Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She knew she was getting older but had she heard this right? Mary had chosen the better part? Mary? Little Mary with her head in the clouds. Mary, who had to be nagged every time there was work to be done. Mary, always sweet and innocent running to the protection of her Papa’s arms. Papa’s favourite. From the first time Lazarus took ill, Papa had become very protective.Lazarus was always such a sickly child. Mama and Papa spent all their time nursing him, if not back to health then at least to some kind of stability. Papa was so afraid he would lose a child. Papa came to indulge Mary, pacifying her with whatever she wanted. He are tired and it was just easier.
But, please Jesus, don’t tell me Mary has chosen the better part. Not today, of all days. Look at her sitting idly at your feet. She doesn’t even recognize the entitlement she is assuming sitting there like one of your male disciples. Meanwhile, it is I who fulfill the obligations of hospitality. Who do you think cleaned this house from top to bottom in anticipation of your visit? Or don’t men see that kind of thing? Who pulled all the cots out of the attic, rearranged the couches and gave up her own room so all of you would have a place to sleep tonight? Who stretched the shopping budget to put on this meal for you? Didn’t want to insult our guests by running short on wine. Who washed everyone’s feet as they came in this evening? Certainly not Mary!
Yet, she chose the better part? Who do you think held this family together when Mama and Papa passed? Lazarus? Too sick. Mary? She couldn’t organize her own life. No, it was I scraping and saving so we could buy a field of our own. It is I who is always up before dawn preparing the day for these other two while I go off to work the farm. I, who is always up late into the night darning and mending by candlelight.
And you say Mary chose the best part!
And here the story ends. We have no idea what happens next between Jesus and Martha. That’s because Luke wants us to enter the story. We are to take on the role of Martha. What do we do now? Do we throw the dish towel in Jesus’ face and tell him to go get his own bloody supper? Do we demand an apology or at least an explanation of Jesus’ rebuke? Or do we cower in the face of his words, his authority, his male privilege, and fade back into the shadows of the kitchen?
These are really tough questions for we church people to confront because, we know in earnest that our churches were built, and continue to be supported, by the Martha’s of our congregation. There was a time at Wesley when we had three full U.C.W. units. Indeed, one of those was called the Martha unit for good reason. There was more to these women than gathering in each other’s homes for an afternoon tea, although that was always enjoyed. As a kid, you knew the day the UCW were coming to your house because mom always sent you to school with the warning, “Come home quietly.” Then there was always the inevitable, Christopher,” (my middle name used only in times of trouble,) “I told you those were for the U.C.W.!” The only time I ran to school.
Yes, there were scripture readings, reflections and fellowship at these meetings. But there was also planning, much planning. Planning for the never-ending Roast Beef dinners, and the Turkey Pies, the Rummage Sales and Bake Sales, and the Bakeless Bake Sales, the Food Faire, their tables at the garage sale. If you consider the collective history of our church, I can’t imagine how much money these women raised for our church or the amount of money raised for Mission and Service throughout the years. Imagine the amount raised just between Central and Wesley. The truth is, what would we do without the Martha’s of the church?
They appear to be the better part of us.
Not according to Jesus. Here, I once again bow to the wisdom of C.S. Lewis. In his book The Great Divorce, which is not a book to be trifled with, Lewis finds himself in Hell boarding a bus bound for heaven. A revolutionary concept in Lewis’ time, he puts to us the proposition that Hell is locked from the inside, and that anyone who wanted to stay in Heaven could. Heaven was not a place to be earned. Yet, what is incredible is the number of people who don’t want to stay and take the round trip back to Hell.
One of Lewis’ spirit guides, of which he meets a few in heaven, is leading him to the mountains to see the face of God. Along the way, they converse and wisdoms are shared. At one point, the nameless Spirit says…“There have been men (remember this was 1946 before people were made aware of the inherent sexism of their language). There have been men before now who got so interested in proving God’s existence that they came to care nothing for God Himself…..There are those who were so occupied with the spreading of Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ. Or organisers of charities that had lost all love of the poor. It is the subtlest of snares.” (The Great Divorce; pg. 74)
Can you imagine sitting at the knee of Jesus? The Son of God, we label him. Behind that label lives the very Spirit of God, a Spirit of unconditional love, of gracious, pure, sacrificial love that who is more than willing to pay the cost of exposing this love to others. In Jesus we stand in the pure energy of heaven, of life itself. In Christ, the power of grace radiates from him, healing the hearts and souls of those he meets.
Martha loved Jesus. Of this I have no doubt. She responds by showing her love in the only way she has come to know, from her hard life, that is to fulfill her obligations. A clean house, rooms provided, bread enough when broken, cups filled with wine, clean feet at the table. The danger with fulfilling our roles out of obligation, even if it is our way of loving, is that our hearts can often become weighed down, burdened with exhaustion, vulnerable to feelings of resentment. As C.S. Lewis points out, we can become so involved in our service of Christ, we end up caring nothing for Christ himself.
The danger in focusing on the ‘building up of our churches’, the concern over filling our pews, meeting our financial obligations, preserving our traditions, is that we end up never giving a thought to Christ. We forget to set a place at the table for him. We become so obsessed with helping the poor, we strategize from our places of comfort in our meeting rooms, attempting to discern what we can do for them, thinking nothing about the actual person on the street. It becomes about us.
It is said, that the Lord loves a joyful giver! Why? Because with true giving, there is joy. The joy of knowing that giving is more blessed than receiving. The joy found in connecting with others, walking a mile in their shoes, of caring little for the cost, for lifting the burdens of another. If the giving happens without this joy, through resentful obligation, how is this a gift?
That is the better part Jesus is referring to. If we take a moment to sit at the knee of Jesus and have our hearts and souls absorb his energy and light, spend a moment lifting our eyes unto the hills searching for the face of God, then every instance where love is exposed and shared, compassion is felt and healing occurs, heaven resounds with the trumpets of God! Those moments, those acts, are the better part of us. Christ, hanging on a cross, who could still see Heaven in the midst of that Hell, who prays for God to be gracious to even those who hung him there, that was the best part of him. No anger, resentment, vengeance. The hope of peace. The hope of redemption for others. The gift of salvation.
If Martha had taken the better part, she would not have entered this room in the tirade of anger she had. She would have entered and been glad for Mary’s opportunity to sit with the master while he was still with them. Maybe she would have knelt herself. Maybe not. Maybe that was not Martha’s way. But to be sure, the meal served that night would have been spiced with joy and love.