This sermon was first preached at Kalamazoo First Congregational Church on July 21st, 2019. You can listen here.
Scripture: Luke 10:38-42
An open letter to Jesus, as I grapple with disappointment over how he handled this disagreement between two sisters.
I am weary of women being pitted against each other. In television, in politics, in on-line forums for new mothers. I’m tired of it. Unfortunately, in this story of Mary and Martha, I see you contributing to the problem. Maybe there is another way to read what is going on here. Maybe you will help me see it. But we are contending with centuries of story-telling, centuries of women’s stories being told by men, centuries of women’s lives circumscribed by men, centuries of women encouraged to judge our worth by comparing ourselves with other women. It’s a lot to unpack.
Part of why this story hurts, Jesus, is that I identify with Martha. Martha is task-oriented, as I am. Martha has her to-do list in her head, and she is not checking off the tasks quickly enough for her liking. Martha is trying to take care of people, which is a role women are rewarded for taking. We are trained to do this work, and many of us find great satisfaction in it. But it is work. And it is thankless work. And I understand why she was frustrated that Mary was not helping.
Granted, we don’t know the whole story. We don’t know whether you and your disciples were expected guests—guests Mary and Martha had both been preparing to host for days. You may have arrived unannounced and left Martha scrambling to prepare a last-minute meal. You may have told her, “No, it’s fine—we don’t expect anything.” She may have decided to cook a meal anyway.
Did Martha love listening to you teach, too? Was she jealous that Mary got to sit with you while she took care of the practical needs for the group? Or did Martha prefer working in the kitchen, working with her hands, keeping busy? Maybe she didn’t like sitting still, and chose to find work to do, and she was lonely when Mary left her to sit with the other disciples.
We don’t know that part of the story. We only know that somewhere along the line, one of the people telling and retelling this story before it was written down characterized Martha as “distracted.” And for centuries, now, she has been portrayed as “wrong” for getting distracted by the tasks of hospitality.
And I’m tired of telling that story.
For some time I took comfort in feminist readings of this text: Martha is doing the work expected of her in a patriarchal society, but Mary is bucking the system—choosing to sit at the feet of a great teacher and count herself among the disciples. You defend Mary. Mary can be a student, too, a disciple, too. She has chosen well. In this way of reading the story, Mary is liberated from the housework and welcomed as an intellectual and spiritual equal among the men. It is a better way of reading the interaction, but Martha is still in the wrong, because she is attempting to confine Mary in the gender-roles of their day. In this reading, Martha is still complicit in patriarchy.
I’m tired of that story, too. I’m tired of feminism that has no space for women who enjoy cooking and sewing and parenting. I’m tired of liberation that mocks or shames women who are content in traditional roles. I’m tired of feminism that vilifies women who are complicit in oppression, instead of working to liberate them, too. I’m tired of women being pitted against each other.
I know, I know, Jesus. Martha started the fight. Martha was the one who interrupted you. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work? Tell her to come help me.”
It’s an immature move, born of resentment. Martha had probably been stewing for a while before she ever spoke up. Maybe she’d been dropping hints all night, things like, “It sure would be nice to have another set of hands here,” or “Dinner might take a while, unless I get some help.” And finally, when none of that worked, instead of directly asking Mary to come help her, Martha was roping you into their conflict. It’s classic triangulation.
But the way you responded to Martha makes me sad and angry. I wish you had defended Mary’s choice without making Martha the bad guy. I wish you had sent Peter or Andrew to help Martha in the kitchen. I wish you had joined her yourself.
I want to hear your words to Martha as tenderness. I want to believe that you were coaxing her out of busy-ness and inviting her to join you. I think of my friend who knows that I place too much of my self-worth in my checked-off to-do list, and how she asked, “How is your to-be list going?” I think that’s the point of this story—to let go of our need to perform tasks in order to be fully present to you–but Jesus, I wish you had done it without comparing Martha’s choices to Mary’s.
I’m tired of women being pitted against each other. And I believe there is a better way.
What did Martha do next, Jesus? The story in our Bibles doesn’t tell us. Did she return to the kitchen, fuming? Did she drop dinner plans and sit with the disciples, trusting that you would defend her if John or Thomas complained about being hungry later?
If she was anything like me, she probably argued with you—defended her choice—made a strong case for why it was right for her to be worried about feeding the thirteen people who just showed up at her house—explained that it wasn’t only dinner she was concerned about, it was also getting beds ready and preparing basins of water for washing weary feet, and it was a lot to do alone.
I know you worked it out. We have other stories of you visiting this home, and Martha expresses great faith in you. She loved you. And you loved her.
And I believe that is the better way. Loving others, even when they are picking a fight. Loving Martha with all the choices she made and loving Mary with the choices she made, and not pitting them against each other.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul told that church that they were all members of a body, and like ears and eyes and hands and feet all have different roles to play, we have to rely on each other’s different skills and passions in order to work well. When we do—when we respect and learn to love our differences, that’s when we can build the whole body up in love.
I hope that’s how the story ended with Martha and Mary. That in the end they both knew that you loved them for exactly who they were. That in the end, Martha learned to make her own decisions about what she needed to do without fussing over whether Mary followed her lead. I hope that in the end, you thanked her for a good meal and said, “you know I love you, right?” And I hope you washed the dishes.