Sixteenth Sunday: Martha’s Complaint

Sassoferrato - "Salvator Mundi" - Walters 371824.jpg

I am on a road trip with my family, so I didn’t get to write about last Sunday’s readings, with the Good Samaritan, one of the most important passages in Scripture.  But this week’s Gospel, Mary and Martha, follows directly on it, and builds on it.  In fact, the Lectionary for these several weeks has given us a close reading of Luke 10, all the passages immediately following Luke 9:51, the turning point of this Gospel, where Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem, and the passage right after that, “let the dead bury their dead.”  The Lectionary doesn’t have space just on Sundays to read all of Luke’s Gospel (one great reason to go to daily Mass is to read more Scripture), but Luke 10 we have been reading very closely.

To me the most interesting part of Mary and Martha is how it contrasts with the Good Samaritan.  The Good Samaritan is good because he takes action.  “He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.”  The question is, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” And the answer is, “The one who showed him mercy.”  The moral of the story, it seems, is service.

But Mary and Martha is the opposite.  Mary, who “has left me by myself to do the serving,” “has chosen the better part.”  Martha, “burdened with much serving,” seems to get scolded.  You might say these two stories represent two opposite interpretations of Christianity: action or contemplation, God or neighbor, mercy or prayer.  And Luke puts them right next to each other, at the end of this magnificent chapter 10.

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But notice, first, the introduction to the Good Samaritan.  In the introduction to the parable, Jesus gets a scholar of the law to summarize it: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  The Good Samaritan is about the question, “And who is my neighbor?” the second half of the great commandment.  But Mary and Martha is about the first half of that commandment: Mary loves Jesus, who is God.

Here it’s worth reading carefully.  Jesus does not scold Martha.  He does not tell her, “service doesn’t matter, as long as you pray.”  He says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.”  This is more subtle.  First: she is worried about “many things,” but “there is need of only one thing.”  In the Greek the parallel between “many” and “one” is strong.  Second, the word for “anxious” is more literally “divided in parts”—the same word as when he says, “Mary has chosen the better part.”  (Even the word for “chosen” has the sense of “selected,” as in, picked this “one” out from the “many.”)  Jesus doesn’t say, “don’t serve,” he says, “focus.” 

What is distracting Martha’s focus?  Is it service?  Or is it complaint?  Jesus has just commended the Good Samaritan for his service.  The difference between Martha and him is that Mary complains: “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do the serving?”  Her complaint poisons her service.  The ill is the complaint, not the service.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c.1500, oil on walnut, 45.4 × 65.6 cm.jpg

Jesus is on the road, and he is sending his disciples on the road.  It is interesting that these two parables are about being on the road.  Mary and Martha is about welcoming him in: “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you.”  The Good Samaritan is about a traveler: “a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.”  Jesus is both the guest we welcome and the Samaritan who comes down the road to heal us; he is the God we worship and the man we follow; he is the one we serve and the one we adore. 

Jesus teaches us to be Mary and Martha—without the complaining.  Because he teaches us to love God with all our strength—and to love neighbor as part of that love, because of that love.  If we love service but do not love God, we miss the meaning of our service. 

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Abraham waiting on the angels under the three.jpg

Our other two readings underline this point.  Abraham is Martha, whipping up a meal for God, who comes to him in the mysterious three travelers.  But he doesn’t complain, he rejoices: “If I may ask you this favor,” “Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food.”  For this service, Abraham receives the gift of more joyful service: a son.  What if Martha had talked like that? 

So too in Colossians, Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.”  “I am a minister” (it’s the same Greek word Martha complained about, “diakonia”) “in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me,” the awesome privilege to share in God’s service to his people.  But that ministry is to make known “Christ in you, the hope for glory”: Christ in the ones we serve, so that we worship as Mary through the works of Martha, and Christ in us, so that we share in his mission to the world. 

What service do you ruin through complaint?

eric.m.johnston

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