The story of Mary and Martha is another one of the more familiar stories from the Gospels. In it we hear of two sisters, each responding to a visit in their home by Jesus. Martha is busy doing – doing all sorts of things that she undoubtedly felt were what good hospitality looked like. Mary, on the other hand, simply sits at the feet of Jesus, her teacher and savior. In a typical sister-y moment, Martha demands that Mary help out by complaining to Jesus.
I don’t have a sister, but every time I talk about this scripture with a woman who does have a sister, I get a lot of nods and smiles of understanding. This complicated dynamic between the sisters seems to be timeless and one many can relate to. I don’t have a sister, but I do have a brother. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, I was complaining to my mother that when my brother and I hosted her 50th birthday party I did everything except de-vein the shrimp, which I asked my brother to do. He did it, but griped about it the entire time. I still get annoyed by that as I had spent weeks planning, days cleaning, and ran around frantically the day of trying to pull off a party worthy of my wonderful mother. Keep in mind, this party was over 20 years ago, and I am still annoyed by my brother’s complaints when he was unhappy with the one task I assigned him. And I remember my annoyance when I perceived my brother riding to party-throwing glory on the coat tails of his much younger sister. So, while the story of Mary and Martha is about sisters, I imagine it is easy for all of us to relate to this story in some way or another.
There is a lot in this story, but this afternoon I want us to think about it from the perspective of hospitality. Which is a fitting topic, as this story immediately follows another very familiar text in the Bible, the parable of the Good Samaritan, which I talked about last week. That, too, is a lesson about, amongst other things, hospitality. The character in that parable I have always been most interested in is the innkeeper, the person who cared for the man that was beaten and left for dead alongside the road. Yes, it was the Samaritan who finally stopped to rescue him, and it was the Samaritan who paid for his care at the inn, but it was the innkeeper who actually nursed the man back to health. I have always been more interested in the innkeeper and when the two stories are put side by side, just as they appear in the Gospel of Luke, the innkeeper, or even the Samaritan who actually did something, and Martha seem very similar. They are doing the work. They are the ones making sure the guest is fed and the house is in good order. But, here is where things get tricky. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells the lawyer, who is questioning him about inheriting eternal life, that he should follow the example of the Samaritan. That we should always care for our neighbors. But, when we keep reading, we hear Jesus tell us the opposite. We hear Jesus admonish Martha for being busy and doing work. We hear Jesus say that Mary, who is quietly sitting at the feet of Jesus is in fact doing the right thing. First, we hear that inaction or complacency keeps us away from God, and then right away we hear that action and work keeps us away from God.
So, the question is, was Jesus contradicting himself? Or, did Luke, when he put together the telling of Jesus’ ministry, not notice that he put two stories side by side that would only confuse its listeners? Are we to throw up our hands and say, “what’s the point?” This afternoon at least, we are going to do the hard work instead. We are going to consider these confusing moments of Jesus’ teaching and find meaning for us today.
The more and more I thought about the story of Mary and Martha, especially after I was reminded by a colleague that I should not separate it from the story of the Good Samaritan, I began to think in fact Jesus was not contradicting himself, instead he was teaching us the same lesson about hospitality, just coming at it from different angles. Each of these stories have something in common. Both tell examples of recognizing and responding to the appearance of a holy stranger in our midst. Let me explain. In the story of the Good Samaritan, people were passing by a man who was stripped naked and beaten alongside a road. People likely passed by because that road was notoriously dangerous and people were often beaten and killed while traveling it. Those who walked by the man in Jesus’ parable may have thought – well that is just another victim of crime in a crime-infested place. Another number that would add to the statistics. It was only the Samaritan who recognized the humanity of the person who was laying there and knew that he had to stop and help if he could.
Jump ahead to this afternoon’s lesson, Mary and Martha are amongst the very lucky few who were able be in the presence of Jesus. But, Martha was so busy doing tasks that she didn’t take the time to actually notice his presence and the gift of that presence. Mary did and stopped everything to simply sit at his feet and learn from him. Mary not only recognized the humanity of their guest, but she also recognized the divinity of him. And when Jesus stopped by, she knew that being hospitable in that moment was to be with him, to simply be in his presence. And Jesus praised her for that.
I believe that both of these lessons, especially when they are told side by side, remind us that we are to always recognize and respond to who is in our midst. Sometimes it is someone in need. In that case we are recognize that they are human and created in the image of God, just as we are. We are to see them, not as another statistic, but as a person in need of love, care, and attention.
Sometimes the person in our midst is someone who can teach us, guide us, provide us with the gift of knowledge and blessing. In that case, we are to stop and listen. We are to stop and be in conversation. We are to stop and simply be. That person right in front of us, well they might not always be Jesus. In fact, the person in front us to teach us something invaluable may be the most unlikely person to do just that. But we are to recognize them for the teacher they are and listen to what they have to say to us.
I have said, over and over again in my ministry, that we must pay attention. We must pay attention to the way God is acting in our world and in our lives. We must pay attention to the person right in front of us and recognize that they are both fully human and carry within them a spark of the divine, just as we do. We must pay attention to the person laying alongside the road and the teacher who comes for dinner. We must pay attention to the abundant blessings God provides in and for our lives – whether it is stepping outside of our comfort zones and being in relationship with the stranger, or letting go of the habit of filling our lives with tasks that prevent us from seeing. We must pay attention because if we don’t, just think about what we will miss. We will miss the gift of helping, of creating relationship, of looking someone in the eye and telling them they too are worthy of love. We will miss the opportunity to sit at the feet of a teacher and learn. We will miss the fact that it is Jesus who is right in front of us. We will miss the abundance of blessings in a world so filled with distractions.
We are all a little bit of everyone in these stories. We are all a little Mary and a little Martha. We are all a little bit the Good Samaritan and a little bit the innkeeper. We are all a little bit that man lying alongside the road and a little bit the people who pass him by. That is what makes our lives of faith so complicated, yet so full of possibility. Because our lives are just as complicated as the lessons that Jesus’ teach, we can say without a doubt that God is still speaking and we are still listening. We simply must pay attention, because when we do, we realize it is Christ right there in our midst. Amen.