Thursday, July 14, 2016

One Thing

Luke 10:38-42

Too much energy is wasted in splitting things that belong together.  Too little energy is spent seeing the unity behind everything.

Today’s gospel is a passage that has long given rise to a split.  We’ve used it over the years as one among many things to create an either/or proposition.  Either you are a Mary or you are a Martha.  Either you are in the kitchen or you are in the living room.  Either you are getting busy to feed Jesus or you’re busy getting fed by Jesus.

I don’t know how many of you are even aware of the history of choosing sides between Mary and Martha.  What I do know is that I have run into a lot of people, especially women, over nearly fifty years in ministry, that don’t like this passage one little bit.  The cooks think Martha gets the short end of the stick from Jesus.  Some of them are quick to point out that if Martha vacated the kitchen, the reality might be that Jesus won’t get dinner.  They are on the defensive about Martha.  They identify with her because they themselves have frequently been relegated to kitchen duty while the menfolk and some of the women too have been out in the den watching the game or telling stories or otherwise having all the fun.  Even in convents, somebody has to do the cooking.  And, just as certainly, those who side with Mary frequently have some sympathy with Martha as a woman trapped in a role perhaps not of her choosing.  But they applaud Mary for her courage in breaking the mold and choosing something besides housework to do.  I’m not sure where men come down here, but I can tell you that men are just as adept as women at dividing things into dualities, using the either/or category to split things apart, frequently arguing that one is at least superior to the other, sometimes so much so that one of the opposites is worthless.

Verna Dozier, great Bible scholar that she was, taught us that we first ought to ask what the passage means in its context.  Then we should ask why it was preserved.  Finally we will be prepared to ask what it has to say to us in our own day.  In order to do the first two of those things we have to stop, or avoid, getting caught up in the argument of who is better, or more necessary, or less well treated—the doer in the kitchen or the contemplative in the living room.  So following Ms. Dozier’s counsel, what do we find when we look at what these few verses mean in their context?

Georg Friedrich Stettner, Christus im Hause der Martha
In Luke’s narrative, this episode belongs to a collection of stories that he had access to but that apparently the other gospel writers did not.  It is called “Luke’s Special Section” and includes some of the most memorable passages in any of the gospels, such as the story immediately preceding it, “The Good Samaritan.”  A little later on it includes the parable of “The Prodigal Son.”  True, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus appear in John’s gospel, but this particular story does not.  Luke sets the story as a scene along the way to Jerusalem, where Jesus will ultimately offer himself as food and as life.  There is an important little nuance in the wording of the story, too.  Jesus responds to Martha’s insistence that he tell Mary to go help her prepare the meal by saying, “There is need of only one thing.”  The most probable meaning of that is, “we can do with only one dish, not a whole big meal.”  But the very next sentence reveals that the “one thing” has a double meaning.  Mary has “chosen the better part” which is in fact the “one thing,” namely discipleship—sitting at the feet of the master—that is essential.  So, you may say, there really is a dichotomy here, after all.  Martha has a part and so does Mary.  But we have it from the lips of the Lord himself that Mary’s part is better.  But notice that Jesus does not upbraid Martha for not being in the living room.  The text twice describes her as “distracted” by her many tasks, or as the King James Bible puts it, her being “cumbered with much serving.”  The comparison here is not between action and contemplation, it is between being anxious or worried or troubled or distracted on the one hand, and being focused on the teaching of Christ on the other. 

And that quite likely gets us to Ms. Dozier’s second question:  why was the passage preserved?  Given Luke’s interest in women and also his interest in discipleship, it is quite likely that this story was particularly appealing to him because it well illustrates how Mary, a woman, exemplifies discipleship in a world dominated both by males and by rigid roles for the sexes.  It certainly was not unknown for women to be engaged in study and contemplation in the ancient world, but it was not a commonplace either.  It would be entirely consonant with Luke’s general outlook to tell this story especially to encourage women by pointing out Jesus’ affirmation of Mary’s choice. 

Does that not have something to do with what the passage has to say to us today? We have come some distance, to be sure, in the whole project of women’s liberation from the sex role stereotyping that has sought to keep them involved in “women’s work.” Not only is that liberation far from complete, but we see ever more clearly as the decades roll by that if it isn’t somebody who is being held back or held down, it is somebody else.  Race, sexual orientation, gender, class are only some of the most obvious categories in which people either stick themselves or are stuck, sometimes stuck on the outside unable to get in the game at all.  Jesus will have none of that.  The Church frequently will.  So-called Christians frequently will.  But not Jesus.  It is entirely a misuse of the Bible to use it to beat people down in the name of Jesus, because he was busy liberating the very people who were being held hostage in a social and religious system that, like nearly all human systems, wants somebody to be on the bottom so that somebody else can be on top. 

Yet there’s more here.  The truth is we don’t just need Marthas as well as Marys.  We need to cultivate both parts of ourselves so that we can be both Martha and Mary in appropriate ways.  Service and prayer are not opposed.  Outreach and worship are not opposed.  Food preparation and study are not opposed.  When St. Benedict wrote his Rule, which was to be and still is the basis of all Western monastic orders, he set down a three part vow:  stability, conversion of life, and obedience.  Then he very carefully constructed a pattern for people to live the Christian life.  Each day was divided into sleep and three other essential elements:  worship, study, and work.  Prayer took its place alongside reflection and work.  Benedict’s monks did not disdain washing pots and pans, making beds, working in the fields, or doing laundry duty.  But neither was any one of these things exalted at the expense of the others.  They belong together in one whole. 

Although there is some evidence of its changing, American Christianity of all sorts has had a tendency to veer in the direction of Martha rather than Mary.  Vestries measure themselves by how many goals they accomplish.  Dioceses measure their success by the levels of attendance and giving.  Many individual Christians are convinced that the heart of the gospel is some form of doing—whether that takes the shape of works of mercy, like feeding the hungry, or works of justice, such as lobbying for fair housing.  Nothing is the matter with those things.  But when they are not accompanied by the Mary-like quality of being still in the presence of Jesus, that is to say, contemplation, those who do them are likely to find themselves burned out after awhile.  You can hear them all over this city asking, “Why is no one helping us?  Why are we left to do all these things by ourselves?  Doesn’t anyone understand that church is about doing, doing, doing?” 

When Martha is doing such complaining, Jesus responds:  “Martha!  Mar-tha!  The issue is not that she does not have a legitimate complaint or that what she is doing is wrong, but exactly that she is distracted.  Mary is, by contrast, paying attention.  Another name for paying attention is being centered.  Yet another name for it is listening. One of the stellar examples of a Christian doing justice in modern times is Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic Worker Movement icon who may be the chief example of a Christian social activist in American history. 
Dorothy Day
She was totally dedicated to social justice and yet no one could accuse her of being distracted by “much serving.”  Surely she must have had days when she felt overwhelmed, and certainly she must have wondered why the Church itself was sometimes so slow to come help her lead the cause of social reform.  Yet her life is one that was thoroughly human, grounded in the experience of her own conversion to Christ.  She kept on the move; but I would say that in her soul she sat at the feet of Jesus, paying attention to him as, frankly, few others of his disciples have ever done. 

And that is the key.  “Spirituality,” if it is rooted in Jesus Christ, does not lead its practitioners into some other-worldly, detached-from-reality, experience of inner holiness as if somehow God wanted to pry us loose from the very bodies that God has graciously given us as a means of perceiving truth.  If Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, ultimately gets up and forgets about the world, divorces herself from engaging the forces of oppression, and above all, follows the misguided attempts of huge numbers of people by despising her own physical nature as if by doing so she becomes more pleasing to God, then she will not have paid attention to Jesus.  And neither will you or I. 

But we can never allow ourselves to imagine that we are somehow serving God by fluttering around, filling up our lives with various activities, however useful they might seem, in the belief that we are somehow doing God a great big favor.  No, to carry on that way is frankly to be exercising our own egos, the reward for which is quite transient:  namely, the fleeting moment of self-congratulation that we have done something big for Jesus. 

One thing is needful.  Pray God we might not miss what it is.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

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