We Americans are proud of how busy we are. Have you ever noticed that? We tend to view life based upon how productive we are. American children and teenagers are forced into this at a young age. Colleges, especially the most ‘selective’ of colleges, are quite interested in how many extracurricular activities a teenager has and how varied they are. Once they get to college, the same expectations are laid upon them by potential employers. And so forth, and so on, until one gets to retirement. Then you can take it easy, right? Every retired person I’ve ever talked to says that she or he is busier than when working. If it’s not chasing after grandchildren, or doing this or that, it’s trying to fit in a thousand doctor’s appointments.
If being busy were the one thing necessary, the ‘better part’ that Jesus talks about, Americans would be the most blessed people in the world. But unfortunately for us, Jesus points to the still one, the listening one, and proclaims her blessed, and says that this better part will not be taken away from her.
Of course, I know better, but I can’t help feeling a little angry at Jesus’ words. Doesn’t Jesus notice what Martha is doing for him? To provide space for him, a meal for him, when he doesn’t have a place to lay his head? To make sure that all is taken care of, put in the right place, that he is comfortable?
And I also feel a little resentful towards Mary. I feel like she isn’t working. And Americans don’t have a lot of sympathy for those who aren’t working. One feels as if Mary is taking a little break, that she’s somehow avoiding what she ought to be doing for something optional, a little mini-vacation.
I feel this way because in my American-ness, I am oriented toward productivity. And it’s a strange thing. We feel as if we have to quantify everything. Even in the church and the congregation, we tend to evaluate by how busy we are. How many activities do we have? How many committees are running at the same time? How many people are in church? Pastors view themselves more positively when they’re really busy than when they aren’t. At the same time, they’re apt to complain when they feel too busy. You can’t win.
So it is jarring to me when one woman plunks herself down at Jesus’ feet and just sits there listening. It was jarring then and it’s jarring today, not so much anymore because a woman is sitting where the men are supposed to be, but because anyone is sitting down and listening. I’m kind of ticked off that the men who aren’t mentioned in the story aren’t up working too. Shouldn’t they be out finding wounded people by the side of the road to minister to? I thought we heard about that last week.
But it had to be a woman who was called out for sitting down and listening because the men were supposed to do that. It had to be a woman because in that world, and maybe in our world still too much, it’s expected that the woman is constantly busy, for we define a woman by her usefulness. Men have a different definition – the definition of a provider; but men, too, are still distracted by many tasks. Yes, it’s socially acceptable for men to grill, watch football and all that. But to sit still, to listen, to think? One can be awfully busy, awfully distracted in one’s leisure time.
Jesus commends Mary, and invites Martha, not because they are women in a male-dominated world but because they are distracted human beings for whom only one thing is necessary.
When I was at Grove City College, that good Presbyterian school, there was a $1,000 scholarship available to any person who memorized the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1648. I didn’t have to recite the whole thing at once – I had to learn twenty questions and answers at a time. And I remember just one of the one-hundred seven questions and answers: the first one. The Catechism asks ‘What is the chief end of man?’ And the answer: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’
To ‘enjoy’ God? You don’t enjoy God; you enjoy Coca-Cola. You enjoy good music, or time with your friends. You enjoy a nice steak or a pleasant walk. You enjoy all of these, but after work and as a reward for work. But enjoy God? I think I remember that answer, not because it’s the first one, but because it’s so different from what I expected. If it hadn’t so challenged my preconceptions, then I would have forgotten it just like all of the other questions and answers of the Westminster Catechism (although I learned most of these in other places, and of course the better Lutheran answers 😇).
But isn’t this exactly what Mary of Bethany is doing in this story – enjoying God? Is she not listening to Jesus, being filled with God, being newly filled with insight, questions, understanding, faith, hope and love? Doesn’t this sound great? For some of you, it may sound like work. If so, perhaps you’re right in a sense, but it is the work we ought to be about. And it is work that is not work, and yet is the one thing necessary. We need to know the riches of God’s goodness toward us in Jesus Christ, because it brings us joy.
Are we to assume that Mary never got up from Jesus’ feet? That she never worked another day in her life? That all we have to do is let our dishes pile up, our prescriptions go unfilled, our bills go unpaid, and just sit and think? Of course not. But this is how Mary defined herself; not as a busy person, but as a disciple, as a follower, as a listener. And so she made time for this and time for that.
We do not have Jesus in person visiting our house; we instead have Jesus in the Scriptures, in the preaching of the Gospel, and in the Holy Communion. And yet many have come to view these as optional for super-busy people. Many think that the Bible belongs to experts. Wouldn’t Martin Luther be traumatized by that, who translated the Bible so the people could read it in their own language? We have the liturgy in our own language, we have Luther’s Catechism. We have prayer books. You pay for a pastor so that I can preach the Gospel to you and maybe serve as a resource for your beginning to study or continuing your explorations. We have the Holy Communion in which we encounter Christ.
Perhaps there’s many reasons why we neglect these means of grace. But perhaps the first reason it happens because we’ve forgotten what the main point of life is. We’ve lost the understanding that the whole point of life is to glorify God and to enjoy God – literally to take joy in him. We see God as optional – and our busy-ness as non-optional.
I always like to say that the world always demands, but God invites. He will always be inviting. Martha invited Jesus into her home and expected that she knew what that meant. But it was actually Jesus inviting her and her sister Mary to enjoy his presence, to take their fullest joy not in what they could do for him but in who they were in his eyes. Let us see in this story the same invitation to us. Amen