Keep It Simple: Reflections on Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42
In his commendation of Mary (v. 42) he is not elevating her over her sister. He is affirming the legitimacy of focusing on the role of a student of scripture. To affirm a woman in this role is something most Jewish teachers of his time did not favor. Mary sits at Jesus' feet as Paul sat at Gamaliel's feet. We are to spend quality time with Jesus whenever we have the chance.
I identify with Martha more than Mary in this passage. Maybe because I've heard too many sermons that elevate the contemplative life over the life of action, that urge us to be Mary and not Martha. But let's be practical. What's a family meal without the meal? What's a dinner party without the dinner? When you invite people over for dinner, you are making a promise that you will provide appetizing food for them.
With the basic goal of making people feel welcome and serving them an appetizing meal in mind, however, we need to keep focused on the purpose of the dinner and the needs of the guest. We are, like Martha, to welcome Jesus into our home. But we are to tailor the event to the identity and preferences of our honored guest. He is the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45).
There is something in this story for all temperaments and tendencies. We could read it as a story that commends not allowing service to distract us from prayer and study. We could also, coming to Martha's defense, remember that we are not to use prayer and study as a free pass to avoid service. When both are focused on Jesus, they interact and mutually energize one another. Like family members working together to welcome one another and to prepare a meal together.
We serve Jesus by spending time with him. We serve him by treating him in the manner he deserves to be treated as an honored guest. That means focusing on him and doing his will in this world. That is the "main course" that the Martha and the Mary within our own selves and community work together to prepare.
"Keep it simple. We want to spend time with you, not have you wait on us."
I take my daughter's comments seriously. They don't mean that I prepare any less carefully. I just keep my preparations focused on the goal of the gathering and I keep it a little simpler so I'm not distracted while she and the family are in my home. That way I can focus on listening to them and enjoying their company. That is the way to treat honored guests.
Howard Marshall, The New International Greek Commentary on Luke.
Stephanie Frey, "Living with Martha," The Christian Century, July 13, 2004.
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.