When I was a kid, my three sisters and I all had chores to do. I mowed the lawn, shoveled the snow, mopped the floors, emptied the garbage, shook out the rugs, pulled the weeds, cleaned the bathrooms, changed the sheets on the beds, cleaned the carport, and picked up the neighborhood trash that blew against the fence. My three sisters each took a turn doing the dishes. You don’t need to check with them about the accuracy of this list; I’m sure they remember it the same way.
One day, one of my sisters, when it was her night to do the dishes, was instead sitting in a rocking chair listening to records. As a good brother, I very patiently reminded her that it was her night to do the dishes, but she continued rocking and listening. Trusting that she simply forgot, I, with the utmost gentleness, repeated to her that it was, in fact, her night to do the dishes. With eyes closed, she informed me she was praying. And she actually used this story in Luke to say she didn’t have to do the dishes. She said that her praying, just like Mary, was “the better part,” that Jesus said so himself, and that therefore she shouldn’t be required to demean herself with the unholy chore of washing dishes.
With tremendous respect and deep understanding, I compassionately offered her an alternate perspective. And as her loving brother, I cautioned her that if somehow our mother ever discovered this, she would likely not be as understanding as me, and her response probably would not benefit my sister. So for my dear sibling’s well-being, I advised, she may want to consider postponing the rest of her prayers until after this unholy chore was done. She did.
What do you do with text? Poor Martha is stuck with all the chores while Mary gets to sit in the living room with Jesus while he tells stories. And when Martha dares speak up, Jesus takes Mary’s side! I mean, I don’t care what you say, Jesus, somebody’s still gotta do the dishes.
I hope you’re not surprised to hear me say that’s not what this text is about. This isn’t a text about who has to clean the kitchen. It’s about whether or not the kitchen even needs to be cleaned, and if so,why someone would want to.
It’s like this. Have you ever got your car stuck in the snow with your wheels spinning? Step on the gas and you simply have no traction. You can step on the gas as much as you want, spin your wheels as fast as you can, you’re still stuck. The point isn’t to spin your wheels, the point is to be able to get where you’re going. That’s Martha. Spinning her wheels just because it’s doing something. Even if it’s not helping. Even if it’s actually making it worse. Just doing something for the sake of doing something.
Mary is the one who gets out of the car, looks at how deeply she’s stuck and recalls a conversation with a trucker friend who told her to keep a bag of sand and a small shovel in the trunk just in case. Now, with that information, she can give her wheels some traction so when she does gently step on the gas, she has a much better chance of getting unstuck and continue driving.
It’s not Martha vs. Mary; it’s not action vs. contemplation. It’s about understanding the purpose, and letting that purpose inform the action. And what Jesus commends Mary for is seeking to understand his purpose. Not just a random or personal purpose, but Jesus’ purpose. That’s what being a disciple is—knowing and trusting Jesus’ purpose and letting that inform the actions we take.
That’s what spiritual disciplines are about. Coming to know God’s purposes within the world as revealed by Jesus. That’s what Mary is taking the time to do. That’s what Jesus is commending her for. That’s the part Martha, in all her activity, is missing.
Our culture disagrees with Jesus on this. What we usually say is “Good for Martha. At least she gets stuff done.” Because culturally we reward busy-ness, and tend to look down on people who don’t seem as busy as we think they ought to be.
Think about that a minute. Have you ever complained about how busy you are, how you have too many irons in the fire, how you don’t know how you’re going to get everything done? And, have you ever said those things with just a little bit of pride? Have you ever heard someone complain about working 60 hours a week and felt just a little bit guilty because you only worked 55? This cultural sense of our worth being decided by our busy-ness is a priority that Jesus calls out and challenges.
When our calendars and our day planners are dictating our lives, we are stuck in the snow. When checking things off our to-do list becomes our purpose, we’ve lost traction. When church, and spiritual growth, and discovering God’s purpose in Christ become items on a list of things we’ll do if we can find time, we are spinning our wheels. We need to stop, get out of the car, and because we’ve listened to Jesus, let that inform how we get where we need to go.
What this comes back to is God’s purpose in the world right now. The One who created this world in the first place knows how it ought to run, knows what the priorities should be, knows what actually will work. And Jesus reveals that purpose with absolute clarity. Discovering that, growing in that, discussing that, putting that into context here and now takes deliberate intention. It requires some time sitting in the living room with Jesus. It doesn’t happen automatically just because we’re making sure the dishes got done.
Remmy Mateo is being baptized today. God is including him in Christ’s purpose in the world. What his mom, his sponsors, and this congregation are promising is that we will sit with him at Jesus’ feet and help him grow in that purpose. And let that inform his decisions and how he lives his life.
Bad news for my sister is that the dishes still need to be washed. But what my sister may better understand is how that is part of God’s purpose in the world.