Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’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, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Oh, God, it’s Luke’s version of Martha and Mary again. I like the sisters, truly I do, but I prefer John’s portrait of them to Luke’s. John presents them as a pair, friends to Jesus, loved by Jesus [John 11:5], whom they call ‘Lord’ and welcome to their home.
Luke’s depiction sets the sisters at odds with each other. Or so it seems. Or so it often is read. One is either ‘a Martha’ or ‘a Mary,’ and Mary’s heart takes the posture preferred. Sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he says. Mary utters not a word in Luke’s telling. Which suddenly makes me wonder whether the story is about her. Mary’s listening silence triggers Martha’s complaint. Does that make it the point of Jesus’ response?
So. Start again. Sit at the text’s feet and listen to what it is saying and wrestle with what it might mean.
Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. And on the way, he is welcomed by Martha. Sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, but Martha is ‘distracted’ by ‘much serving.’ Not the plural ‘many tasks,’ as the English has it, but a singular ‘much.’ ‘Much,’ singular, ‘diakonia,’ service or ministry, singular. ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me alone to serve?’ Martha asks, and Jesus replies, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.’ ‘Many.’ Jesus does not repeat the narrator’s singular ‘much’ but shifts to the plural form, ‘many.’ Is this an accident of idiom or might the number matter?
‘Mary has chosen the good part,’ Jesus tells Martha, ‘which will not be taken away from her.’ Is Mary’s portion ‘good’ or ‘better’? The Greek can be read either way. Why prefer ‘better’ if it’s not required by the grammar? What is there in us that measures the worth of Mary’s choice in relationship to Martha’s. Is ‘the good’ only good when and if it is ‘better’? Cannot the worth of both works be seen and known? Does the definite article (‘the good’) mean there is one good for all people at all times or is Jesus responding to Martha’s charge about Mary’s choice at this place in this time, when Jesus is paused to be welcomed on his way to Jerusalem.
Maybe had Martha’s effort stayed single — ‘much service’ — it would have been affirmed. She started well enough, receiving Jesus. But Martha herself, distracted, introduces the comparison in asking Jesus to re-instruct her sister. Maybe this is why the text shifts to plural: Martha is no longer set only to her singular service but has become anxious and troubled about something else as well, her own work in relationship to Mary’s. Jesus’ plural (‘many things’) draws attention to this. I listen to Jesus’ words. Does he say that Martha chose poorly or that Mary chose well? Is ‘Martha, Martha’ a caution about Martha’s own diakonia or about her judgment of Mary’s? Mary’s choice wasn’t about Martha; Martha’s choice should not be about Mary. ‘The good portion’ — the right diakonia — is about God.
What is my right diakonia? Or yours or ours? What is the single end — even comprising multiple smaller works, just as setting supper requires procurement and preparation and presentation, whether the meal is one pot or many small-plates — what is the single end, however much of a muchness, that calls? Resist worry over others’ portions, as if their worth lessens mine, as if worth is finite. God’s promise is not cut up into shares made smaller with each soul counted in. There is work for all, a work for each. Sometimes our tasks overlap in obviously mutual support; sometimes they seem so separate that their common end must be taken on trust. Sometimes the service is of long and steady sameness; sometimes it shifts in response to the spirit’s blowing.
Resist the comparison. My worth with another’s. Today’s work with yesterday’s, or last year’s, or next’s. Embrace, instead, the company. All of us aimed towards God’s common end, a grace that is greater than the sum of our varied works.
Here, you sit and listen to the talk. I will overhear the conversation as I move in and out of the kitchen, set the table to the sound of voices. I can set myself to my portion as you set yourself to yours. And when I am caught by a word or phrase suddenly rising to the surface of the talk, I will look across to you and see you looking across to me — sisters’ eyes catching — and together we will feel smiling love looking on us both. We will realize that in welcoming the kingdom-coming, we have been welcomed by its presence now.