“Sitters and Doers”
9th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C – July 17, 2016
Melody Beattie in her book “Co-Dependent No More” writes: “Many of us have heard the Biblical parable about Mary and Martha. While Mary sat and talked with Jesus and His friends, Martha cleaned and cooked. Before long, the story goes, Martha started banging pans, accusing Mary of being lazy. Martha complained that she had to do everything while Mary relaxed and enjoyed herself. Does this sound familiar? Jesus didn’t let this go by. He told Martha to hush. Mary knows what’s important, He said. Mary made the right decision.
Jesus’ message might be that Mary made the right choice because it’s more important to enjoy people than it is to cook and clean. But I also believe there’s a message here about taking responsibility for our choices, doing what we want to be doing, and realizing how we become angry when we don’t. Maybe Mary’s choice was right because she acted as she wanted to. Jesus helped many people, but He was honest and straightforward about it. He didn’t persecute people after He helped them. And He asked them what they wanted from Him. Sometimes He asked why, too. He held people responsible for their behaviour.
Beattie goes on to say, “I think caretaking perverts Biblical messages about giving, loving, and helping. Nowhere in the Bible are we instructed to do something for someone, then scratch his or her eyes out. Nowhere are we told to walk the extra mile with someone, and then grab the person’s cane and beat him or her with it. Caring about people and giving are good, desirable qualities – something we need to do – but many co-dependents have misinterpreted the suggestions to “give until, it hurts.” So says Melody Beattie.
The timeless story of Martha and Mary shows that practical works void of contemplative depth produce little more than frustration and anxiety. While Martha busies herself with vital works of hospitality, the kind of works symbolic of Christian outreach, Mary is the one who gets the highest commendation for her attentive listening at the feet of the great Teacher. The contemplative life is not superior to the active life, but both are features of an abundant life!
Here we have Martha, the elder sister, the head of the household. Her traditional role was not, however, a place of honour. For a Jewish woman of the first century, this was a sign of great tragedy. It meant she was either a widow or had never married. It also meant that she had virtually no position in society. Her situation was generally seen as a sign of God’s displeasure. Such women were expected to be as invisible as possible, and to cling quietly to what little life their culture offered them. By receiving Jesus into her house, Martha is, in her own way, selling everything and buying the pearl of great price. It is a bold and reckless action that struck at convention, ignored propriety, and was totally scandalous. She saw an opportunity of great value, and she reached for that, ignoring all that stood in the way. Her actions are both courageous, and a little bizarre.
Meanwhile Mary – the other one – had been watching all of this, no doubt with great interest. Imagine Mary, early in Jesus’ visit – she sees Martha busy in the kitchen, and she hears a few words from Jesus. Now it is Mary’s turn to make a decision. It is a big decision. The issue was not housework versus Bible study. The issue actually pulled at the very fabric of society. You see, there were only a few things a woman could do that were worse than inviting a strange rabbi into her house. Being taught by such a rabbi was one of them. There was one contemporary rabbinic saying that Mary surely knew: “It is better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman.” For a woman to listen to someone teach the Torah was just wrong.
But – Mary had been watching her sister, and Mary had discovered in Jesus the same power, the same draw, that Martha had. So, Mary sat down and began to listen, to hear the word of Jesus. For Mary to do this was unthinkable. It was a bold and reckless action that struck at convention, ignored propriety, and was totally scandalous. She saw an opportunity of great value, and she reached for that, ignoring all that stood in the way. Her actions were also courageous, and a little bizarre.
You see, Martha and Mary are not just symbols, or types of people. They are also real people, interesting, gutsy women who were very much alike, and who were willing to risk much for an opportunity to be with Jesus.
Martha demonstrates the call of the Gospel – go and do. She risked everything to be in service to Jesus. Hers was the ethical response. Nobody, including Jesus, could refute her integrity. And yet it was Mary who got to the heart of the matter. It was Mary who exhibited attentive listening in the presence of Jesus.
Martha may have demonstrated the directive of the Gospel. Mary, however embodied the intention – the “better part” that can never be taken away.
Faithfulness begins with intent, which in turn, leads to the action. In other words, being gives rise to doing – but not the other way around. Who we are in Christ is not something of our own making, but what we make of it later on becomes our gift back, our sign of gratitude.
We live in this crazy, mixed up world that places an inordinate value on productivity. Our churches, synagogues and mosques are affirmed when we open up soup kitchens or housing initiatives. We get all excited when we do good for others. And yet – and yet! Perhaps we need to spend more time in meditation. Possibly we need to carve out time each day to devote to prayer. Maybe, we need to sit at Jesus feet.
In the book, ”A Woman’s Book of Days,” by Donna Sinclair, she writes: “I need time and silence to slow thoughts that curl heavily in my brain. Time to let reflection unvoiced, unsaid in sentences, stretch my mind, growing until one day when I will write them down and discover what I know. It’s summer, the right time for this.” Amen.