Jesus visits Martha and Mary. Martha’s in the kitchen breaking a sweat, bustin’ pots and pans to prepare a meal for her guest as Mary listens to his teaching. Martha wants her sister’s help. Jesus reproves her fussy hospitality, praising the generosity of Mary’s attention.
The quality of greeting, offering what the guest most wants, is essential. Still, I sympathize with Martha. As human, I believe my qualitative sense of worth comes from being created in imago Dei, in God’s image. Yet I also still hear an inner voice (after all these years, sounding like my parents!) that counts my value in quantitative terms of doing – the more, the better.
I side with Martha for another reason. Kindness. The host’s responsiveness to the guest is important. So, too – when the host has given the best she can – is the guest’s mutual hospitality and generosity expressed in the gratitude of offering a heartfelt “thank you”; surely never a reprimand, however mild, well-intended, and instructive.
In the Cain and Abel story, another tale of rejection and acceptance, God, without cause, dismissed Cain’s harvest fruits, gladly receiving Abel’s lambs from his flock. A dispirited Cain committing fratricide, the Bible’s first murder. Martha had good sense not to throttle Mary, at least not in front of Jesus, who, as the authority, perhaps is less callous, but no less capricious than the God of Genesis. And though he, in a first century counter-cultural act, welcomes Mary, a woman, as his student, he, in dismissing Martha, acts in a decidedly culturally commonplace manner.
I don’t know what Martha thought or felt, or what she may have wanted to say in her defense. Standing with her, I offer this possibility…
Martha spun on her heel, storming back into the kitchen, the rebuke of her friend ringing in her ears. She tried her best. Wasn’t that good enough?
And what was the learned rabbi trying to teach her? She had overheard his word to her sister. A parable about a “neighbor” being anyone in need and being a good neighbor by lending help. That was provocative, especially with a Samaritan in the starring role, and worthy of consideration. After all, Mary wasn’t the only one given to prayerful contemplation. But now was not the time for idle hands! Besides, being helpful was what she was trying to do. And there was a meal to finish and the stew almost burned. What would Jesus have her do? Throw it out and start over? Serve nothing at all? Never!
Martha took the pot off the fire and headed out of the kitchen. For a moment, standing in the doorway, she gazed at Jesus speaking to Mary, who adoringly looked into his eyes. She cleared her throat.
“Jesus, I’m very sorry, but I’m still distracted by many tasks! And I’ve thought about what you said. ‘Martha, come out of the kitchen. And don’t fuss. Mary has chosen the better part.’ Chosen? Ha! Who wouldn’t choose the ‘one needful thing’ if she had a choice and if only one thing was needful and if there wasn’t a houseful of people? You and your hungry disciples! Mary chooses to listen to you. Great! Who feeds you and, I repeat, all your disciples? You who fed 5000 at a time because they were hungry and you loved them enough not to send them away. You who told a parable about sheep and goats, the sheep inheriting God’s kingdom because they, welcoming and feeding the neediest, welcome and feed you! “See, I have paid attention! And that is what I’m trying to do! Welcome and feed you!
“And here’s another needful thing. It’s all about love. Food and drink. Pots and pans. Preparing and setting the table, and cleaning up after you. That’s one way I show my love for you. That, Jesus, is my instruction about what’s going on here.
“Now, you didn’t ask me, but let me give you some advice. I think you need to re-think your teaching so it makes sense out here in the kitchen. In fact, Mary, stay right where you are. Jesus, you get up and follow me!”