Martha and Mary
I’m going to go sideways with this one. I’ve heard a lot of sermons about this passage. I suppose almost everyone has, but just in case, this is the story of two sisters whose house Jesus visited as a guest.
Martha was flustered; Mary was calm.
Martha felt the burden of hospitality as an arduous responsibility; Mary didn’t consider it difficult.
Martha bustled about; Mary sat down.
Martha got up in Jesus’s face and complained; Mary didn’t say anything.
Martha had ideas and expectations; Mary just listened.
The usual interpretations involve a value judgment about the relative worth of Martha’s activity versus Mary’s passivity. I don’t think that is the point at all! Elsewhere in the Gospel we learn that Jesus loved both Martha and Mary. These traditional interpretations imply that Jesus was criticizing Martha, and telling her that Mary had made a ‘better choice.’ I looked up the Greek, and it simply doesn’t say that.
Jesus tells Martha that she is ‘merimnaō’ (anxious; solicitous) and ‘thorybazō’ (troubled; disturbed) about ‘polys’ (much; many things) but that only one is needed. Mary has chosen ‘ho agathos’ (one good portion) which will not be taken away (from her).
What jumped out at me was the juxtaposition between “much” and “one good portion.” I don’t think that Jesus was telling Martha that what she was doing was not valuable and important. I don’t think that Jesus was telling Martha to stop being busy and doing “all the things.” I don’t even think that Jesus meant that Mary was choosing a better option than Martha.
No, I think it’s much simpler. Jesus was just telling Martha to stop acting as if Mary’s choice was not valid. Jesus was telling Martha to acknowledge that what Mary was doing was just as important and valuable as what Martha was doing. He was telling Martha that the value of Mary’s choice did not depend on what Martha wanted, or what Martha thought was important.
Martha knew that what she was doing was necessary and important, but she didn’t trust her own knowledge. She was jealous, and fearful that she was missing out on something that was more important than what she was doing. She didn’t make a conscious and considered choice to be a caretaker of many things; she chose to do it only because she thought she was expected to.
Jesus was chiding her for her resentment, and pointing out to her that she was trying to take something good away from her own sister for no other reason than she wanted company in her misery. Martha didn’t really want to do what she was doing; her service wasn’t offered out of love.
Now, here’s the really important part— to me anyway. Jesus said that Mary “chose a good portion.” The word “chose” really jumped out at me here. Mary chose; Martha didn’t choose.
Jesus was driving home the point that choosing is important.
He was giving Martha advice:
Make a choice and stick to it.
Make sure it’s your own choice,
and not someone else’s.
Trust that your choice is a good one.
Know your own worth,
and live by your own principles.
Don’t adopt other people’s standards,
or let them make choices for you.
Don’t take away other people’s choices
because you think you know better.
Remember that you can only choose
one portion at a time.
Above all, let love guide you in all your choices.