Spiritual Priorities: Mary, Martha, and St. John’s
Proper 11 (Year C)
Luke 10: 38-42
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
|21 July 2019
The Gospel lesson this morning is a familiar one. And as with many iconic biblical stories, it has been variously interpreted. The text often rubs many people, especially women, the wrong way. Most frequently it is used as a story in which the two sisters represent two contrasting and sometimes competing kinds of lives. These are often described as the life of activity and the life of contemplation.
The life of activity is represented by Martha, the matron and manager of the household on whom all the domestic responsibilities fall. Her sister Mary is portrayed in stark contrast. She is often used to represent the life of contemplation. In the story, Mary is described as sitting in rapt attention, calmly and peacefully at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching. The text has also been misused to denigrate the role of host or used to negatively stereotype the character of married women or housewives. It has been used to suggest that worldly concerns are of no interest to Jesus at all. Which is better, people ask? Being or Doing? The world or the spirit? Being married or single? But as with any hard-edged and categorical either/or questions, the choices are false dilemmas.
It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that Jesus champions the quiet, contemplative, spiritual life of the unmarried Mary over and against the active, bustling, worldly domestic activity of Martha. We sometimes think this because Jesus gently rebukes Martha for complaining about Mary abandoning her, leaving her to do all the work alone. (By the way, we know this is a gentle rebuke because of his saying Martha’s name twice in a row. In the Greek this has the tone of gentleness and love, not of irritation and annoyance as it is often read). In fact, Jesus is not so much criticizing the fact that Martha is busy preparing for him and not also sitting at his feet with Mary, but rather he is criticizing the way that the demands of the meal and household preparation have affected Martha.
For example, the demands have affected her so much that Martha, quite outrageously, tells Jesus to send Mary away from listening to his teaching to help prepare a meal. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Martha says. “Tell her then to help me!”
The fact that Martha would even suggest that Jesus himself order a disciple away from him in the midst of learning indicates that Martha had completely lost sight of what was ultimately important. She failed to recognize that Mary made a good choice to prioritize listening to Jesus’ teaching over the bustle of household preparations.
But notice Jesus doesn’t tell Martha that she was wrong to be preparing the meal. He simply points out to her that she is “worried and distracted by many things,” or “anxious and cumbered” as other translations have it. Again, it was not wrong that Martha set about preparing a meal for Jesus and the followers who were with him. That was her duty as the matron of the household. But one wonders if perhaps Martha set about preparing a meal that was “over the top” or too lavish for Jesus. When Jesus says, “You are worried and distracted by many things, but only one thing is needed,” was Jesus simply saying only one dish or a simple meal is necessary? Was he asking Martha why she was wearing herself out, being irritable with people and going to all this trouble?
I imagine Jesus would prefer Martha be done quickly with preparing a simple meal so he can enjoy her presence, too, rather than going overboard in the kitchen. When Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part,” he is not dismissing the importance of hospitality or attending to the meal, rather Jesus is pointing out that nothing should ever become so important that our worldly duties should supplant or replace our spiritual ones. Let alone that we go so far as demand that others neglect their spiritual duties to help us with our worldly ones.
This text I think is helpful for us in many ways. First, it is a wise caution about how easily we can get distracted by important things, which then overtake the most important things. For example, just a few days ago a parishioner said to me, “I won’t be at church on Sunday.” I said, “Oh, why not?” She said, “My grandchildren are going to be in town.” I said, “Well bring them with you! We have a great children’s ministry here.” “Oh, I can’t bring them,” she said. “Why not?” I asked. She replied, “I can’t bring them because they aren’t arriving until after church.” I stood there not quite comprehending, and she said, “I need the morning to get ready for them as they’re coming in around noon.”
Secondly, the text also makes us mindful about not asking people to do things or plan events that would interfere with their spiritual duties. For example, I remember being very grateful to the members of my tennis team for understanding when I couldn’t play any Wednesday night matches during Lent. They were very respectful and I never got a last minute text asking me if I would change my mind or skip Wednesday church “just this once.”
Another way to think about this, too, is if you are trying to maintain or establish a daily discipline of prayer and study, and ask yourself who or what is getting in the way of that? While sometimes we are simply being lazy, that is not always the case. Most of us have many responsibilities and important things going on in our lives, to include exercise, family responsibilities, work commitments, and getting enough sleep. These are all important, but to what extent or how often should attending to the Word of God and Christian discipline be sacrificed for them? The text points out that we must think carefully about our priorities and how we arrange them, so we don’t sacrifice the most important part of our lives with less important things.
Finally, I think the text can be a great reminder to help keep us on track as a parish in the coming months as we begin this new chapter in the life of our community. With Robert announcing his plans to retire in 2020, the next 15 months are going to be very eventful and we’ll all be busy doing important things. For example, we have no plans to change our programming this year. Sunday services, acolytes, altar guild, lay Eucharistic ministers, lay Eucharistic visitors, flower guild, choir, children’s ministry, all continue as normal. We will have a full year of Sunday School classes, weekday services, Wednesday night series in the Fall, Stewardship Season, Halloween Carnival, the Bazaar, Rise Against Hunger, Christmas Pageant, Feast of Lights, the Lenten speaker series, Family Promise, monthly in-gatherings, EYC events, and women’s groups and men’s groups will continue to meet. And, we will continue hosting pilgrimage groups and a variety of other events throughout the year.
However, in addition to all our normal programming there will be a very big parallel effort going on at the same time. In the Fall, a parish self-study committee will begin work. They’ll craft parish surveys, hold listening sessions, gather data on attendance, stewardship, membership demographics, and a myriad of other things in preparation to produce a parish profile. Around the beginning of the new year, candidate names will start coming in, the discernment committee will review resumes, conduct interviews, and travel to the parishes of candidates who make the short list. Everyone is going to be busy doing important things, the clergy and staff, the vestry, the self-study committee, the discernment committee, and all the people of the parish. We can very easily imagine ourselves becoming like Martha, “worried and distracted” or “anxious and cumbered,” by many things.
Indeed, I think it is important to acknowledge that there will be lots of anxiety floating around, both above and beneath the surface. People will worry about who is, or who isn’t, on what committees. We will wonder what the next rector will be like and the direction the parish will take under that new person’s leadership. It will also be very normal for us to worry and wonder about the future of our individual relationships with Robert after he leaves. With all of this going on, there will be opportunities for us to become frenetic, frustrated, and feel pulled in different directions. We might find ourselves overwhelmed, tired, or irritated with each other, and turning to complain angrily to Jesus, ordering him to do something.
If this starts happening to us, we will need a gentle reminder about what is important. It is, indeed, important that the parish prepares itself well for a new rector. As a parish I have no doubt we’ll have the place in tip top shape, organizationally. I’m sure on the day of the new rector’s arrival the brass will be polished, lawns cut, gardens manicured, (the batteries for the fire alarms replaced!) and all of the paperwork will be in order. But it will be more important that the parish be spiritually and emotionally ready for the new person as well. Mary was spiritually and emotionally ready for Jesus’ visit. This is revealed to us by her temperament in his presence. Martha, on the other hand, was not.
Will the new rector arrive in 15 months to find a parish reconciled, united and healed from the strife which has resulted from removing the Jefferson Davis pew? Will the new rector find a calm, peaceful, and thoughtful congregation with a creative vision for its new future? Will the new rector find a congregation that can imagine itself moving forward positively and confidently without Robert? Will the new rector find a parish with an enthusiastic faith and an unwavering hope and trust in both God’s providence and the new partnership which awaits? These spiritual pursuits can be accomplished if we take seriously the invitation to sit down calmly and quietly at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he has to say. Indeed, these may be the most important spiritual and emotional tasks that the parish needs to attend to in the months ahead.
In order to make these spiritual priorities a reality, it will be important for everyone to make attending Sunday worship and weekday services a serious priority. Preparing for a new rector will provide the parish with a tremendous opportunity for spiritual growth and to articulate, perhaps for the first time in 25 years, how St. John’s wants to carry out its mission of Christian discipleship going forward into the future. In order to do this, we have to be present and we have to work on it together.
Participating in Sunday school classes, prayer groups, centering prayer, and other spiritual activities will also be important to help us stay spiritually grounded as a parish as we name, process, and come to grips with the grief, anxiety, uncertainty, challenges and new opportunities that Robert’s departure will naturally generate. Individually, we will all need to be committed to prayer and study, to make sure that we have regular times of quiet, and times of calm, stopping other important things that we are doing and listening attentively to the Word of God. This will help us stay focused and hopefully gentle with one another, too.
Remember, Jesus did not gently rebuke Martha because what she was doing was not important. His concern was that she sacrificed her spiritual priorities for worldly ones. Martha’s tasks so occupied her that she not only forgot what was most important, but worse, wanted to take Mary away from the most important thing she was supposed to be doing as a disciple and friend of Jesus.
I feel fairly certain that the mission of St. John’s and the leadership of the new rector will prosper for many more years into the future if we work hard now to make sure our spiritual and worldly priorities stay in the proper order. A parish that is peaceful, calm, attentive to the message of the Gospel, and spiritually and emotionally grounded, will be the best starting blocks for everyone to launch from. In the months ahead, may we be mindful of the temptations to be “worried and distracted” by many things, and remember which one thing is ultimately needed, and that we always choose the better part. Amen.