Today we hear about Mary and Martha -- two really remarkable people who have often been treated rather badly. To be sure, they are famous and, if nothing else, doubtless have had more women's guilds named after them than anyone else. But they are so often used as types, as symbols, that their own story is seldom heard. Through the centuries, Mary and Martha have stood for a vast array of contrasts: service versus worship; the monastic life versus the secular life; social activism versus personal piety; faith versus works; traditional feminine roles versus modern feminine roles, and so on. But what about Martha and Mary the people, and their encounter with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem?
A surprising amount of information about them can be discovered from these few verses of Luke. Let's look at Martha first. She is the head of her household. For a Jewish woman of the first century, this is a sign of great tragedy. It means she is either a widow or has never married; it also means that she has 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.
Then, Jesus' journey to the cross brought him to Martha's village, and Martha, either by rumor of Jesus or by his appearance, found him compelling. So, Martha did an unthinkable thing: She invited this stranger, this rabbi, this man, into her house. (She probably invited a whole herd of disciples in as well, but that made no difference.) In 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 little bizarre. No doubt, people would talk.
Jesus entered the house and began to teach. (The Greek makes it clear that he is not chatting about the weather; he is giving his word, the content of his message.)
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 study club. 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. Here are two contemporary Rabbinic sayings Mary surely knew: The rabbis said: "It is better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman," and "It is better to teach a daughter to be a prostitute than to teach her the Torah."
For a woman to listen to someone teach about 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 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 were both courageous and a little bizarre. No doubt, people would talk.
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. All of this puts a fresh light on the little spat between them.
Jesus had been watching both Martha and Mary. He had seen each of them in turn make her radical choice; and he had supported them. He accepted Martha's invitation and entered the house. He continued to teach as Mary sat at his feet and listened. (By the way, both of these were very improper actions for any respectable teacher.) Jesus clearly admired them both.
Then, Martha came to Jesus with her little complaint; there is work to be done, ordinary, regular work. It is appropriate and right for Mary to help with that, Mary has always helped with that, and Jesus should tell her to help now.
The Lord's reply was surprisingly kind. His answer to Martha was the most gentle response Jesus ever gave to a hypocrite. One thing is needful, Jesus said to Martha. Martha knows that, Martha went to great lengths and took great risks for that one thing -- the presence of Jesus. Now Mary is doing exactly what Martha did, and Martha is whining because it is inconvenient. The real issue here is not who does the dishes. The real issue is the meaning of Jesus, the consequences of his presence.
The presence of the Lord changes things. Life will be different, and some of the old rules and old patterns will not work, once he has arrived. His presence will bring, among other things, inconvenience and the need to reevaluate and restructure.
That was Martha's mistake. She assumed that she could invite Jesus into her house, into her life, and then return to business as usual, with nothing else any different. Or at least she wanted to be the one who decided what changed and what didn't.
Jesus was telling Martha, and us, that it doesn't work that way. Once Jesus is invited in, once he begins to become a part of things, then sooner or later all of life will be different, all of life will be changed. To expect and to demand otherwise, as Martha did, is to misunderstand the Lord. Jesus does not fit neatly into a world and a life that is already pretty well constructed. Jesus is not a missing piece in an otherwise well constructed existence.
Jesus messes things up, and forces everything to be reconsidered and re-evaluated. There is no telling what that re-evaluation is going to look like. In this story, the way the household works is going to be different now; and there were no doubt going to be other changes as well. Both Mary and Martha were different now. Jesus had been there. Things are not going to be the same. Life changes when Jesus is invited in. That's the real key to this story.
Don't forget to think about Mary and Martha as people, not just as types. Listen to their story -- to their courage and their audacity; to their strengths and their weaknesses -- listen and try it on.
Remember, when Jesus is invited in, things change.