Hand in hand

Mary is a pastor in Chicago, but she grew up in the South, and in a magazine article a few years ago she shared her thoughts on southern hospitality. Southern women, she wrote, are Marthas and proud of it. The ones who have 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, it’s my aunt Sara’s recipe, and the squash casserole is a favorite at every church potluck supper. My grandmother gave me the 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 and many others wonder. The answer will forever remain one of the South’s great mysteries.[1]

Then there is, of course, the other Martha, you know, the former queen of home and garden. She made it all look effortless with her little army of helpers that no one ever laid eyes on. This Martha would greet the guests at the door as they arrived; her dress unwrinkled, her make-up perfect, and the table beautifully set with the finest china, spotless crystal, and immaculate, starched table cloth and napkins. Everyone would admire and comment on the gorgeous center piece the hostess had made herself, a creative arrangement of fruits and flowers from her own garden, in a basket she had woven herself in a summer course at the Appalachian Center for Craft. Martha would sit with her guests, smiling graciously at their many compliments, enjoying the appetizers with them, sipping the perfectly chilled chardonnay, and keeping the conversation going with her witty remarks. At just the right moment, wonder woman would excuse herself, disappear briefly in the kitchen, and soon return with large trays and deep bowls of delicious food. Everything was effortless. Martha was the embodiment of home-making perfection and hospitality – and she still 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, but she opened the door to her home and welcomed them in. She offered them washbasins, filled with fresh water, and towels, so they could refresh their tired, 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 of God 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 we suspect 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 seemed to bother Martha. 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 dishes, isn’t it? You know the feeling, don’t you? You do something because it needs doing, and you don’t mind doing it – parts of it you even enjoy; but when you begin to suspect that nobody seems to notice or that your work is being taken for granted, you grow resentful. ‘Jesus, do you not care? My sister has left me to do all the work by myself! Would you mind telling her to help me?’ And you know she said it so her sister would overhear every word of it. [Vanessa from the Counseling Center would love to help them sort through that tense triangle!] “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, 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, and it sounds a lot like a good sister/bad sister story: You, Martha, are worried and distracted. Your sister has chosen the better part.

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

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, doesn’t she?

Jesus taught that one does not live by bread alone, 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 Jerusalem. After Pentecost, believers gathered in homes for meals and worship, always depending on the generous hospitality of those who opened their doors to itinerant missionaries and the first congregations. Here in Nashville, in 2013, Martha has a career, she is a wife and a mother, and a deacon at her church, and everybody gladly depends on her to keep things together at home, at work, and at church. I don’t know about you, but I kinda expect her to snap back.

Every time I sit with this gem of a story, just five verses long, sooner or later I write the same kind of question in my notebook: Why isn’t Jesus in the kitchen? I imagine Mary walking through the door and seeing all of them around the kitchen table, listening to Jesus and talking about the kingdom of God and the challenges of discipleship, while chopping tomatoes and zucchini, frying the chicken and slicing the bread – I think Mary would post a quick picture on Facebook, “Great evening with Jesus and friends,” and then she’d lend a hand setting the table for dinner. At the end of the evening, all of them, except for the littlest ones who had fallen asleep on the couch, would be doing the dishes together. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples during a meal as an example of mutual attentiveness and service – wouldn’t a dish towel in his hands also make a great discipleship lesson?

I don’t read this story as a tale 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 tells us that there is need of only one thing. We know about working hard and giving ourselves to serving others 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 tells 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 a 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 your neighbor as yourself. Jesus helped him to see that life doesn’t depend on knowing but on loving, and he told him the story of the Samaritan who became a neighbor to the victim lying by the side of the road. “Go and do likewise,” he said to the lawyer.

The story of Martha and Mary follows that story; the two belong together and neither is complete without the other. The lawyer was skilled in scripture, but he had trouble seeing the need for active, generous neighborliness. Martha knew self-less service like no other, but she was so busy doing that she lost her focus on Jesus and didn’t even notice how she had replaced it with her bitter frustration.

The first story ends with Jesus saying to the lawyer and to us, “Go and do likewise.” And in this story 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 doing and listening, studying and serving. The one thing necessary is the integration of the two, the integration of our service and our study, of our worship and our work, of our action and our reflection. Jesus doesn’t envision a community where some stand around the kitchen table and work while others sit around the dining room table enjoying inspiring conversation. The faithful community is one being shaped by its hospitality to the living Christ – Christ who comes to us as the word of God and the fellow human being. The faithful community is one where listening to the Lord and serving the Lord in his sisters and brothers go hand in hand.


[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