Brief synopsis of the readings: In Genesis we find Abraham sitting in his tent in the hottest part of the day. He saw three travelers and greeted them. At Abraham’s instruction Sarah prepared a meal for them. When they asked about Sarah Abraham told them she was in the tent. One of them told Abraham they would visit again in a year, and by then Sarah would have a son. In Luke’s Gospel visits the sisters Martha and Mary. As Jesus taught, Mary sat at his feet as Martha did all the serving. Exasperated, Martha complained to Jesus and asked him to tell Mary to help her. Instead Jesus told Martha that Mary chose the better part.
Too often I find myself frustrated by people who read Scripture in a way that ignores the setting where it was written and the reason they wrote. They read Leviticus to prove that God hates homosexuals, that John’s Gospel demonizes today’s Jews (and allows antisemitism), and that Paul’s writings justifies discrimination against womens’ role in ministry.
Today’s Gospel goes the other way. It’s a fairly simple story: Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus into their home and Jesus began to teach. But while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him, Martha busied herself with her role as hostess. And when Martha complained, Jesus sided with Mary. For much of my life I believed that Martha had a point. For those of us who grew up in a household where “doing the dishes” was a chore, we knew well when a sibling or roommate abdicated this responsibility.
But more to the point, many readers see this in the context of “work/life balance,” the idea that we are called to spend some time in work and some time in prayer. In other words this came to be known as a the dichotomy of “contemplation and action.” Like many, I was told that I need to find my place as both Martha and Mary. The Christian singer Amy Grant wrote about it in her 1977 song “Mountain Top.” In that song she wrote about how her desire to worship God called her to climb the mountain for prayer, but that prayer also called her to descend the mountain and care for others.
OK, I love work/life balance, and I love Amy Grant’s music, but I don’t think this Gospel calls us to professional boundaries. I’ve sat through countless lectures/powerpoints/presentations that told me that we should fear workaholism. I accept that none of us should work 24/7 and be available at all times, but I also recognize that today’s Gospel doesn’t call us to find the balance between doing the dishes and listening to Jesus.
Instead I think today’s Gospel calls us to inclusivity. I find it interesting that Jesus was welcomed into this home by Mary and her sister Martha. In a patriarchal society like the this one, we should notice that the home is described as belonging to Mary and Martha. Did neither of them have a husband? Was the home not owned by their father, or uncle, one of their sons, or another male family member? The only man in this Gospel is Jesus.
In this section of Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus journeying to Jerusalem where he will will be arrested, crucified, killed, buried, and where he will return from the dead. He traveled with a group of his followers and today’s Gospel may give us the false idea that there were only three people involved in this scene.
The fact that Jesus interacted with only two women should matter because Martha and Mary chose different paths. While Martha chose the expected path, Mary did not. Women then (and let’s face it, now) were often moved into the shadows. Their role insured that the men had what they needed and did what was important: the men did not prepare the food or serve the food or clean the dishes.
Those of us who have seen the 1997 movie Titanic may well remember one scene: After Jack Dawson saved Rose from falling overboard he is invited to join her family for dinner. At the end of the dinner the men “repaired to the smoking room” to discuss things that would not be appropriate to discuss in the presence of women. As an insult, Jack is not invited. The message is clear: these discussions are not appropriate for the likes of you or the women.
Maybe it’s just me, but I when I read this Gospel, that’s where I go. I love both Martha and Mary, but I believe that when Jesus told Martha that Mary “has chosen the better part” he wasn’t criticizing Martha but was instead including Martha.
I believe that the near absence of men in this Gospel was intentional. If Jesus wanted to teach his disciples that he included everyone in his teaching, he could do no better than include a group that most people excluded.
In fairness, Jesus’ community excluded many groups, not just women. In fact, last week we learned that Jesus didn’t exclude Samaritans. And since we don’t know any Samaritans we can smugly announce that we don’t exclude a group that we don’t know. But that misses the point. Exclusion of those who don’t look like us (or even those who do look like us) falls outside of our call to be Christians.
We live in an era where most Christians live a good life. Everyone who reads this has a computer with access to the internet and believes (for your own reasons) that my words matter. But we all need to recognize that we also live in a world that believes some words, and even some existences don’t matter.
In some parts of our world women are told that they don’t matter, that their fathers, husbands, and sons will care for them. But it’s larger than that. We also live in a world where thousands of refugees and immigrants are told their suffering is self inflicted and that they should not seek a better future for their children because it will steal resources from those who had the good fortune to be born into a place of wealth and privilege.
None of us chose the circumstances of our birth. We didn’t chose our gender, our sexual orientation, our parents, or our location. I’ll be the first to say that I won the conception lottery: I was born male, heterosexual, to loving parents, and in a place that made my success easy (Washington D.C.). In no place of learning was I told that I didn’t belong, and the thousands of dishes I’ve washed never removed me from a place of learning.
Those like me who won the conception lottery should look at this Gospel as a challenge and that unintentional exclusion is still exclusion and we need to be aware of those we don’t think about.
And for those who didn’t win the lottery, this Gospel tells you this: You still have a place at the table. You still have the right to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him. And you still have the right to tell those who would marginalize you and exclude you that they’re not paying attention to Jesus.