July 18, 2010
Imagine this scene. You’ve invited your extended family for Thanksgiving dinner. Aunts, uncles, cousins have traveled great distances so the family can be together. You’re delighted of course to welcome them but there is so much to be done: beds to be made, food to be prepared and served, a table to be set, pots and pans to be washed, and you bustle about tending to one thing and then another, confident that it will all be accomplished and grateful that you have your sister to help you. You know that family gatherings like this are important—but still, there’s a lot to do, and you’re beginning to feel a bit worn. As you move from task to task, you look around to see what your sister is doing, but she’s out of sight. Then, much to your surprise, you see that instead of helping you, she’s sitting in the family room, listening to your grandmother tell stories about her childhood.
If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you can easily imagine how Martha must have been feeling in today’s gospel story, and you might empathize with her complaint to Jesus, “Make her help me!” And you might feel stung, as Martha surely did, when Jesus takes Mary’s side. It’s not what most of us would expect to hear.
Like the story of the Good Samaritan we heard last week, this story of Mary and Martha is a familiar one. And just as “Good Samaritan” has become synonymous for one who cares for others, so have the names “Mary and Martha” when uttered together, come to stand for the dilemma we find ourselves in from time to time, caught between the duties and constraints society places on us on the one hand and the desires of our hearts on the other.
It’s easy for most of us to identify with Martha, with the feeling of being put upon, having to take care of everything, having to be responsible while others are off, seemingly having more fun. Martha’s complaints were, by most measures, legitimate: As our OT reading illustrated, hospitality was a fundamental value; it was her role to provide a meal for her guests, to make sure their needs were attended to, and she had no one else to help her. So why does Jesus scold her and not Mary?
The answer to that lies, I think, in the nature of Jesus’ message to his followers throughout this part of Luke’s gospel. Jesus consistently challenges his listeners to go beyond their comfort zones, to push the boundaries and restrictions that govern their lives, to put their relationship with him above even other culturally and religiously mandated behaviors. Jesus’ rebuke of Martha follows his chastisement of the man who wanted to bury his father before joining the disciples and the one who simply wanted to bid his family farewell. When Jesus says to Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part,” it is not so much a rebuke of the work Martha does—because it is good and necessary work—as it is a validation of Mary’s choice to take another way: to sit and listen, taking on the role of learner, of disciple, a role normally reserved for males.
Jesus legitimizes Mary’s choice to act as disciple and in doing so he seems to legitimize women’s place in the life of the church. That would be radical enough, but I think Jesus’ message extends even beyond that. In the 1st century world of Palestine both men and women were entangled in and restrained by a complicated web of rules and expectations that defined what it meant to be respectable members of society. Jesus’ call to follow him was also a call to break out of that entanglement, to let go of the societal and cultural bonds that restrained them and to take on his yoke instead. This is a liberating message because when taken to heart it allows us to fully claim our identity as God’s beloved children, nothing more and nothing less.
By chance, we hear this liberating message at the start of a week that will include the feasts days celebrating the lives and ministries of six remarkable women, women who like Mary chose, in their quest to follow Jesus, a path different from that prescribed for them by society. Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Macrina, a fourth century teacher and theologian. Macrina came from a family of wealth and power, but she convinced her mother to use the family fortune to start a monastery on the family estate. Macrina had ten younger brothers—three of whom became noted bishops: Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Peter of Sebastea. Most of what we know about Macrina comes from a tribute written by Gregory, which credits Macrina with being their teacher and their spiritual director, the one who guided them on their journeys in faith.
On Tuesday we will observe the feast day of four 19th century women, all of whom defied the bonds placed on them by society to seek justice for the oppressed and downtrodden. Two of these women, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, were born into slavery, and after escaping those bonds worked tirelessly to free others and to abolish the practice of slavery in this country. After the civil war ended they joined their voices with those of the other two women whose feast day they share, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer, in the long struggle to gain equal rights for women.
And Thursday is the feast day of Mary Magdalen. Although tradition is rich with stories about Mary Magdalen, we know very little about her actual life. Some argue that it was she from whom Jesus exorcised seven demons and some claim that it was she who wiped Jesus feet with her hair after anointing them with oil. The gospels record that she was among the followers of Jesus, and that she was present at his crucifixion and burial. It was Mary Magdalen who found the empty tomb and it was Mary Magdalen who was sent by the resurrected Jesus to tell the others what had happened, earning her the name of “apostle to the apostles.” Like the Mary in today’s gospel story, Mary Magdalen chose following Jesus, chose the role of disciple over the traditional roles her culture sanctioned for her.
The six women whose lives and ministries we celebrate this week are a diverse group but they have at least one thing in common. Like Mary in today’s gospel these women refused to be bound by the limits that society placed on them, instead choosing a different way. These women are wonderful icons of women’s discipleship and women’s ministry, but they are more than that. Their lives and work remind all of us, women and men alike, that as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, in Christ, we are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female; we are neither gay nor straight, black nor white, young nor old, rich nor poor. In Christ we are not bound by human categories nor by the roles and restrictions society places on us. Rather we are called first and foremost as God’s beloved children. No matter what other roles or vocations we choose to take on, it is in this identity that we become most truly ourselves; it is in this identity that we are freest to love the One who made us, and to seek and serve Christ in all we meet. And for that we give thanks to God.