She's a good girl

Mary serves as pastor in Chicago, but she grew up in the South. A few years ago she shared her thoughts on southern hospitality. Southern women, she wrote, are Marthas and proud of it, and supper in a southern kitchen is a wonder to behold. Those who have traditional southern hospitality refined to an art never sit—they hover. At Martha’s table, plates are never allowed to go empty, and the serving dishes are passed around at least three times.

You know how it goes, “Some more iced tea? Have another yeast roll? Do try the jello salad, dear, it’s my aunt Rosie’s recipe, and the squash casserole is a favorite at every church potluck supper. It’s my grandmother’s recipe, and I never use the cheap crackers.”

The hostess keeps circling the table and shuttling between the kitchen and the dining room; she gives herself completely to serving her guests and misses all dinner conversation.

“When does the hostess eat?” Mary wonders. This remains one of the South’s eternal mysteries.[1]

Then there’s the other Martha, you know, the queen of home and garden. She has a staff of nine in the kitchen behind the scenes, a small army of very talented, invisible minions.

This Martha greets the guests at the door as they arrive; her dress is unwrinkled, her make-up perfect, and the table is already set with the fine china, spotless crystal, and immaculate, starched napkins. Everyone admires the center piece she made herself, a creative arrangement of fruits and flowers from her own garden, in a basket she wove in an art class at the Appalachian Center for Craft last fall.

Martha smiles graciously at her guests’ compliments, she sits and enjoys the appetizers with them, sips the perfectly chilled chardonnay, and with her witty remarks she keeps the table conversation going. Then wonder woman excuses herself, disappears briefly in the kitchen, and returns with delicious food, beautifully presented. Everything is effortless. Martha is the embodiment of home-making perfection and hospitality – and she haunts many of her sisters in their dreams.

Luke’s Martha doesn’t have a staff. She has a house full of guests who didn’t call to let her know they were coming. She opened the door to her home and welcomed them in. She offered them basins, filled with fresh water, and towels, so they could wash their dusty feet. And she made sure they had plenty to drink before she disappeared in the kitchen.

Jesus sat with the disciples, telling stories about the kingdom and talking about his journey to Jerusalem. It was quiet in the room, except for the sound of his voice. No one noticed that the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen was growing steadily louder, but finally Martha, who had been making all the noise to get a little attention, could no longer contain her frustration. She stood in the door, wiping her hands on her apron, and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Martha had a sister, Mary, and Mary sat with the other disciples, also showing hospitality to Jesus, but in a way that didn’t find her sister’s approval.

In a sonnett by Gioacchino Belli, the poet imagines Martha saying a few more choice words:

“I’m tied up day and night. I’ve never complained,
but I’m getting tired – I’m always on my feet;
you can’t find this painted doll of a saint
except, of course, when there’s something to eat.”

It’s easy to sit and listen, when somebody else is doing the cooking and the laundry and the cleaning, isn’t it?

I know the feeling and you do, too, don’t you? You do something just because it needs doing, and you don’t mind doing it, parts of it you even enjoy; but then you grow resentful when you realize that nobody seems to notice, that your work is just being taken for granted.

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

And the Lord answered, saying, “Martha, Martha,” scolding her like she was some little girl, “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.”

And with that, the story in Luke just ends, like a good sister/bad sister story: You, Martha, are worried and distracted. Mary is the good girl, she has chosen the better part.

In Belli’s poem, Martha doesn’t just swallow it; she snaps back,

“So says you, but I know better.
Listen, if I sat around on my salvation
the way she does, who’d keep this house together?”[2]

She has a point there, doesn’t she? Jesus taught that one does not live by bread alone (Luke 4:4), but he gratefully depended on the hospitality of many a Martha and their bread while teaching the word of God in the villages of Galilee and all the way to the city of Jerusalem.

And after Pentecost, believers gathered in homes for meals and worship, depending on the hospitality and leadership of those who opened their homes to the first congregations and to itinerant missionaries.

And today Martha is woman with a career, a wife and mother, and an Elder in the church, and everybody gladly depends on her to keep things together at home, at work, and at church.

Every time I sit with this story, sooner or later I write the same line in my notebook: Jesus needs to get into that kitchen. I like the image of all of them together, listening to Jesus and talking about the kingdom and the journey of discipleship, while peeling potatoes and chopping onions for dinner, blending flour, water, yeast and salt for the bread, setting the table, sharing the meal, attentive to each other’s needs and the needs of those not present, and eventually doing the dishes together.

Didn’t Jesus wash his disciples feet during a meal? A dish towel in his hands would make a great discipleship lesson, too.

I like the image of the church doing the things that need doing together while listening to the teachings of Jesus together. I don’t read this story as a story of sibling rivalry where Jesus takes the side of one against the other.

We know about being worried and distracted by many things, and Jesus reminds us that there is need of only one thing.What’s the one thing?

We know about working hard and giving ourselves to serving and resenting those who don’t. We know about endless expectations, and the voices that demand perfection, and schedules that make us sick. We know about being worried and distracted and way too busy, and Jesus reminds us that Mary has chosen the better part – the better part, but still only a part of the one thing necessary. What is the one thing?

Last Sunday we heard the story of the lawyer who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He already knew the one thing necessary: Loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbor as yourself. Jesus helped him to see that life doesn’t depend on knowing but on loving, and he told us the story of the Samaritan, the story of an outsider who became a neighbor to the victim lying by the side of the road. And then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

It’s no coincidence that the story of Martha and Mary follows the story of the lawyer and the Samaritan. The two belong together and neither is complete without the other.

The lawyer was skilled in scripture, but he had trouble hearing the word of God as a claim on his life and seeing the need for active neighborliness and self-less, generous service.

Martha knew self-less service like no other, but she was so busy doing that she had trouble listening for the word of God.

In the first story Jesus says to us, “Go and do likewise.” And in the other he says, “Stop and sit likewise.” The two together are the one thing necessary.

As love of God and love of neighbor are two and one, so are listening and doing. Doing without listening turns into empty routine or breathless busyness. Listening without doing becomes lifeless knowledge, well-informed laziness. The one thing necessary is the integration of the two, the integration of our lives in welcoming the living Christ.

Jesus doesn’t envision a community of Marys and Marthas, a church where some listen and others work, some study and others serve, or some stand around the kitchen table and work while others sit around the dining room table and chat, or some grow frustrated and resentful and others continue to pretend that somebody else will clean up the kitchen. The faithful community is one where the privilege of listening to Jesus and the privilege of serving with Jesus go hand in hand, where listening and doing do not describe a division of labor but rather a balance of being.

I still like the picture of  Mary and Martha, Jesus and the other disciples together in the kitchen, then in the dining room, then back in the kitchen, moving effortlessly from one table to the other, talking about what it means to live as God’s people in the world. It doesn’t look like anything Martha Stewart would present on her show, but it looks real. It looks like something I want to be part of, and I hope you too.


[1] See Mary W. Anderson, “Hospitality Theology (Living by the Word),” The Christian Century, July 1-8, 1998, p. 643

[2] From a sonnett by Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791-1863), translated by Miller Williams, in: Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, ed. by Robert Atwan, George Dardress, and Peggy Rosenthal (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 209; my emphasis