Keep It Simple: Reflections on Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42
July 21, 2013
It's Thursday night and I'm having company Saturday night. It's our daughter Rebecca's birthday and family members are coming to celebrate. We'll have a total of thirteen people to welcome and feed. When I have company coming, I have an automatic transmission that kicks into Martha gear. I like to have everything in order. I've gotten much better over the years. I used to feel I had to clean out the garage and alphabetize my spices before anyone came through the front door. I have gotten over that. But I still need to make sure the fridge is clean, the carpet in the family room vacuumed, the kitchen floor mopped, the bathroom rugs freshly washed, the front window wiped clean of spots and grime, the grit cleared out of the utensil drawer, and the patio swept, and the flagstone scrubbed clean of all the bird droppings.
And then there is the food. My husband, Murry, an excellent cook, helps with the main course, but I still have three bean salad to make, corn on the cob to shuck, rolls to bake, and a chocolate refrigerator pie to put together (the kind with the graham cracker crust and chocolate pudding filling). I also need to wrap the gifts we're giving Rebecca for her birthday. I need to check to make sure I have ribbons that match the birthday wrapping paper. There is a lot to do between now and when my company comes. I don't really have time to be writing this column.
My daughter knows me. She called earlier today and said, "Keep it simple. We'll all bring something. We want to spend time with you, not have you wait on us."
In this week's familiar scripture passage, Martha is having Jesus over for dinner. She wants everything to be perfect. She wants the meal to be one he'll always remember. Not just because she's a perfectionist, though she may be, but because hospitality is a bedrock value in first-century Palestinian village life. It is a point of honor for families and villages to welcome guests and offer them the best the home has to offer. She wants to treat Jesus the way she thinks he deserves to be treated as an honored guest.
We meet Martha and Mary here and also in John 11 where these sisters of Lazarus are involved in the account of Lazarus's death and resurrection by Jesus. In these accounts Martha comes across as a practical, blunt person, while Mary is more unconventional and contemplative. The sisters' division of labor here in Luke 10:38-42 mirrors John 12 where Martha is the one who serves the meal while Mary focuses on giving Jesus an extravagant anointing (Marshall, 452). Martha seems to be the go-to hostess in the home, the decision maker in the household. It may be that she was a widow (Marshall, 451). She "welcomed Jesus into her home" (Lk. 10:38) but then her attention became distracted (v. 40, in the Greek "pulled away") from Jesus by her multiple duties (Marshall, 452).
Martha and Mary's dinner party for Jesus comes right after the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the flow of Luke's gospel. Perhaps Luke's aim was to affirm the importance of prayer and worship, having just commended practical action. Immediately following this story Jesus teaches his disciples to pray and recommends persistence in prayer.
I don't read this story as Jesus elevating one aspect of the life of discipleship over another, discounting the need for outer preparations and exclusively commending the inward life. In his remarks to Martha (v. 41) he is not chastising her for making preparations. He is suggesting she focus on the purpose of those preparations and therefore simplify them. In Eugene H. Peterson's The Message, Jesus says: "Martha, dear Martha, you're fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it's the main course, and won't be taken from her."
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.