I have always been interested in the Biblical story of Mary and Martha, the sisters who welcomed Jesus to their home.
As the story is told in Luke 10, Martha busily prepared for their guest, presumably straightening up, setting the table, cooking the meal and the like. Her sister Mary sat as Jesus’ feet, listening to all he had to say. When Martha reprimanded her sister for not helping out with the household chores, Jesus reminded Martha that Mary had chosen the better way.
The lesson here is that we need both stories. We need both those who serve by taking action and those who serve through their devotion. And, we need to be the kind of people who have both parts within us.
I’ve struggled with this story, because I tend to be more of a Martha-type than a Mary. I tend to want to defend Martha, because I know what her gifts can be. After all, it was Martha who opened up her home to Jesus, offering the radical hospitality that he talked about. It was Martha who filled his hungry belly. Indeed, Martha provided the space for Mary’s encounter with Jesus to happen.
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You have seen Martha at work, too. She’s the one who always shows up with a casserole when someone has died. She decorates the sanctuary for Christmas and keeps the nursery when no one else signs up. Martha’s strength is taking the lead where action is required. Martha serves God with her service.
So why the rebuke from Jesus? I think it’s helpful to note that this story comes right on the heels of Jesus’ telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In that story, the hero is the one who noticed the injured man on the side of the road and stopped to help. It’s exactly the kind of thing that Martha would have done. The lesson here is that we need both stories. We need both those who serve by taking action and those who serve through their devotion. And, we need to be the kind of people who have both parts within us.
It’s also helpful to remember that Jesus didn’t criticize Martha’s active service. Rather, he noted that she was “anxious and troubled about many things.” She was distracted, as opposed to Mary, who was attentive.
I think the thread that ties these two stories together is this call to attentiveness. In both stories, Jesus celebrates the one who pays attention. The Samaritan notices and is attentive to the hurt man. Mary is attentive to Jesus when he arrives at her home. Perhaps Jesus is offering an invitation to move from being distracted to the lesser things to being attentive — in our contemplation as well as our action.
I am reminded of a portion of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Sometimes.” In the poem, Oliver writes these “instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
May it be so.
The Rev. Julie Long is associate pastor and minister of children and families at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon.