Entertaining the Divine

by Christa Mazzone Palmberg

Text: Luke 10: 38-42

I have to be honest. I’ve never liked the story of Mary and Martha. It’s one of those biblical texts that strikes a nerve deep inside me and makes me feel judged; makes me feel like a bad Christian. Every time I hear Jesus’ words to Martha it’s as if he’s speaking directly to me. Shaking his head disapprovingly and saying, “Christa, Christa, 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 from her.”

I hear this text and I think, if only I could be more like Mary! More contemplative. More still. More disciplined about prayer. If only I weren’t the kind of person who can never sit still and could instead spend an hour reading Scripture every day. Then I could be like Saint Mary. Then I could be faithful and receive God’s praise.

I have to also say that another reason I’ve never been a fan of this text is because it strikes me as unfair and unrealistic; a little “pie in the sky.” Where would we be in the church, in the world, if it weren’t for the all the Marthas who work hard behind the scenes to get the job done? How would we maintain our homes and provide for our families if we all sat around sitting at the feet of Jesus instead of cooking, cleaning or paying the bills? And what would happen to the church if there weren’t people spending lots of time overseeing the budget, maintaining the grounds and tracking newcomers?

Before I go any further in sharing my real feelings about this text, let me take a minute to retell the story for those of you who might not be as familiar with the text. The story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus takes place in the 10th chapter of Luke, just after the story of the Good Samaritan. Through the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to be a good neighbor. In telling the story of a Samaritan coming to the aid of a complete stranger, Jesus makes it clear that we as disciples are not to just pass by those in need, but must actively come to our neighbors’ aid. The fact that the story of Martha and Mary follows immediately after this lesson from Jesus about being a good neighbor is our first clue that the message Luke is trying to convey through Mary and Martha isn’t that faith is better than action.

But let’s continue. After Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, Luke’s gospel then turns immediately to Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha. Luke states upfront that Martha is the one who welcomed Jesus and that she also has a sister, Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. Then, without much warning for the readers, Martha starts barking complaints. She says to Jesus, “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’s complaint is surprising not only because it seems to come on suddenly without much context, but also because hospitality was extremely important in the biblical world. Martha’s attempts to embarrass her sister in front of her guest and her request for their guest of honor to intervene in their family dispute are both serious no-nos when it comes to hospitality in the ancient world.

Despite Martha’s impropriety, it would still not be customary for a guest to reprimand his host, but Jesus, being Jesus, does it anyway. He responds to Martha’s complaint with these words: “Martha, Martha, You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

There are many ways to interpret Jesus’ response to Martha. One interpretation is that Jesus has never been one to approve of competition or rivalry. Jesus is not condemning Martha here for being busy or being a doer, but instead is putting her in her place for trying to tattle on Mary. Jesus is saying, in essence, Martha should mind her own business (and, therefore, so should all of us!). One commentary I read this week actually renamed the story of Martha and Mary “I’m telling Jesus on you!” Great title, isn’t it?

My colleague, Beverly, also pointed me to another interpretation of this text that was important for her and her female colleagues who were pioneers for women’s ordination. In that time, Beverly said, this text was seminal because it demonstrates Jesus’ approval of women who choose to sit at his feet rather than choose the traditional role of preparing the meal and running the household. This interpretation demonstrates Jesus’ support for women receiving theological education and becoming leaders in the church. Jesus is, after all, saying that Mary is choosing the “better part” by sitting at his feet and learning alongside male disciples.

I should also acknowledge that there are also those scholars who have interpreted this text in the very way I had heard it growing up – as an elevation of the contemplative life over the life of action. Yes, there were scholars whose take on the text is the very same interpretation that feeds my guilt, but I actually noticed that those interpretations seemed to be in the minority and many of the scholars who held this view lived hundreds of years ago.

One of the other primary interpretations of this text I encountered in my study, and the one I want to focus on, understands Jesus’ response to Martha not as a condemnation of a life of action. Instead, these scholars saw Jesus’s seemingly harsh rebuke not actually as a rebuke at all, but rather as an invitation to Martha; an invitation to let go of her unnecessary tasks…to let go of her worry that everything has to be perfect…to let go of her need to stay busy at all times…It’s an invitation to Martha to simplify her role as host so that she can pay gracious attention to her guest.

In this interpretation, it is not wrong to be busy; it’s not wrong to have a lot on your plate. It’s wrong to let yourself get so distracted with your responsibilities and commitments that you miss opportunities to entertain Jesus. You miss opportunities for holy encounters; the kind that stimulate your mind and nourish your soul.

This text is not about doing being wrong and contemplation being right. Jesus’ response to Martha suggests that it’s a problem when you’re so busy that Jesus is in the very same room as you – offering you a taste of grace – but you don’t even see him because you’ve just got too much to do. How could you possibly pause in the midst of your chores or work projects or church business for a moment of prayer or lingering conversation with a good friend?

One of the reasons I resonate with this interpretation is because of my own personal interest in hospitality. For my husband Brian and me, hospitality is a deeply held value. We work hard to make people feel welcome in our home. We see hospitality as an extension of love; as a way of letting people know we care about them. We especially love to host dinner parties. For us, there’s nothing better than cooking a delicious meal for good friends and talking late into the evening about things that matter most.

Out of this passion for hospitality and cooking, Brian and I have started an annual tradition of hosting 10 of our closest friends for a Christmas dinner party on Vashon Island. Brian’s parents are kind enough to let us use their house for the evening, and for the last four years, on the first Saturday in December, these good friends have joined us for several hours of food, fellowship, and a silly gift exchange. It’s become a highlight of the holidays for all of us.

The first year we hosted the party, we kept the menu pretty simple. Pasta with sausage, mushrooms, and parmesan with a side salad and cake for dessert. We had wine and some appetizers, but we didn’t go overboard. The focus was on spending time together and celebrating the holiday season.

Over the years, however, Brian and I have fallen into the trap it seems Martha fell into when hosting Jesus. We began to think that in order to be good hosts, everything had to be perfect. Each dinner and dessert had to be more gourmet than the last and we even started coming up with signature cocktails just for the occasion. The only thing we allowed our guests to bring was appetizers, even though they offered repeatedly to contribute more to the meal.

Our pride and perfectionism got so out of control last year that we didn’t end up serving dinner until 9:30 p.m. because of poor planning and our ridiculously intricate dish of 12 chicken breasts each individually stuffed with prosciutto, fancy cheese, spinach and herbs. When the evening was over, we were both exhausted and disappointed with how little time we actually spent with our guests.

I knew I wanted things to be different next year, but I didn’t exactly know where things had gone wrong until I recently read something an event planner wrote about hosting a good dinner party. This professional party planner cautioned against serving meals that were too gourmet or too elaborate. Otherwise, she warned, you become the caterer instead of the host.

That was exactly what had happened to us. We had started to become the caterers instead of the hosts. We got our responsibilities and priorities wrong. Yes, when people are invited to a dinner party they expect to be fed an appetizing meal. And yes, it’s especially fun to do it up a bit around the holidays. But we had become so worried and distracted that things turn out perfectly and impressively that we had missed an opportunity to be gracious hosts to our guests. We missed the opportunity to really listen to them and be attentive to them. We missed the opportunity to grow closer in our friendship and experience the holy healing that only laughter and fun with dear friends can bring.

I suspect that Martha, Brian and I are not alone in falling prey to this trap. In fact, I think we church folk are especially guilty of getting our priorities screwed up. Often our good intentions to do things well and to make others’ experiences meaningful can result in us losing sight of why we got involved in the first place; to draw closer to God and help extend God’s love to others.

The thing I’ve come to appreciate about this text is that it doesn’t actually lift up one vocation or another. It’s about taking advantage of whatever context you’re in to make space for grace to enter. As one scholar writing about this text put it, “Here then is a spirituality as easily practiced in the kitchen as in the study, at school or at play, while working the farm or looking for work. What matters is not so much what you are doing, but the attentiveness to God’s presence and purpose in, under and with our varied activities and responsibilities.”

So this is our invitation from Jesus: To consider where in our lives we might need to simplify, shed unnecessary responsibilities, or let a little pride go in order to make space for holy encounters. In the midst of whatever we’re doing, may we choose to make gracious hospitality to the Divine the highest priority. Amen.

Christa Mazzone Palmberg is the Associate for Pastoral Care & Administration at Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Mercer Island, Wash. Christa is a licensed minister and has worked as an organizer with several nonprofits, including Sojourners in Washington, D.C.

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