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Martha Needs Some Love

(A sermon on Luke 10:38-42; an audio recording of this sermon, click here)

I am NOT the world’s best housekeeper.

I admire people who can keep their homes organized and clean at all times. Who have a “place” to store everything they own and who consistently keep those things in those places, and then also consistently sweep, and dust, and mop, and scrub all their surfaces with cleaners… I think that’s amazing! I would love to live in a house like that! But in the rhythms of my day to day life… those tasks don’t usually seem like the most important ones. And, therefore, they don’t always get prioritized.

So, naturally, I would really love to be able to read today’s gospel scene as a validation of my housekeeping priorities. My house isn’t messy because I’m lazy, or disorganized! No, no… it’s because I’m spiritual. I have chosen the “one needful thing” just like Mary.

Unfortunately, there are at least two problems with this interpretation.

First, anytime I want to identify myself with the person in a story who is getting “praised” I know I need to slow down. Because the Bible isn’t designed to be an “extendable arm” to help us pat ourselves on the back. The Bible’s power, even its grace, is in its ability to shine a light on our need, on our weaknesses… because that’s what opens us up to the healing and transforming work of Jesus. If a story just makes us feel good about what we’re already doing, it’s not challenging us. It’s not forming us more fully into followers of Christ. So, I know if I’m feeling self-satisfied, I need to listen harder.

Second, the either/or way of reading this story doesn’t work in real life. My housekeeping patterns are actually much more mixed than is allowed in the “are you a Mary or a Martha?” mode of interpretation, and there’s reasons for that.

Sometimes, I do make a point of prioritizing household tasks for the sake of hospitality. For example, when my Mom travels out from California to visit.

Now to be clear, I don’t clean my house to try to impress my Mom. She wouldn’t judge me for my mess. But my mess might make her sick. Because she has bad dust allergies. And so, before she comes to visit, I make it a priority to do a thorough cleaning… so that the usual mess in my house is not a barrier to our time together.

On the other hand, I have a solemn pact with one of my best friends, Melody – a pact that neither of us EVER clean our houses prior to the other one coming over. We first met when our kids were really little, and we just couldn’t get our houses clean. But we didn’t want the mess to get in the way of spending time together. So, we decided it wouldn’t. We promised each other that no matter the state of our houses, we would welcome each other in. And that ability to be imperfect in front of each other… to be honest about how often we just step over the baskets of unfolded laundry, or discover half-eaten apples under the coffee table… that vulnerability has made our friendship real. It has guaranteed that neither our mess, nor a misplaced need to project a certain image of ourselves, are barriers to our time together.

These two relationships – with my mom and my friend – remind me that the “one needful thing” isn’t about rejecting the tasks of hospitality… it’s about recognizing the ways that the tasks serve the relationships… it’s about remembering that relationships are what give meaning and value to those tasks.

Far too often the gospel story of Mary and Martha has been read as a condemnation of Martha’s busy-ness, her focus on her tasks, in contrast to Mary’s quiet discipleship. It has been used to put action in tension with faith. But action and faith are NOT in tension with each other. They should be connected to each other.

That connection becomes obvious when we look back at the original Greek of the story.

The translation we use in worship tells us, in verse 40, that “Martha was distracted by her many tasks,” but the word translated as “tasks” is diakonía (διακονία). It means service, or even ministry.[1] It’s the same word used in scripture to describe the work of apostles, prophets, evangelists, and deacons.

And even in the context of Luke’s story, what Martha is doing – the ministry of hospitality – is exactly what Jesus told the seventy to look for when he sent them out on their mission earlier in this chapter (Luke 10: 1-20). The homes that received their peace were the homes that offered hospitality. The tasks of hospitality – the service of offering welcome and caring for the practical needs of the people who come to us needing food and shelter – those tasks are completely appropriate things for Martha to be doing.

The correction that Jesus offers is not to her busy-ness, not to her action… it’s to her state of mind, which is hurting her relationships. Notice that Jesus doesn’t redirect Martha until she comes to him with a complaint:

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Now, I don’t think Martha is actually being unreasonable in her request. After all, when Jesus sent out the seventy on their mission, he sent them in pairs. We aren’t supposed to do ministry all by ourselves. Martha DID need help.

But she didn't just say "I need help", because … it’s uncomfortable to admit our need, isn’t it? It’s hard to say “I’m struggling. I feel overwhelmed.” It’s hard to admit the truth that our houses or our lives or our country are messy.

And so, Martha did what most of us do when we are confronted by our own inability to do everything we want to be able to do… she lashed out. She got angry and pointed fingers:

It’s my sister’s fault. She should be helping me!

And, by the way, Jesus, why don’t you even care? This isn’t fair and you aren’t doing anything about it.

The tasks that are supposed to be about hospitality, about creating space that nurtures relationships, have instead turned Martha away from relationship, have turned her in on her own needs, and made everyone else into an object whose purpose is to help her.

Luther described “sin” as the state of being curved in on oneself. Try it. Curl yourself up. Turn your gaze down into your own center.

How does that feel?

Does it feel anxious, and tense?

Does it feel like a posture of defensiveness, protecting your soft heart against anything that might hurt it?

I think Jesus sees that curled up posture in Martha when he repeats her name:

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”

Here again the Greek offers us much richer meaning than the English translation.

The word [2] translated as “distracted” means something more like anxious and troubled with cares. It’s not that Martha isn’t paying attention to Jesus, it’s that she is too weighed down to be able to look up.

And the word for worried is τυρβάζω (toor-bad'-zo)[3], which literally means turbid. It’s the word that describes a body of water that’s been agitated so that the silt from the bottom is pulled up and made it impossible to see.[4]

Martha is anxious and blinded by her anxiety. Her own need has become the only thing she can see, and because of that she lashes out in accusation, instead of confessing her need.

In response, Jesus reminds her that “need” is OK. But don’t be confused about what you need. "There is need of only one thing.” Jesus tells her. “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42). Mary has chosen relationship. She has chosen to sit at the feet of Jesus to listen, and to connect.

And that relationship is the point of the hospitality. It’s the reason for all the ministering tasks that have made Martha anxious. Those tasks aren’t bad tasks, but in getting caught up in them, in thinking that they are the point, Martha has forgotten what she really needs. She doesn’t need to get all the tasks done perfectly. She doesn’t need to show herself to be the perfect hostess. She needs the relationships. She needs the connection. She needs the love.

In reflecting on this story, New Testament professor Brian Peterson observes that “it is difficult to move from the role of provider to being someone who receives a gift from the other. That often leaves us feeling too vulnerable, too little in control.”[5]

It’s uncomfortable to recognize our vulnerability…

whether that recognition comes in the form of a perpetually messy house…

or a struggle with anxiety…

or a news cycle that bombards us with all the devastating problems we don’t know how to fix…

or any other the thousands of other pressures to just handle it… to do it right… to protect ourselves.

But when we are worried and distracted by many things. When our lives feel like a turbid river – churning and obscured by all the dirt that’s getting pulled up from the depths…Jesus looks at us, and calls our name:

“Beloved, Beloved. Remember. You don’t need to be perfect. There’s only one thing you need. You need me. You need love.”

Thanks be to God


[2] Merimnáō (μεριμνάω)




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