Sisters in a new story

For the record, I’m 100% on Martha’s side in today’s Gospel. Full disclosure, it’s probably because I’m just like her - busy getting stuff done all the time. And, occasionally feeling self-righteous and indignant for doing what I think is more than my fair share of the chores. That’s a fun emotion. At any rate, wherever you are on the Mary-Martha spectrum, maybe you can identify a bit with Martha, when you think about everything you juggle in your own life. This gospel can feel like a pronouncement of judgment on us whenever we are preoccupied by what we have to get done. That seems unfair to me, as if we should not only get stuff done, but also be more spiritual about it. I have always thought that poor, misunderstood Martha gets the short end of the stick when Jesus praises her sister Mary. I can feel Martha’s resentment and irritation when Jesus says that Mary, the one not doing the work, is in the right. I hear this story and think, “Jesus doesn’t get me.” 

So when these sisters popped up again in today’s readings, my first thought was, here we go again. I’m supposed to stand up here and explain why Mary has the better part, which usually means throwing Martha, and maybe some of us, under the bus in the process. So I trudged back to the commentaries, looking for a new angle, and honestly, maybe a little redemption for Martha. What I found out about the sisters was completely unexpected. This isn’t the family squabble we thought we knew. It’s about what life is like after we flip the script and step into a new story.  

But first, you have to forget everything you think you know about this scene in Luke’s gospel. At the risk of also throwing the translators under the proverbial bus, it turns out that they took some strange liberties. First of all, forget that Jesus has come to Mary and Martha’s home in Bethany. Usually Bethany is mentioned with the sisters’ names, but not today. They are simply in a certain village, and Martha welcomes Jesus into the home. Not her home. It could be anyone’s, and it’s probably not in Bethany at all. 

Next, we have the familiar image of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, while Martha does all the work involved in hosting Jesus - presumably preparing a meal. Martha says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Now, I have to pause here with a disclaimer. They told us in preaching class never to talk about ancient Greek in a sermon because people’s eyes glaze over. You’ll have to forgive me, because this is too good not to share. The ancient word for Martha’s work in the text is diakonia. While that word can denote household tasks like doing dishes and cooking a meal, its more immediate sense in the New Testament is more like service in ministry. Diakonia is fitting for disciples who evangelize for Jesus and widen his mission. It’s the same root word from which we get our word deacon. Which means that it’s entirely possible, and maybe even more likely, that Martha is distracted and overworked not by the dishes, but by the demands of her ministry. 

And for those of you who don’t mind geeking out a little more with the ancient Greek, the scene gets even more interesting. Forget what you know about Mary being the one at Jesus’ feet in the posture of a disciple. The original text says that Martha has a sister, who has also sat at Jesus’ feet, in the imperfect tense, meaning over time, in the past. Whatever Mary is doing today, Martha has also done in an ongoing way. They have both sat at Jesus’ feet, learning from him and being formed as his ministers along the way. 

And in our last move to disrupt the standard interpretation, forget what you know about Martha’s complaint. If we stay close to the original, her issue isn’t the housework. There is evidence that Mary of Bethany is kind of a big deal, that she has a following as an evangelist. For example, her followers turn up over in the gospel of John and witness the raising of her brother Lazarus. A scholar by the name of Mary Hanson suggests that Martha’s complaint might actually be that Mary has deserted Martha with some regularity to pursue her own ministry, and that the distance between the sisters is more than the few steps between the kitchen and the living room. Martha isn’t just fretting about chores. The language indicates a strong distress. We don’t know what’s behind it, but it’s safe to assume that like any adult sisters, their relationship is complex. Perhaps she’s worried about Mary’s safety out in the countryside as a disciple. Martha says to Jesus, “Tell her then to help me.” She pleads with Jesus to tell her sister to come back. Perhaps needing help is only a pretense; maybe Martha just wants her sister closer to home and under her watch. With their long family history coming up against their new roles in Christ, Mary and Martha are navigating through the uncharted territory of being sisters in a ministry that has turned their world upside down. 

So what, then, do we make of Jesus’ teaching to Martha, that Mary has chosen the better part? The traditional readings of this are generally pretty good. Some people see this as an affirmation of the life of prayer and contemplation. It comes on the heals of the Good Samaritan story about what we are supposed to do as followers of Jesus. Perhaps this helps balance that teaching, that we need to refill our spiritual wells from time to time. Others see the sisters as two sides of a spiritual coin - the active and the contemplative.They are both important, though the contemplative side would seem to have a slight edge in this story. 

Those traditional interpretations are pretty solid. But there is another possibility, especially if we understand Mary and Martha’s struggle in light of their new lives in ministry. Consider the fact that once they found Jesus, they completely flipped the script of their lives. They are now evangelists, which I would wager 100% that this was not their original plan for their lives. Jesus has opened up a whole new story for them to follow - one of new roles and expectations and dreams. This means letting go of old, familiar ways of managing their lives, everything from family rules and expectations to their hope for the future. Jesus has a habit of telling people to let go of their old stories - about things like money, family, security, kingdoms, and righteousness. Or maybe more importantly to let go of the reverse of those things - greed, disconnection, insecurity, idolatry and self-righteousness. Consistent with that teaching habit, Jesus has asked Martha to let go of her self-righteous complaint against her sister. She’s swirling around in an old story, holding onto her fear of the new one, and it’s causing her distress. Letting go of that will bring healing. It will be the better part. 

A new story is always possible, that’s the gospel truth. To get there, you have to be willing to let go of that which is no longer serving you or anyone else well. Like Martha, we can sure haul around some heavy backpacks full of the old scripts if we’re not careful. We might be more like her than we realized, and it has nothing to do with the chores. I think that maybe Jesus gets us after all. 

I take comfort in the fact that Martha is clearly a work in progress. If you happen to feel like a work in progress yourself, you’re in good company. I can imagine Jesus looking right at Martha, and I can see him looking right at us, too. As we step into our new story, as we step into our ministries to serve the mission of Jesus in this world that so desperately needs healing, let’s drop the old scripts that hold us back. The better part awaits.  

Kate Alexander