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Love is Life


Bringing Mary and Martha into Balance

September 19, 2004

Bible Reading

As they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work myself? Tell her, then, to help me."

But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

(Luke 10:38-42)

Reading from Swedenborg

There are two kinds of power. One comes from loving other people, and the other comes from selfishness. In essence, these two kinds of power are complete opposites.

When our power comes from loving other people, we wish well to everyone. We love nothing more than doing useful things for other people and helping them. . . . This is our love and our heart's enjoyment. When this is our state of mind, we are glad when we are placed in a high position, not because of the high position itself, but because we can be useful in many more ways, and on a larger scale. This is the kind of power that exists in heaven.

But when our power comes from selfishness, we do not wish well to anyone but ourselves and our family. We do useful things only to increase our own status and fame, which are the only things we consider useful. We work for other people only to get them to work for us, and to gain status and power. We strive for high positions not for the good we can accomplish in them, but so that we will be prominent and famous, which is our heart's delight.

(The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #72)


Are you a Mary, or are you a Martha? If you have ever come across this story on your own or in church, I'm sure you have considered the question. On the one hand, for all the apparent simplicity of this story on the surface (it's just a story about two sisters whose responsibility it is to get lunch on the table, isn't it?), it is amazing that we would take this story so personally. And on the other hand, given all the spiritual implications that generations of seekers have found just beneath the surface of this little vignette, it is amazing that these five verses have managed to reverberate throughout history, and time and again be reduced to such a simple question:

Are you a Mary?

Are you a Martha?

Well, I can tell you that for all my desire to minister, to be a spiritual person and behave accordingly, and for all that I identify such things with "Mary," I have always been more of a Martha. Sure, I love to pray and ruminate on spiritual truth. I even try to slow down, when time permits, and meditate from time to time. But when it comes down to the day-to-day affairs of life and ministry, I am a detail-oriented person. I am acutely aware of all that needs to get done. And I know I am not alone in this.

I feel a deep responsibility within my own person to see that there is a correct bulletin in the hand of every person who walks through that door come Sunday morning, that the sermon is worthwhile, that there is food on the table for coffee hour, that the rent gets paid, the thank you notes get written, that I remember to call my mom on her birthday.

Do I always succeed? No. Do I always do these things with a cheerful, charitable, and grateful heart? No. Sometimes . . . maybe even most of the time. But not always. But do I feel a responsibility to see that such things get done? Oh yeah!

Truth be told, though Martha is the one who seems to be brought down a peg in this story, for many of us the realities of the world, of personal and church life, call forth the Martha in us. I would go so far as to say they demand the Martha in us to come forward; for if Martha doesn't do it who will? Certainly not Mary.

Somehow, while Martha is in the kitchen baking bread, Mary is out solving the riddle. She figures out the secret. Somehow Mary chooses the "better part." So she doesn't have to do the dishes, or mail out the newsletter, or remember to buy wine for communion. She's all set. And that's great for Mary. But it doesn't change the fact that at the end of the day, the dishes still need to be done. And who's going to do them? My money's still on Martha.

As you can see, whenever I read this story, I can feel my inner Martha getting a little riled up. And for thousands of years now, people have read this story and responded in much the same way, by having an identity crisis of sorts that results in frustration and a feeling that Jesus just isn't being realistic or fair to poor Martha.

But let's pause for a moment. And think.

Given the fact that this response is really not all that constructive, and given the fact that whenever people get annoyed with Jesus, it usually turns out in the end that they, not Jesus, are the ones who still have something to learn, perhaps there is something more going on here. Perhaps Martha isn't being brought down or put in her place, so much as being given the opportunity to sit down and get some space.

Perhaps we are not gifted with this story so that we can choose between Mary and Martha, but rather so that we might bring our inner Mary into balance with our inner Martha. There may be a "better part" in this story, but that does not mean there is necessarily a better woman.

It's very short, so let's take a look at the story again:

As they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work myself? Tell her, then, to help me."

But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

First, I would like to point out that for Mary, sitting at Jesus' feet was a doubly scandalous action. Not only did she reject her proper position as a woman, leaving the kitchen, and by extension, leaving her sister to prepare the meal alone; she adopted the position of a disciple, and placed herself right in front of Jesus as if she were a man. This was not acceptable by any stretch of the imagination. So when Martha came out and asked Jesus to send Mary back into the kitchen to help, it is possible that she was embarrassed by her sister's behavior, and was doing her best to bring things back into order.

The most common reading, however--and one that is all too easy to imagine--is that Martha was simply stressed out and annoyed that she was the one left doing all the work.

Martha's stress and annoyance are perfectly understandable. Hospitality was taken very seriously in those days. And in those days you couldn't just open a bottle of wine, throw some mini quiches in the oven, and create a party in fifteen minutes. It was serious work, and your ability to offer hospitality said everything about who you were and the level of respect you had for your guests. So Martha was striving to put something big together.

And what did Jesus say when she asked him to reprimand Mary? "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing."

By this Jesus might have meant only one dish of food; or he might have meant his wisdom about the kingdom of God. Knowing Jesus, he probably meant both. But then he utters those troublesome words: "Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

You can almost feel the breath leave Martha's body. "But Jesus, somebody needs to bake the bread! Somebody has to watch the oven! Jesus, somebody has to do these things, or they won't get done!"

Garret Keizer has offered the observation that in the "somebody has to" defense "lies the very two-edged sword that Martha has pointed at her own heart; the very sword that Jesus is trying gently to pry from her hands. The sharp edges of that sword--all the sharper for being paradoxical--are excessive devaluation of one's own worth and excessive evaluation of one's own importance. Excessive devaluation, in that sitting in the parlor is all right for some, but too wonderful for the likes of little me. Excessive valuation, in the sense that the world seems to rest on Martha's shoulders, not God's."

I imagine that Jesus said these words with a great deal of tenderness. That he was not scolding Martha, but gently trying his best to ease her anxiety. That somehow he was saying: Martha you don't need to be here for me right now so much as you need to let me be here for you. "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things." Calm down. Take a breath. Be still a moment. "There is need of only one thing," and it is right here in front of you.

How often do we find ourselves running so hard after God, trying so hard to please God or please others, giving everything we have to see that the work gets done, and finding at the end of the day that the joy we should feel, the peace we should have earned, the rest we so deserve, is just out of reach. Rather than fulfillment, we feel only stress and frustration and despair. We take that same sword--of excessive valuation and devaluation--and we pierce our hearts with it again and again.

How can something that is meant to be so good go so wrong? I mean, we are called to be useful. We are called to love and to serve. We say in this church that the sincerest form of worship is a useful life. But in order for that useful life to be truly worshipful and life-giving, we need to approach our work, our tasks, our responsibilities from a heavenly perspective; from a perspective that acknowledges the hand of providence, the presence of the Lord, at work in all our good actions and intentions. It is a hand that will not let us falter or fail; a hand that desires that we give of ourselves and love as if from ourselves, that we might become more loving in the process.

The Lord does not need us to do anything. The Lord does not need us to do anything. But he has given us the gift of use that we might turn our hearts toward heaven by learning and practicing the art of giving freely. The call to be useful is not a burden we have been called to bear, but a gift to help us grow spiritually. We were not created for the work; the work was created for us.

So when you find yourself stressed out; when you find that you are angry with others for not doing their share; when you wake up in despair about whether the work will ever get done-- and then take time away from caring for yourself spiritually and physically, emotionally and mentally so you have that much more time to devote to this all-important work . . . Stop! For God's sake, stop!

That's when you know it is time to slow down and re-examine why you are engaged in the work to begin with. That's when it is time to give that double-edged sword of excess back to God, and repent. The world will not stop revolving if you don't get everything done. And you deserve better than to think that it will. Martha, wherever you are, know that the Lord loves you if there is a seven course meal on the table, and he loves you when all you can muster up is peanut butter and jelly. The Lord loves you no matter what. His love for you is unconditional. His love for you is not contingent on your productivity.

Somehow, Mary understood this. Something in Mary recognized that for all her responsibilities as a woman to play host to Jesus, and for all the social restrictions that would place her firmly in the kitchen and far from his feet, there was something more important going on that day. There was something more that needed to be honored. There was someone present who was more, required more, demanded more of her than that she simply go about her business and fulfill her everyday roles and responsibilities.

And Mary responded by valuing herself that much more, and allowing herself to claim the time and space to allow that something more to become manifest in her home and in her life. That something more was the Lord himself. That something more was a relationship with Jesus. And that selfsame Lord held his hands out to Martha, not to scold her, but to invite her in as well. To invite her to stop, to reconsider, and to sit down beside her sister.

And so my friends, as we go forth from this place; as we return to the work and the responsibilities that somehow seem to fill each day and each week, let us pause and consider for a moment that all the work is there, not as an end in and of itself, but as a means by which we will grow into more heavenly and loving people.

Don't let the work become the master. Look to the Lord and remember that we are not here for the work; the work is here for us. And trust that it will get done, because the Lord is here with us working through us.

So do not let yourself be weighed down and distracted by many things. Keep your eyes on the Lord. Hear his invitation to sit down beside Mary and to keep him first in all that you do. And know that if we choose first the kingdom of heaven and his righteousness, than all these things will be added unto us as well, just as he said (Matthew 6:33). In the same way, all these things were given to Mary, and I hope to Martha . . . and not a one of them will ever be taken away.


Lord, it is easy to get so focused on serving you that somehow we forget about you. Lord forgive us. Lord reveal yourself to us, that we might see you in all your glory, and keep our eyes fixed upon you. As we go through our many tasks this week, may we be mindful of you in all that we do, that we might better love you, love ourselves, and love one another. Amen.

Rev. Sarah Buteux