There is a great temptation to say that Mary and Martha are two sides of the same coin, and maybe they are. There is always more than one way to read a story, after all. Another way to read today’s passage is not so easy, though. It calls us to examine our busy lives and to acknowledge that the trade-off for the idol of appearing busy (and too important to take a moment off for leisure) may be higher than we think.
Just to recap: Jesus is visiting Mary and Martha at their home in Bethany. It’s just outside Jerusalem. Obviously, they want to put out a nice meal for Jesus and his disciples, but Martha is the one doing all the work. Mary is just sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet. This is a pretty revolutionary act since only men were allowed to sit at a teacher’s feet, so Mary is no withering violet. But she is not putting in her share of the work in the kitchen, and Martha is not happy about it. Martha appeals to Jesus to intervene – a shocking thing to ask of a guest – and Jesus replies that The One Thing is all that is needed, Mary has chosen a better path.
Nearly two thousand years on we are left with the question of why, if Mary has chosen the better path, we often choose to model our lives on the example of Martha.
The answer may be clearer if we back up a little and connect this story with the story about the lawyer which precedes it in verses 25-37. The lawyer asked Jesus a question, “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In the Socratic style which the lawyer would have been comfortable with, Jesus answered the question with another question, “What is written in the law?” And the lawyer answered correctly: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind;’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)
That wasn’t good enough for the lawyer, though. He wanted to justify himself so he asked Jesus another question, “Who is my neighbor?”
It is clear that the lawyer already knew the answer to his first question, and it seems likely that he knew the answer to this one too; but, he wanted to justify himself, remember? To merely love God must have seemed to easy for him, anybody can do it after all. There must be something else required, something he can do that is really special, something worthy of his wonderfulness, something that would justify his existence and make it all worthwhile.
To answer the lawyer’s second question, Jesus tells a story. It’s the familiar story that we call “The Story of the Good Samaritan,” but it’s really not about the Samaritan at all. The story is about the violence experienced by the traveler. The traveler lies there, He is naked, stripped, and therefore unrecognizable as a member of any class. Oh, and he might be dead. The Priest and the Levite, in their priestly and levitical clothes won’t go near him, confirming that death is really the thing they are thinking about. That and the the importance of their sacrificial system. They surely loved God, they met the first requirement of obtaining eternal life; but, they failed in the second requirement, to love their neighbor as themselves. They walked by with ritual oil and wine tucked safely in the folds of their robes, and they were unjustified.
The lawyer knows that they were unjustified because they treated the man like a stranger, not like a neighbor. Jesus really didn’t have to tell the part of the story about the Samaritan. He uses it to make a couple of points, though: For one thing the Jerusalem Jews thought they were a little better than the Samaritans and this story shows that they are not. Jesus is saying that being in a certain group does not make you superior, even if it is a very good group. In pouring oil and wine on the victims wounds, the Samaritan also tells us is that the elements of sacrifice are more properly used in the hands of non-professionals who act out of love than in the hands of the pros who only fulfill part of the requirement for eternal life.
And that is all Jesus said, because it was enough.
Nobody in the story is a bad guy. But only the Samaritan loves God and his neighbor too.
And so we have Mary who loves God, and Martha who loves her neighbors. Certainly loving God, sitting with The One Thing, is the better path, because we can’t possibly love others if we don’t first love The One Thing.
The Lawyer only followed the first part of the requirement: He loved God, but remained unjustified because he did not love his neighbors.
Many of us make the opposite mistake of loving our neighbors, but not loving God first. We do all the good, working all the time, and it’s all for Jesus. But, it’s as one-sided, and as inadequate as the lawyer’s approach. It leaves us unjustified.
As Jesus said, only One Thing is required. Adonai Echad! Jesus is telling Mary, and us, that she needs to put down her work and sit quietly with The One. Only One Thing matters. Adonai!
It is this sitting quietly with The One Thing which enables us to go out and love the world, the afflicted, the other. We are only justified in loving God AND loving our neighbor, but love of God comes first. Otherwise it’s just another activity.
So, what must we do to obtain eternal life? We can look to Mary and Martha. They are two sides of the same coin. But without both sides it’s not really a coin. Without loving God first and loving our neighbor we are not really justified.
Activity requires leisure to have any meaning. All love flows from The One Thing: From Adonai!
It is hard to find time for the leisure that is required for real love to grow, but if we don’t we are only going half-way. A holy walk in the park with Jesus is as important as the other things we do to help ourselves feel justified. It may not seem important. After all, anybody can do it. But we are called to inactivity at least as much as to any activity, to quiet as much as to speaking out, to The One as much as to any plurality of other demands.
What can you do today to cultivate holy leisure?
I've written another essay for Sunday. It is short and only has one point. But there is something very interesting that I'm not putting in there. It doesn't really go with the point I'm making. But I'll put it on the blog in a few days. It's pretty interesting too.
Anyway, I hope you learned something here. I enjoy thinking about the readings in a couple of different ways and seeing what converges for me. Since I only do a couple a month I have time for that, and I take long walks and ask myself, "What would Kirk say?" "What would Rene say?" Because in my own private mind I am on a first name basis with these people. LOL. And I have that little pet name for Kierkegaard. He doesn't mind. I am a teacher, you know, and so I like to explain and point out all the little bits and bobs along the way, and I think others will be as interested as I am. But the truth is that they just want a little something to think about with their morning readings and they don't need me connecting every possible dot in every possible configuration. But, for me, it's my holy leisure.
In retrospect, it looks like I didn't really edit it down all that much. Well, we do the best we can in the moment.