I am uneasy when people label themselves or someone else as “a Mary” or “a Martha.” It was not until chewing on this text again that I really began thinking about why such language irks me. These phrases are not bad or wrong; they probably have a lot of value to help people self-reflect by providing language and concrete categories. My struggle with these phrases is how they can turn this narrative into a mere object lesson and dehumanize Mary and Martha into impersonal categories. Mary and Martha were not categories and Luke 10:38-41 is not just an object lesson.
For as brief as these verses are, notice how personal they are. “A woman named Martha welcomed [Jesus] into her house.” Martha is not a category or a type of person, she is a woman with a name who welcomed our Lord into her home. And she has a family. “And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to His teaching.” Martha did not just have a sister, she had a sister with a name: Mary. These are not archetypal characters or categories. These are two real women who welcomed Jesus into their home.
And their relationship was complex and nuanced. I do not think it is fair to assume Martha was always a busybody who only found her identity in serving and her self-worth in her works. Nor would it be fair to say Mary was always resting in God’s Word or hanging on to every word Jesus ever said. People are not that flat, and our attitudes and actions are not that consistent.
But on this particular occasion, Mary sat and listened to Jesus, while “Martha was distracted with much serving.” We do not know if Mary was aware of how this made Martha feel, but Luke tells us what Martha did with her feelings. Martha was feeling anxious and troubled, so she used her words both to blame Jesus and to use guilt to coerce her sister into action. Mary and Martha are not categories to define one’s disposition toward either serving or listening, they are fully and complexly human beings.
Mary and Martha are not categories to define one’s disposition toward either serving or listening, they are fully and complexly human beings.
Part of the complexity of our broken humanity is the unpredictability of guilt. It does not appear Mary feels guilty about sitting at our Lord’s feet and listening. But it seems Martha thinks she should. We cannot always control what we feel guilty about or what others feel guilty about. This is one of the challenges the preacher faces again and again. The accusing work of God through the Law (or of Satan the accuser through lies and deception) is beyond our control.
As I write this, I am coming from a staff meeting in which I confessed to my team that I have not been prioritizing time for study and prayer as I should. In all the busyness of ministry, I have fallen into the temptation to feel guilty about taking too much time to be in God’s Word. I slowly and unintentionally began to see significant time in the Word and prayer as a luxury. More than that, I felt (and struggle with feeling) guilty when I close my door, am not available to members or coworkers, and do not get back to emails or phone calls because I am reading my Bible (especially if that time is not aimed at “producing” a sermon or Bible study). After all, none of my members get to read Scripture on the clock just for their own edification. It does not seem fair that I should be able to. So, I have not been. And when I do, there is a temptation to feel guilty.
Even now, I have no idea how you will read this. Maybe Craft of Preaching will cancel me and you will never read this or hear from me again. Or maybe my previous paragraph is so normal it did not warrant the word count. Or maybe it gave expression to something you are going through, and you now feel less alone.
Our feelings of guilt are human, nuanced, and complicated. I have experienced guilt for taking time to be in the Word. So, for me, this has been a refreshing text which gives me permission and a gracious invitation to sit at Jesus’ feet and receive.
Our feelings of guilt are human, nuanced, and complicated
But it is not always helpful to create tidy categories of good and bad and to say, “Stop being ‘a Martha’ and do a better job of being ‘a Mary.’” That is a dangerous sermon to preach. In doing so, we can fall into the very thing we see Martha doing.
Martha used her words to try and create guilt in others in order to leverage someone else into a different behavior. If we are not careful, our sermon could end up doing just that. We can have the place of Mary but the heart of Martha. Our goal might be to call our people to be refreshed by resting in the word and presence of Jesus. But my guess is many of your parishioners already feel guilty about not doing the very thing you are calling them to. Our feelings of guilt are human, nuanced, and complicated.
So, rather than creating two caricature categories, I invite you to press into the humanity of the scene. In addition to the many human characteristics I have touched on above, we see Jesus. He is traveling with His disciples. He needs a place to stop, rest, eat, and drink. He was a guest. But He was also teaching. He is appealed to as an authority and arbiter in the household dispute, and His answer could not be tenderer. He calls Martha by name. He knows and names her feelings. He bridges the gap between her and her sister.
Your hearers are real people with real burdens and complicated inner and outer lives. Thanks be to God; Jesus is up to the task. He speaks lovingly and tenderly as He invites us to receive from Him. He does not replace one to-do list with another (“stop being so busy and start reading your Bible more”). Instead, Jesus stays with us in our brokenness, even as He promises to take our guilt and our confusion and our divisiveness upon Himself, that we might be restored to the perfect humanity God created us for, through Him.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 10:38-42.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 10:38-42.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 10:38-42.