Lectionary Readings – (6th Sunday After Pentecost)
As I was preparing for today, reading about Mary and Martha, I was reminded of a cartoon I saw on Facebook recently.
The sheep is lying on a garden recliner watching television, behind him the radio is blaring, he’s reading a magazine and simultaneously listening to an iPod. And he says, “I wonder why I don’t hear from the shepherd anymore?” In the distance, we see the shepherd shouting, but obviously, this oblivious sheep will not hear him, because of all the distractions.
Now, this made me wonder what it would have been like for Mary and Martha if they had smartphones and social media accounts, and had all the same distractions that we have today.
Martha would have posted on Twitter, showing herself working hard to take care of Jesus and his friends and post something like “Have visitors today. So much to do! People need to eat and sister @MaryOfBethany isn’t helping!” #slavingawayinthekitchen #allbymyself #lazysister
Then the responses would start flooding in – a like here, a like there – some people agreeing with her and saying “You go girl! Good for you to stand up for yourself.” Or “You’re doing the right thing!” But some people would chastise her and agree with her sister and tell her “You should be doing the same thing! Jesus was only in town for a little while, you should have taken advantage of that and listened to him!”
Pretty soon the responses would be so consistent and overwhelming that Martha would become so distracted by the growing argument over whether she or her sister did the right thing that she would be so completely distracted from what she had chosen to do, which was to serve Jesus and his friends, providing hospitality.
Now, Mary, her Twitter post would probably be a bit more like this:
“Listening to Jesus today! He’s so deep and insightful!” #learning #guru #mustbethemessiah
Soon she would start receiving likes and people telling her, “Wow! You got to listen to him in person! Awesome!” But then the people would notice Martha’s tweet and some would start telling her that she’s a terrible sister and that she should have been helping out instead of sitting around listening to Jesus, especially when the visitors needed their snacks and drinks.
Pretty soon she would be so distracted by the likes and growing discussion about who was right, she or her sister, that she too would no longer be able to focus on listening to Jesus which is what she had chosen to do.
This feud might go on for quite a while, until one day the Mayor of Bethany would Tweet out that he would really like it if the Samaritans would just go back to where they came from and Twitter would explode into a cacophony of ranting and raving and both Mary and Martha would be forgotten just like everything else these days when something even wilder comes along and catches our fancy.
And then the two girls would be stuck wondering if it had really been worthwhile to hate each other and compete so much because what exactly did they have to show for it now that no one was paying attention?
It’s probably for the best that they didn’t have smartphones and social media.
And even though Martha didn’t have a battery operated distraction device in her pocket, Jesus still told her that she was worried and distracted by many things. Jesus was telling Martha that even though there might be a lot of things to do, the things that were causing her grief were things that were internal and not external stimuli.
The definition for the word “distraction” in the Gospel today literally means “I am pulled away.” Now, that sounds like something out of our control is acting upon us, but unless you are physically avoiding something coming toward you, most distractions are something we choose to allow, and are not at all things that literally pull us away from something else.
You see, in order for something to “pull you away,” you need to be “pulled toward,” or “attracted” to something else. So a distraction is less being “pulled away” and more being “pulled toward” something other than what we want to focus on. We are essentially choosing to change our focus, and allowing ourselves to be pulled toward something new. If we ever feel far from God, then we must examine ourselves to see what our hearts are pulling us toward.
Our culture has turned into one where the latest and greatest thing needs to always be at our fingertips, and where we feel we are so rushed that we are constantly looking to get things in the shortest amount of time, for the least amount of money, or in the smallest soundbite or reading material we can find. We don’t want to waste our valuable time, after all, and so it seems sometimes our theology has been whittled down to meme or bumper sticker length. In the case of Mary and Martha, the bumper sticker comes down to “Are you a Mary *OR* are you a Martha?”
I think asking the question that way leaves us thinking that Martha somehow did something wrong.
Martha chose to serve Jesus and his friends with hospitality and kindness, by preparing the food and drinks and serving them all as Jesus taught the others.
This act of kindness and hospitality is a good thing. Asking the question with an *OR* sets us up to believe that Martha made a bad choice.
Instead, when Martha asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her out, Jesus said that Mary had “chosen the better part,” and that this choice to listen to his teachings would not be taken away from Mary.
He did not say that Martha had chosen poorly. He did not say that Martha’s work was not appreciated. He did not say that Martha’s work was not important. He simply said that Mary chose something better. But the use of the word “better” implies that Martha’s work was also good.
So where does that leave us with Martha’s distractions? I think the distraction that Jesus was referring to was that Martha had let the work that she was doing become her focus. Martha was pulled toward, or attracted to, the idea that the work was her work, rather than that the work was for Jesus and his friends. The focus suddenly shifted to the work that she was doing, rather than for whom she was doing the work. And when she lost sight of that, suddenly the work became burdensome, she felt annoyed, she felt overwhelmed, and she wondered why her sister was not helping her out.
I’ll say it again, but slightly differently. Martha’s work was genuine, and done because she loved Jesus, but when she focused on how the work affected her, and not on the fact that she was doing this for Jesus, she suddenly grew upset, tired and cranky. And if Jesus had intervened and allowed Martha to grab Mary to help her out, then Martha would have become a distraction to Mary, and kept Mary from the focus she had chosen.
I am convinced that if Martha had kepter her focus on Jesus and on serving him rather than taking the bait and allowing herself to be distracted by what she was doing then Jesus would have been quite pleased with her work, and we would not have heard this story today.
It is an easy temptation to fall into, to allow ourselves to think that the work is happening because we are doing it, or to make the work itself the focus, rather than why we are doing the work, and Martha was no different.
So where does that leave us with Mary?
Mary had chosen to listen at the feet of Jesus and our bumper sticker culture wants us to make that the end of the discussion. Mary chose to listen and learn from Jesus. Jesus said she chose the better part. The end.
But why exactly is this the better part?
A lot of time what Mary did is compared to reading your bible and spending time in prayer, but if we only do these things because that’s what good christians do, then we aren’t really taking Mary’s example to heart.
Just like in any relationship, the more time you spend with someone, the more you get to know them, the more you get to understand their desires and wants, and the more you begin to understand their motivations. And slowly, their motivations become your motivations, and their desires become your desires – if and only if you are willing to let the other person’s actions and desires transform your own life.
Mary chose to listen to Jesus, and allow his words to transform her heart, her mind, and it was because of the nearness to him that she would be reminded of how her behaviors would be changed by what she had learned.
If we studied God’s word, but failed to allow it to transform our lives and our behaviors, then how far would that get us?
God has commanded us to care for the sick, the poor, the widows and orphans and to make disciples of all nations. He has commanded us to love the immigrant in our land and not to oppress them or deprive them of justice. He wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves so that people will see the Good News of God’s Love in action.
We may know where things can be found in the Bible, and we might have great words of wisdom to share with others, but if we will not put what we have learned into action then we need to ask ourselves if we have taken Mary’s example to heart, and chosen the better part.
If we can retain the willingness to allow God to transform our hearts like Mary did, and put the knowledge of God’s love into action like Martha did – but without letting the work become the focus, or allowing the work to become about us, then we will have allowed God’s love to truly transform us.
In short, we shouldn’t be Mary *OR* Martha, but instead, we should be Mary *AND* Martha. We need to seek God and act on the love that that creates.
Which then begs the question: “How do we love God?”
St. Francis de Sales was once approached by a disciple who said to him, “Sir, you speak so much about the love of God, but you never tell us how to achieve it. Won’t you tell me how one comes to love God?”
St. Francis replied, “There is only one way and that is to love Him.”
“But you don’t understand my question. What I asked was ‘How do you engender this love of God?’”
Again, St. Francis said, “By loving Him.”
Once again, the pupil came back with the same question. “But what steps do you take? Just what do you do to come into the possession of this love?”
And all St. Francis would say was, “You begin by loving, and you go on loving, and loving teaches you how to love. And the more you love, the more you are able to love.”[This sermon was delivered at Christ the King Episcopal Church in Tucson, AZ on July 21, 2019. Listen Here.]
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.