One of our bible readings for Morning Prayer this morning was Luke 10: 38 – 42. It is the story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
It is a lovely story, and one of my favourites, but it has also been a reading that has troubled us all at different times, challenging as it does, our priorities between doing the tasks that our lives demand and spending time with God. I know it has the ability to make me feel guilty – I am someone who is an activist rather than a reflector. I find it much easier to get on with the tasks at hand than it is to spend time in quiet prayer or contemplation and I am profoundly envious of those who have a natural inclination for meditation and are able to spend time easily in God’s presence.
Of course this was even more so in a Middle-eastern household such as the one Jesus visited in this passage. There was almost a sacred duty of hospitality demanded of the family. The arrival of Jesus, with his friends and disciples, would have put a strain on the household but Martha knew it was her duty to feed and care for them. The indications are, gleaned from other gospels stories, the family wasn’t poor so Martha may well have had a servant to assist her but it was the duty of all the women of the household to tend the needs of the visitors. Mary should have been by her sister’s side, grinding the corn for bread or preparing food in other ways. To Martha, Mary was showing a lack of care to much loved guests by not helping to serve them. Martha may also have really worried about the reputation her sister would get if she was seen to be a person spending time with men, rather than doing the tasks demanded. So she approached Jesus and asked him to intervene. Did Martha really expect her much loved friend Jesus to respond in the way that any other man of the time would have done? Martha understood, much more fully than even many of Jesus’ male followers, who he was but she was distracted and flustered so she turned to Jesus for back up.
But of course, although Jesus was a man of his time and culture, he was also the Son of God who knew that in the kingdom of God there is a profoundly different concept of hospitality. In God’s kingdom we are all welcome and all equal in his love. In his kingdom we all feed on his word and share his generosity. All gifts come from God and in his kingdom all are celebrated. When Jesus entered the house in Bethany the kingdom of God was at hand. So Martha’s gift of hospitality was precious but so too was Mary’s gift of listening and learning. Mary’s radical action of sitting with the men by Jesus wasn’t shocking or lazy. It was a sign that she was in the kingdom – welcomed and equal. The invitation was to Martha to join into this understanding of God’s hospitality and welcome.
The challenge for us is to also live by kingdom values and not allow ourselves to behave just as society would want. We are to conform not to this world but to the God’s kingdom, which is at hand and of which we are citizens, now and forever.