The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11), Year C.
As Jesus and his disciples 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.”Luke 10:38-42
What do you dread the most in school? Or if you haven’t been in school for a while, looking back, what was it that you dreaded the most? Was it homework, tests, or maybe answering rhetorical questions? What about group projects? Few things inspire more dread and collective groaning among students than when group projects come up in a syllabus. There is nothing that will test your faith in the goodness of humanity like being saddled with a group project where you know you’ll be the one doing the bulk of the work. What makes it worse is the feeling of injustice that comes from knowing that no matter how much or how little your partners contributed, you all are going to end up with the same grade. The general feeling about group projects, like many things, is perhaps best summed up by a random comment on the internet: “When I die, I want the people I’ve done group projects with to lower me into the grave so they can let me down one last time.”
This experience of feeling stuck with all the work draws us into today’s Gospel. This isn’t one of those obscure stories filled with ancient cultural nuance or high-flatulent theology, this is a Gospel story that you feel. Listening to it, you can hear the clattering of dishes in the kitchen as Martha frantically tries to put something respectable out for her honored guest and His entourage of at least a dozen other people. Given the number of guests, even if Martha had the luxury of expecting their arrival, she would certainly have been up since before dawn making preparations; getting the fires going for baking and cooking, shopping and gathering the food, arranging sleeping quarters and cleaning the house, putting everything together so Jesus and all the others that come with him, disciples, critics, and even the curious public, can feel welcome in her home. In doing all this work, she is not only fulfilling her duty as a host, she is in a very real way living out the commission given to the Seventy earlier in Luke: making ready for the Kingdom of God that has come near. She is offering a remarkable gift of welcome and hospitality, by her work in the background, she is freeing up time and energy for all in her home to focus on the one thing they really need, Jesus.
But there’s something incomplete in this picture. While the Seventy disciples were sent out in pairs to proclaim Jesus’ coming, Martha, also a disciple, has a partner that seems to be failing to contribute to the group project, her sister Mary. In Martha’s eyes, at least in her moment of frustration, Mary is taking the glamorous side of discipleship, sitting and listening to the teachings of Jesus, while leaving her with all the difficult daily work that goes into hosting as discipleship. Mary is only able to sit at Jesus’ feet because of all Martha’s work. I can imagine the frustration and sense of injustice that Martha must have felt, here she is doing all the work, while Mary gets the same credit for hosting Jesus. I’m sure she wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teachings too! But because Mary is not helping her, she feels that she no longer has time with all the other important work she has to do as a host.
This situation is one we are all too familiar with. A work assignment, a school project, or even hosting a dinner, at one time or another we have all felt the frustration and injustice that Martha must have felt when she was left all the work by Mary. Which is why Jesus’ answer to Martha’s objection so surprising, and frankly infuriating.
Martha’s complaint about her sister is entirely justified. Many have erroneously accused Martha of having her priorities out of order, painting a picture of her as someone who is more worried about her reputation or sense of social grace than appreciating Jesus’ teaching. She is often portrayed as someone who misses the forest for the trees, someone who has become so lost in the task at hand, that they have forgotten the whole point of their work. But that is an unfair grade to assign Martha.
In the brief story, it’s easy for us to forget the difficult position Martha is in. She has a tremendous amount of expectation saddled on her in this visit. As a first-century Jewish woman, she is expected to provide all the meals for her guests and prepare the household for their arrival. Adding to that expectation is her notable role as the head of her own household. Luke noting that they come to Martha’s home tells us that she is likely a widow, as culturally if there had been any man around that could claim ownership of the property, it would have been noted as his home. Being the head of the household puts even more duties and expectations on Martha. She is now expected to greet the guests, entertain them, wash their feet, and provide all the social hospitality in addition to her other duties. For the time and the culture, being a woman and the head of the household, if she fails at any one of her duties, it will just feed into all those who expect her to fail, to play into their prejudice that women are not fit to run the household. But even more important to her than all those expectations, is her clear belief in Jesus’ teachings and her own commitment to discipleship. The word Luke uses to describe Martha’s work is diakoneo, which means “deaconing” or serving. An argument can be made that Martha is the first deacon, and like most deacons, her work often is underappreciated. Despite this moment of frustration, Martha is not someone who is missing the point of the Gospel, her hospitality and service is faithfully living out the Gospel! Hosting Jesus, the one she loves so much she calls him “Lord” rather than simply “Teacher”, likely meant the world to her, and she did all the work not just because of the cultural expectations, but because she truly believes in His message.
So why does Jesus tell her that Mary had chosen the better part?
It’s here that we can make the case for the dreaded group project. Now, I’m not a teacher, I just play one during Adult Forum, but I always suspected that for as awful of an experience they are, group projects teach some of the most important and difficult life lessons to students. Though we often pretend otherwise, we are not independent of one another. The most important projects we take on need the skills and cooperation of a group working together. The reality is the world often doesn’t care who put it what amount of effort, or who did what, only the final result. What the group project really teaches is how to work together as a team. How to coordinate people’s strengths and enthusiasm, and how to meet someone where they are. The other crucial lesson is how to work with people you didn’t necessarily pick. Whether in school, or at work, or proclaiming the Gospel as a church community, we are not chosen as an elite task force or a “dream team”. We are brought together by circumstance and more importantly, a shared mission. The good news is that we don’t need an elite task force or the perfect group to achieve our goals. All we need is each other.
This is why Jesus corrects Martha. In her frustration, Martha accuses Jesus of not caring that Mary has left all the work to her. That’s not true, Jesus does care, He always cares for His disciples. What He does in His response is remind Martha that both of the sisters are acting as disciples. Often this story is seen as an either/or between the two sisters. A life of action vs a life of contemplation. But what we see in Jesus’ answer to Martha is that this is a false dichotomy. Martha’s distraction is not in her many tasks, but her failure to recognize Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet as a form of discipleship, which is why Jesus says it “will not be taken from her”. And though Martha may not see it in the moment, Mary is helping her host Jesus by welcoming Him and listening to Him.
Too often in life and in group projects we fail to recognize the contributions of our peers. We are distracted so much by fighting over who’s pulling their weight that we forget our mission. Proclaiming the Gospel takes all kinds of discipleship: some with diligent organization, some with prayerful contemplation. Depending on where we are in our journey, some will be able to work behind the scenes, knowing their purpose, while others may need to sit at the feet of the teacher, and learn how they may be a disciple.
In this group project, we will only succeed if we devote our energy to the mission instead of fighting over who has contributed the most. Our task is to work together and welcome all to our cause. Because at the end of all things, it doesn’t matter who did what and how much, but that together were faithful disciples. Amen.