I wanted to write you a letter, to let you know how much I admire you.
I see a good deal of what’s best about the followers of Jesus in the way you lived your life. When Jesus sent his disciples out to prepare a way for him in the towns and places he planned to preach, he told them when they went into a house to say ‘Peace to this house’. If that blessing was shared, they were to stay in the house eating and drinking, receiving hospitality. A person who gives hospitality shares peace. A person who acts as a host makes friends with their guests and, every bit as importantly, a host clears a space for people to make friends with each other. Martha, when you welcomed Jesus and his disciples to your house, when you provided them shelter and food you gave hospitality to the Word of God.
I am not sure why neither Mark nor Matthew tell your story in their Gospels. Luke does seem to pay more attention to the women who followed Jesus than they do, and perhaps he was more inclined than they to register your importance to Jesus. I am glad he did. But you could be forgiven for wishing that Luke too had left you out! You know as well as I do that a lot of Christians in the Medieval Church saw in the story of you and your sister, Mary, a convenient justification for the contemplative vocation. They often read the story as if Mary is the heroine and you the villain. The way such people understood the story was that Mary had it right, and you had it wrong; that Mary was behaving like a proper disciple while you were missing the point of Jesus’ teaching altogether.
But, Martha, I think that is unfair and untrue. I’m sure you don’t need reminding, but events unfolded like this. While you were busy making practical arrangements, plumping cushions, preparing food, laying the table, moving invisibly around while Jesus spoke with his disciples, Mary was sitting at his feet soaking up every word. You asked him ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself ’, and Jesus answered ‘Martha, Martha’ (he had a way of repeating names for effect!), ‘you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part’. I can imagine how that must have felt! Jesus’ answer must have seemed like a rebuke, and in truth, I think it was meant to give you pause for thought.
But I don’t think Jesus can have meant that your acts of hospitality were somehow of negligible importance compared to Mary’s devoted listening. As I read the Gospel, it’s plain to me that Luke was very thoughtful about the order in which he set out the story of Jesus’ life. The story Luke tells immediately before telling yours is that of Jesus’ answer to a lawyer’s question about how to inherit eternal life. The answer Jesus gave was the parable of the Good Samaritan: a man who offered a very active, a very practical act of service and, yes, of hospitality to a man beaten and left for dead. Why would Luke tell a story praising service and hospitality, only to downplay them by favourably contrasting your sister’s passivity to your activity?
So what is going on? I think I have an insight, Martha, partly because I think I see myself all too clearly in an aspect of your attitude to Jesus and your sister, Mary. Let me explain. I think that the way some people have read your story has been as if your story tells us that there are just two rigid personality types, a Martha and a Mary, a doer and a listener, and concluded that Jesus must like those who ‘just are’ more than he likes those who are busy in giving hospitality and service.
But you and I both know that people are rather more complicated than that, they come in all kinds of shapes and styles, and there are much more than just two different personality types, there are many of them. But more than that, no-one’s personality is set rigidly. On different days any one of us might be quite different to any other. I think what Jesus was saying was not that ‘being’ is better than ‘doing’, but rather that on this day, there was something in the way you were doing what you were doing that wasn’t right. You resented Mary, and in your resentment, you used your hard work as a justification for self-concern and self-pity.
And I get that. I completely get that sometimes, even the good things that we do in Jesus’ service can be spoiled by our sense of self-importance in doing them. I know exactly what it is like to feel I am working harder and better for God than those around me, that I lose track of something really important about serving God and my neighbour. I lose sight of joy. You forgot to take delight in serving Jesus, just because Mary wasn’t helping you.
You may not have known him personally, but you may have heard of Paul of Tarsus. He was, like you, and I hope you don’t mind me saying this, someone who had a tendency to get a bit puffed up with his self-importance in the service of God. In his case, though, he’d been in prison and suffered much punishment for speaking up about Jesus.
While he was in prison, possibly when he was awaiting trial and execution in Rome, he wrote to the Christians in Colossae, folk he probably hadn’t even met, to offer encouragement. He pointed out to them that in fact, you, Martha, had some things in common with Jesus. Like you, Jesus was someone who made it possible for people to seek God’s truth; Jesus was special, because ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’. What I’m getting at, Martha, is that in his becoming human in Jesus, we were offering hospitality to God.
The lesson Paul drew from this is one he expresses in one of the most challenging sentences in all of his letters, where he wrote that ‘I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church’. He didn’t mean, I think, that somehow Jesus hadn’t done the job properly, and that Paul had been left to finish off Jesus’ suffering. He meant that he, Paul, had learnt the hard way the lesson Jesus wanted to teach you. In becoming a human being, and in suffering and dying for the world, Jesus showed us all the way we are to live for God and for others. If we give ourselves to God and others as completely and as joyfully as Jesus did for us, we will find what the real point of all our labour of hospitality is really about.
Thank you, Martha, for what you have taught me,