"Mary and Martha"
Scripture - Luke 10:38-42
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, July 21, 2013

Lillian shows up for yoga class ready to exercise, but yoga instructors do not always give you what you want. They do not begin by prodding the students to get into those impossible poses of pencil-thin people doing a backward bend while balancing an apple on their navel. Even though she is at the basic level, Lillian carries images in her head of wispy women standing effortlessly on one foot with the other leg wrapped around her neck - several times!

The beginning of yoga class is extremely difficult for her, but not because the instructor tries to get her to contort her body in ways that it simply refuses to obey. The beginning is taxing because they have not yet done anything and will not do anything for awhile. That is why it's so painful for Lillian. The class spends a lot of time at the beginning doing nothing but sitting still.

The yoga instructor says, "Let's begin with some breathing." And Lillian starts protesting inside her head, "No, please not breathing; let's just get on with it." She wants that great feeling that comes with stretching her muscles and physical exertion. But the yoga teacher is counseling, "Bounce your breath off the top of your throat. Six counts inhaling and six counts exhaling."

Lillian is now screaming inside, "Are you kidding me? This is going to go on forever; first six counts, then eight counts, then one nostril, then the other. For crying out loud, it's just breathing. We can do this already!"

She wants to ask the teacher if they could just fast forward through this part, but she looks around at everyone else in the class and they seem to be really into it. They are relaxed and appear as if this is the most natural thing in the world to sit there with their eyes closed and simply focus on breathing. Don't these people have anything to do? How can they sit so still?1

Which brings us to the story of Mary and Martha. Similar to an artist who portrays a familiar scene, but places something on the canvass that is out of place, even alarming, in order to prompt us to question our thinking, the gospel writer portrays a scene that is familiar, yet unsettling.

Jesus and his disciples entered a village and went to the home of two women, Mary and Martha, who were sisters of his friend, Lazarus. Martha welcomed Jesus and the other men into their home and it was not long before Jesus began teaching. Doing what she could to extend hospitality, Martha began picking up clutter and finding pillows for people to sit on, sweeping the floor while handing out cool drinks, rustling up hors de oeuvres while starting dinner. After all, this was Jesus, so Martha was doing what she knew disciples were supposed to do - extend hospitality and serve the needs of others.

And her sister, Mary? Not even lifting a finger. In fact, Mary had plopped down at the feet of Jesus and she's just listening. It's easy to see why Martha was none too happy with her sister.

I imagine Martha scurrying around to make sure everyone is comfortable and whipping up something in the kitchen, and every few minutes glaring at Mary and saying with her eyes, "How about a little help, sis?" But Mary just keeps sitting as Jesus continues talking.

Martha is becoming angrier by the minute and finally reaches the point where she can no longer keep a lid on her feelings. She interrupts Jesus and says, "Lord, tell her to lend me a hand!"

But Jesus does not comply. He says, "Martha, take a breath. In fact, inhale six times, exhale six times."

All right, Jesus doesn't really say that, but that's the gist of what he's saying. Martha is anxious about making her guests comfortable and she's flitting around preparing a meal, and she is missing the main course. Jesus says that by sitting and listening to his teachings, "Mary has chosen the better part."

In defense of Martha, let's keep in mind the historical context. In first century Palestine, Mary was breaking a deeply engrained tradition. Accepted dogma claimed that only men were considered worthy of learning. In saying that Mary had chosen the right thing, Jesus was smashing an established norm that had held sway for centuries. He was kicking decorum in the teeth, refusing to conform to a code that claimed that only men could grasp the metaphors of a master and be enlightened. He was rejecting the doctrine that women were to remain unschooled and ignorant. In the time of Jesus, rabbinical teaching declared, "Let thy house be a meeting-house for the Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst...[but] talk not much with a woman."2

As I picture this scene of Jesus teaching his disciples and Mary sitting among them, what I would like to know is what the other men were thinking. It's not hard to imagine the men thinking, "Who does this woman think she is? Can you believe her audacity to sit here listening to the teachings of our master and acting as if she belongs here?" It's reasonable to assume that at least one of the disciples was more focused on Mary sitting among them than on listening to what Jesus had to say. I can easily imagine not only Martha, but perhaps one of the disciples who wants Jesus to put Mary in her proper place.

I find it more than a little surprising that the man who compiled this gospel recorded this story. It would have been so controversial in the first century that it would have been much easier for the gospel writer to leave out this incident so as not to alienate any men. The fact that he included it points to the fact that this was a significant moment in the ministry of Jesus that captured something of his essence. One of the recurring themes in the Gospel of Luke is that Jesus came to shake things up; to burst old wineskins (Luke 5:37), to make friends with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34), to make a despised Samaritan the hero of a story (Luke 10:25-37) to transform the status of women. Mary was being quite contrary, and Jesus praised her for it.

The church has a tendency to try to smooth off the rough edges of Jesus and to try to turn him into a conformist that he never was. Jesus did not go along with popular views just to get along with people. He spoke the truth, which was - and is today - threatening.

I suspect that Martha was not only perturbed that Mary was not helping her, but she was likely worried that after this episode, the neighbors would identify their house as the place of scandal. They would point to their house and say, "There's the place where uppity Mary broke social conventions and acted like a man."

Unfortunately, this episode did not bring the patriarchal culture to its knees and open the society to equal appreciation of women. But it surely sounded a word of hope to women who heard this story and it must have sounded a word of caution to men about the way they treated women.

One thing we glean from this story is that Jesus respected women and despite the way they were treated by their society, he wanted them to know that in God's eyes they were smart and beautiful and worthy.

The other surprising message of this story is that Jesus praised the sister who was sitting and listening, not the one who was serving. Countless times in the gospels, Jesus teaches the necessity of action, but here he honors sitting still and listening for God's Word.

A few years ago, Tom Friedman wrote a column entitled "The Taxi Driver." He told how he landed at Charles de Gaulle in Paris and began looking for the driver who had been sent by a friend. Friedman spotted his name on a cardboard sign the man was holding and as he approached the driver, he noticed that the man seemed to be talking to himself. Then Friedman spotted the Bluetooth clipped to his ear and realized the man was talking to someone on the phone. The man appeared to be engrossed in conversation and so Friedman pointed to himself as the person he was there to meet. The man nodded, but kept talking on the phone. Friedman grabbed his luggage, the driver pointed to the exit and Friedman followed him out to his taxi as the driver continued his animated discussion with the person on the other end of the line.

Friedman handed the man the name and address of his hotel and they took off. As they pulled out of the airport, Friedman noticed that on the flat screen on the dashboard that is usually a GPS, there was a movie playing. Friedman pulled out his laptop and worked on a column, but between the man talking on his phone and the movie, he had difficulty concentrating. Finally, Friedman pulled out his iPod to listen to some music while the driver talked on the phone, watched the movie and drove the taxi.

After arriving at his hotel, Friedman realized that he and the driver had been together for an hour and between the two of them they had done six different things. However, the one thing they never did was talk to each other.

Later, Tom shared his story with Linda Stone, a technologist who labeled the disease of the Internet age "continuous partial attention." She remarked, "We are so accessible, we are inaccessible. We can't find the off switch on our devices or on ourselves...We are everywhere - except where we actually are physically."3

The story of Mary and Martha cautions us to beware of constant activity that hinders us from focusing on God. It beckons us to carve out moments of meditation where we can give our full attention to God and who God is calling us to become.

Living faithfully by serving the needs of others is an essential part of following Jesus. But how will we know what God wants us to do and how will God shape our character if we do not take the time to sit still and connect with the One who is the very source of our existence?


  1. Lillian Daniel, When "Spiritual, But not Religious" Is Not Enough, (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), p. 25-27.
  2. R. Alan Culpepper, "The Gospel of Luke," The New Interpreter's Bible: Luke and John, Volume IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 231.
  3. Thomas L. Friedman, "The Taxi Driver," November 1, 2006.