the charade of his neatly organized life collapsing around him like a game of Jenga. They are rather unhealthy individuals who find redemption through their relationship and willingness to accept one another’s support no matter how begrudging that path might have been.
Felix’s desire for perfection”not only in areas of personal fastidiousness”but in hospitality and work as well, demonstrate a response to life grounded in the desire to order the chaos. Oscar embraces chaos and finds the need to order it a distraction and off-putting in his attempts to live freely into relationships and his own way of being. The idea that Felix and Oscar are a modern day Martha and Mary is not perfect, but it might help us to look beyond the flimsy, dualistic reading of this passage that entertains life as action versus life as contemplation and instead, open ourselves to the possibility that something other than Martha’s busyness might have triggered Jesus’s rebuke of her.
I find it difficult to reconcile the Jesus who so often calls us into action with a Jesus who would rebuke one who acts. On a hillside gathering of 5000, Jesus tells his disciples, You give them something to eat. Not, my words are enough. After he meets Zacchaeus, he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for lunch”not simply to talk to him, but to eat with him. After Jesus heals Peter’s mother, she immediately gets up and fixes dinner for him. Over and over again, the response to the divine presence is to take action, to feed someone. After Jesus’s resurrection, three times he tells Peter, Feed my sheep. I don’t think it is Martha’s actions that earn her the rebuke.
Now, that is not to say that we might not be able to make a case for Martha’s busyness as over-functioning. After all, she is distracted by many things. And her complaint to Jesus regarding Mary’s lack of participation in Martha’s work, stems out of that distracted, harassed sense of being. Yet, it is not Martha’s busyness or distraction which illicits a rebuke from Jesus, it is the complaint itself. I wonder if Jesus would have said anything to her at all, had she not complained? Had Martha simply bustled around the kitchen and served the meal to Jesus and the others, gone outside for a smoke and a bit of rest and then returned to clean up, she might have received a word of gratitude but I doubt a rebuke. Unless you are a Pharisee, Scribe, or Rabbi, Jesus rarely comments on what you are doing unless you are whining or bragging about it to him. Then, he is quick to put you in your place, just ask Peter about that whole Satan get behind me thing.
I don’t think Jesus is rebuking Martha because her response to his divine presence is to do a hospitable thing and make a meal or put fresh sheets on the guest bed. I think his rebuke is about her lack of charity toward her sister. Her complaint is a seed of resentment planted in the depths of her heart. If allowed to remain, it will grow and effect more than her heart, but Mary’s and those around her as well. It is this resentment that Jesus’ rebukes. And it is Mary’s lack of resentment that Jesus declares the better part. What if the better part is not simply sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to what he has to say? What if the better part is something deeper”an open and charitable response of hospitality Mary models and Martha forgets in the presence of the divine? What if the better part is more about how we treat one another because relationships are built or destroyed by words and actions?
Mary builds a relationship through her act of listening. Martha destroys a relationship through her words of discontent and resentment. Martha’s actions may well have been about building relationships”good hospitality often does just that”but instead, her words betray her sense of injustice towards her sister and lack of gratitude toward her Lord. Martha’s response could have been as open and charitable as Mary’s”even in her busyness”but she is betrayed by her irritation with others. Jesus’s rebuke is not meant to dissuade Martha of her service, it is meant to dissuade her of that which deprives her of her joy”the isolation of herself and the need to control those around her through manipulation and triangulation.
Martha’s service stems from a desire to respond faithfully to the divine in her presence, but she forgets that the Lord came to care for her and to serve her as well. There is a reciprocity in our relationship with the divine. The way in which we serve and act in this world matters as much, if not more, than the action itself. To serve from a place of charity is to give joyfully without discontent, without the burden of our expectations placed upon others. To serve from a place of charity is to release the strings that entangle our relationships and cause our good intentions to become ensnared in the sticky web of self-deceit. It is only then that we can sit at Jesus’ feet or offer hospitality in such a way that we receive as much as we give.
Mary’s intentions are pure and charitable that is why they are the better part. Had Martha’s intentions been as charitable, they too would have fallen under the category of the better part. Mary and Martha, Oscar and Felix are reminders to us, not that our personalities or our approach to life is lacking but that we must always examine our intentions tempering our desire to control or even achieve particular results with that of our mutual affection and common life. When we desire an action or outcome, we must accept that responsibility and not force or manipulate others to produce the outcome we desire. And when others live their life in ways contrary to our nature, our job is to accept them for who they are and the choices they get to make concerning their life.
Some of us resonate with Oscar and Mary. Others with Felix and Martha. But its not really which of these we prefer. Its about Oscar and Felix, Mary and Martha, learning to love each other without resentment. Attempting to manipulate, control, or even place an expectation of change upon another is not love. To love one another in a healthy and fulfilling relationship is to practice charity”the mutual self-sacrifice that finds its joy in humility not in self-righteousness or even martyrdom. Mary models this not simply in choosing to focus on Jesus by listening at his feet, but also by not attempting to force others to do as she would do. Never does Mary say, Jesus make Martha come and sit down and hear what you have to say. Instead she follows her heart and does what is right for her, recognizing that what is right for her may not be what is right for others ”and it is this charity that is the better part, this charity that will not be taken away from her.