“Martha, Martha . . .”
The story of Mary and Martha is a familiar story in my life . . . especially growing up as a kid. It was one of the few biblical references that my mother used when dealing with siblings and me. Typically it would be at a time when one of us—typically, me—would be complaining about some chore or task we had been given to do. For me it usually had to do with cleaning up the kitchen and doing the dishes. I would complain that it was not fair, and my mother would respond, “You did a good job, Martha.”
I used to resent that statement. I resented it because I felt like I was the one who was getting the short end of the stick . . . like I was the one who was being over-burdened . . . the one who was missing out on all the fun everyone else was having while I was in the kitchen busting my butt. Yeah, I understood where Martha was coming from, and hearing patronizing words of empathy . . . or was it sarcasm . . . did not make it any better.
Martha has a complaint. A horde of guests show up for dinner. Someone has to do the work of preparing the meal, so Martha gets right to work. In the meantime, her sister—Mary—plops herself right at the feet of the guest of honor to listen to what he has to say. She does not offer to help Martha with the meal preparations. In Martha’s eyes her sister is slacking off and dumping all the work on Martha. Is this a legitimate complaint . . . or, is it a case of sibling rivalry? I imagine it is a combination of both, but the end result is that Martha gets hit with the guilt trip.
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
That had to hurt. Martha is shot down. She does all the work and Mary gets the affirmation. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Author C.S. Lewis was considered one of the great Christian apologists of the 20th century. An “apologist” is a “defender” of something, and in Lewis’ case it was a defender of the Christian faith. He wrote many books that are considered classics of the faith . . . Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Four Loves. He wrote some of the most popular stories on faith as children’s books, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in what is known as The Chronicle of Narnia . . . which have been made into various movies over the generations. With wisdom, insight, and a bit of humor, he was a defender of the faith.
As I have mentioned before, my favorite C.S. Lewis book is The Screwtape Letters. It is a book that is set right before the second world war . . . before England has officially entered into the war. The plot of the book is that a young junior devil is given his first assignment “up there”. His name is Wormwood. His assignment is to keep the individual assigned to him from converting over to the “enemy”. The enemy in this case is Jesus and the Christian faith. Like anyone starting a new job, there are lots of things that need to be learned, lessons to be grasped, and mistakes to clean up. It isn’t easy and Wormwood knows it. Thus he seeks out advice from a senior devil . . . his uncle. He writes letters to his uncle asking for help. The book is the responses to Wormwood’s letter with advice on keeping his assigned human from jumping over to the other side.
The sorts of things that Screwtape suggests are things that would divert or distract the human from giving his attention to Jesus and his teachings. He tells him to get the individual interested in the opposite sex . . . help him to fall in love . . . that would keep him busy for a while. He tells him to get him involved in a hobby . . . hobbies can become all consuming. He even tells him to get the individual involved in some cause . . . make him a crusader for something . . . anything that will distract him from the “enemy”. The bottom line is that Screwtape is telling Wormwood that the key to being successful is to distract the individual from Jesus and his teachings. If the individual is distracted then he cannot focus on the “enemy” and his ways. Distraction is the key.
In our story this morning, Martha is distracted. Jesus tells her she is distracted . . . distracted by all of her worries and her being upset. Because she is distracted she cannot see the greater good which her sister has chosen to do. I do not think the words that Jesus spoke made Martha feel any better; no, it probably just added fuel to the fire and made her even more distracted. In her mind, feeding the guests was the most important thing . . . not sitting around talking. I imagine that if it had been me, I would have gone back to the kitchen and started banging pots and pans around to let everyone know that I was still there. But, we do not know how the story ends. We only know that Jesus tells Martha that she is too distracted to see the greater good in the situation.
What is the “greater good”?
Well, to understand that remark, we need to go back a little further in the story. Prior to Jesus and his disciples showing up at Mary and Martha’s house, Jesus was confronted by one of the experts of the law. The expert wanted to know what it was that he must do to inherit eternal life. Of course, Jesus does not answer the question directly . . . no, he asks the lawyer what the scriptures say. We all know what the answer is . . . love the Lord with your whole being—heart, soul, strength, and mind; and, to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Jesus tells him he has answered correctly and that if the lawyer did this then eternal life would be his.
But, the lawyer wants to know who his neighbor is.
Jesus tells him the parable of the Good Samaritan . . . how a person is making a trip, gets robbed and beat up, and is left for dead. Three people come across the beaten man with the first two choosing not to help for various religious and moral reasons. The third—a Samaritan (not a real popular people with the Jews)—stops and helps the man . . . covers all his expenses until he is healed up and able to continue on. Jesus asks, which one is the neighbor.
Of course, it is the dreaded and hated Samaritan who is the neighbor much to the chagrin of the lawyer.
In this prelude to our story about Martha, we learn what is the “better thing” . . . it is to focus on relationship . . . relationship between the individual and God . . . relationship between the individual and others. It is to love the Lord completely and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Anything less than that is a distraction from doing God’s will.
A shooting in Baton Rouge . . . a shooting in Minneapolis . . . a shooting in Dallas . . . a tragic mauling of lives in a senseless act of violence in France . . . an attempted military coup in Turkey . . . continued terrorist attacks across the world . . . wars raging across the globe. Are you feeling a little distracted?
A crazy political campaign season that has more plot changes and surprises than any soap opera on television . . . a congress and senate that cannot work together because they want things their way . . . a rise in claims of racism, sexism, and all the –isms of our times. Are you feeling a little distracted?
Throw into that our everyday worries and concerns . . . the things that create stress in our lives . . . just whether or not we are going to make it another day . . . are you feeling a little distracted?
Sure, we are. We all are. And it is these distractions that keep us from focusing on the “better thing” . . . to love God and one another.
Please understand, I am not saying that any of the things I mentioned are not important and deserving of our attention . . . they are important as they point to the greater problem that comes down to relationships. All of these issues come down to how well we relate to one another . . . how well we listen to, respect, and treat one another . . . how we treat others as we would treat ourselves. How we would treat ourselves.
Martha was distracted.
The two travelers who refused to help the injured man were distracted.
And, I imagine, that in the end, the lawyer who was questioning Jesus, will be distracted for many reasons from doing the “better thing”.
Jesus tells us that God calls us into relationship . . . relationship with God as individuals . . . relationships with others. Upon these two calls lie the key to life . . . in the present moment and in the eternal scheme of things. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from doing that which we are called to do as the followers of Jesus and as the children of God. We must focus upon relating through love with God and others. If we can begin to put that rubric upon everything that we do as individuals and as groups, we can begin to change the world. We can begin to relate.
There would be no more shootings . . . no more war . . . no more political animosity . . . no more violence . . . no more separation . . . no more hatred. Sound too simple? Well, when Martha complained, Jesus told her to celebrate her sister’s choice of choosing the “better thing”. With the lawyer, Jesus told him to “go and do likewise.” As the followers of Jesus we have been given our marching orders. Go forth . . . be safe . . . and, don’t get distracted from what God has called all of us to do. Amen.