…This does not make much sense to me. I’m not saying that just because I’m such a Martha, and in the midst of a congregation full of Martha’s. It’s especially hard to believe in the context of Luke’s Gospel, the only one that tells this story, and the one of the four that emphasises hospitality above almost all the other demands of the Kingdom of God. Luke’s Jesus-story is the one that begins with a newborn baby finding no room in an inn, continues with Jesus on almost every page being wined and dined somewhere (except when he’s not, and then the story is about that), or feeding and taking care of other people. The last thing he does before he dies is invite a robber home with him to Paradise, and when he comes back from the dead, what he does is break bread for his knuckleheaded disciples who don’t recognize him. It’s beyond belief that this Jesus is chiding Martha for working hard at hospitality, making him welcome as he goes on his last journey to Jerusalem.
So what’s wrong with what she’s doing – and why isn’t she entitled to kvetch a little when she doesn’t get any help doing it? When I read this story and think about Martha working so hard and not getting any help, and Mary just sitting around enjoying being with Jesus, I want to object, strenuously. I want to write a letter of protest to Jesus, setting him straight on what it takes to run a house, or a church, or a world, so things work right. So I did:
How can you talk to Martha this way? She’s only doing what God has told her to do – welcome the stranger, provide food and hospitality for the traveler, be generous… you blame her for being anxious about many things. Well, guess what: this is a world with many things in it to be anxious about! Haven’t you read your Bible lately? Haven’t you noticed that the society Amos is describing is us? Trampling on the needy is a way of life for us – those sandals we sell them for say ‘Nike’ and ‘Made in Bangladesh’ on the label. Remember that part in Amos about making the ephah small and the shekel great? Well, we have whole industries devoted to making $5 bills really, really small and $1000 bills really, really big. It’s big money that runs this society, and it’s getting bigger all the time – the rich have increased their wealth 30 times over the last 30 years, while the rest of us struggle to get along. That guy we were complaining about in the psalm, the tyrant who loves evil more than good and lying more than speaking the truth – he’s the CEO of several of our major corporations; he’s running for president, for pity’s sake.
And we know how the land suffers because of our greed – we’re changing the climate itself. The fires as the forests burn really do darken the earth at midday – and where do we hear a true word of the Lord? The televangelists and the million-member churches sure aren’t preaching it – those who call themselves Christian most violently seem to understand it all least. All the terrible things that God promised Amos are coming upon us right in front of our eyes, even while all the things we’re supposed to do as your followers keep right on being demanded of us – trying to pick up the pieces, not be greedy ourselves, practice the hospitality that your friend St. Luke keeps telling us to do. I didn’t open my computer all this week, and when I did I had 100 e-mails telling me just how awful everything is. And you tell us Martha’s of the world not to be so ‘distracted’! I’d just like to know how anything would ever change if people like us didn’t get worked up about it, and how anything would ever get done if people like us didn’t get busy and do it. We’re your friends, Lord – we’re the ones trying to do it right. How can you be so hard on us” Don’t you care?
Well, I wrote my letter, and I got my answer. Here’s what the Lord said to me:
I do care, for you and for your work, and for how distracted and worried and sad it makes you. But don’t you see that I can’t do my own work in the world in little pieces, one after another, fixing this problem and that problem and hoping that they’ll stay fixed for longer than it takes all the next little problems to come up? What I’m about in the world is not the hope of things not turning out so bad – what I’m about is the hope of glory – everything , all things being brought to a perfection you can hardly imagine.
But unless you imagine it, all the work you put into my purposes in the world might just fall flat. Unless you can somehow see beyond your chores, the chores are just going to get you down so far that you’ll have to stop doing them, or you’ll start doing all the wrong ones, or you’ll do whatever you do in such a way that it eats up the community I’ve given you to help with the chores. Where there’s plenty to eat but a famine of God’s word, people won’t be getting fed, no matter how fat they get on calories. Where the routines of worship, or business, or even hospitality get to be ends in themselves, and you forget whose work you’re really doing, sometimes you might be better off doing nothing at all.
So before you get started on your next project, your next batch of chores, why don’t you try sitting down at my feet for a while and welcoming me into your brain, your heart, your imagination, as well as your house and your church? Why don’t you read again all the things my friend Paul said about me in that letter you read this morning, and notice how many times the word ‘all’ comes up in it? Do you really think that the God who is about reconciling all things to himself is likely to forget some of the details and will need you to remind him of them? Do you really think that the God who has welcomed the likes of you into his Kingdom his family, his household, is going to have trouble drawing in everyone else as well” Many things for you to do in that Kingdom, sure; but all of them are in my hand, not yours, and there is nothing in any of them to make anxious, unless you’re just not paying attention. And all of it will be handled and accomplished and gathered up into glory in my will and in my good time.
You have to see that, remember it, know it and feel it and get used to it, and let it become so much a part of you that the world’s multiplicity can’t shake it at all – and then you can take on the chores, and they’ll be a blessing instead of a curse to you and your brothers and sisters. Take time to pray, to study my words, to listen to them again and again and ponder them. Take time to contemplate the glory you can already see, the little bits of perfection that are all around you and will remind you of my intentions for this earth and its destiny. Try to remember that stillness and gratitude aren’t the opposite of your chores; they’re the prerequisites for the chores, and they’re what will keep you going at the chores when you think you can’t keep going any longer.
I know how frustrated you get when you work and work and nothing seems to get better and nobody seems to appreciate you – I’ve been there and done that too, along with all the rest of the human journey. I know I left you with a tall order, a lot to do and sometimes only a shoestring to do it on. But don’t forget that I’m still beside you and behind you and ahead of you, and as long as you’re listening, like Mary, you won’t go too far from my side, or from my hopes for the world. Oh, and by the way, don’t forget that I love you, and that you’ll never go anywhere that I haven’t been and won’t be there to meet you. Don’t worry, Martha. As my friend Dame Julian of Norwich said (she was quoting me at the time): All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Don’t forget.