No More False Choices
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Do we really have to choose between Mary and Martha in today’s Gospel – who follows Jesus correctly and who doesn’t? Isn’t it hard enough to be a woman in the Bible without being heckled from the cheap seats 2000 years later? But there’s a larger issue here. Personally, I am sick of being pushed into false choices – whether that’s between action and contemplation, or between justice and mercy – as if we’re only allowed to choose one, as if God only wants us to have one and not the other. We’re told that we need to choose between, say, immigrants and veterans – or between the police and people of color – that loyalty to one necessarily means rejection of the other, that we can’t create room or justice for both. But what if that’s not true? What if that’s just another lie, designed to divide and conquer? Let’s start by seeing how this either/or thinking works in our Gospel and then see what it might mean for larger questions.
On the surface, it’s hard to see what this small scene between Jesus and two sisters has to do with justice or equality. Issues of honesty and greed are addressed more directly by Amos in our first reading and then by our psalmist. Maybe we should focus there instead – because like Amos, we too witness the needy being trampled every day. And like the psalmist, we’re constantly forced to listen to those who love evil more than good and lying more than speaking the truth. The problem is that it is a little too easy to define ourselves as the heroes in these settings and our enemy as anyone who disagrees with us. Most of us can’t imagine ourselves as the ones being targeted for judgment here as cheaters or tyrants; it’s a little too convenient for us to use these texts as weapons against our perceived enemies and forget that the Bible’s ultimate aim is good news for more than just us.
Today’s Gospel is different. Most of us can identify with either Mary or Martha depending on the moment and can easily imagine ourselves in their place. Like Martha, we’ve all found ourselves distracted by too many tasks; and like Mary, we’ve all been accused of not doing our share. Because we could be on either side, we want to know who’s right and who’s wrong here. We want a clear guide for how we can be fruitful and useful to God, but that’s not exactly what we get.
Just to recap, we begin with Martha welcoming Jesus into her home. While her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him, Martha gets distracted by everything that’s on her plate – and so she asks Jesus to take sides on her behalf. She wants Jesus to make Mary help her. After pointing out the obvious – that she is worried and distracted, Jesus seems to take Mary’s side instead. He says: “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Before we start taking sides ourselves, let’s remember how much we don’t know here.
We don’t know what’s distracting Martha. She may have more on her mind than what’s for dinner that night. To assume that her tasks are trivial says more about us – and our perception of “women’s work” - than it does about her. We also don’t hear what Mary and Martha may have said to each other prior to this moment; in fact, we don’t hear what Mary says at all.
We can read all kinds of things into the gaps left by this story. Perhaps we’ve been in Martha’s place far too often, and when we’re honest, what we read into Jesus’ words is condemnation, the callous response of someone who’s been taken care of by women for so long that he takes their service for granted. Or maybe, like me at an earlier phase in my life, we identify with Mary as one eager to learn and study, all too ready to leave the practical work to someone else. We might decide that Jesus’ approval of Mary is an elevation of women – that we too are welcome to sit and learn as disciples.
But we need not automatically settle on any of these thoughts. To insist on taking either Mary or Martha’s side forces us into a false choice. Can’t Jesus be for both of them? Can’t we?
We can applaud Mary for paying attention to her guest, for actually listening to him. And yes, we can applaud Martha for her own hospitality, for welcoming Jesus into her home in the first place. We can also applaud her willingness to speak up for herself, to dare to let Jesus into what she was really thinking and feeling instead of suffering in silence. And while Jesus does point out her distraction, he’s not pitting her against her sister. She’s the one who invited the comparison; that may never have been his intent.
In his answer to Martha, Jesus creates room for more than one response. In his typically indirect way, Jesus upholds both Mary’s choice to listen and Martha’s right to protest. He doesn’t tell Martha to stop doing whatever truly needs to be done; he just names her distraction for what it is and gives her room to respond differently. It turns out - we don’t need to denigrate Martha in order to elevate Mary, and we don’t need to exalt Mary at Martha’s expense. It’s not an either-or choice. We don’t need to take away anything from either of them.
So how is this good news for us 2000 years later? Well, on one level, it means that we don’t have to measure our worth by comparing ourselves to others – what they get versus what we think we deserve. God doesn’t grade on a curve. We don’t need to elevate ourselves at anyone else’s expense in order to be valued by God. And we don’t need to equate loyalty to some with a rejection of others; we can embrace whatever any of us is willing to bring to the table for the common good. As the writer of Colossians points out, there is room for all of us under the cross – in all of our varied ways of welcoming God. We don’t need to choose between action and contemplation, or between justice and mercy. God is big enough to want it all for us.
That doesn’t mean we can’t name evil for what it is. Amos and the psalmist are quite clear about that. It just means that we can spend less time demonizing our enemy and more time discerning our own response to the injustice we witness in the world. For myself, I like where the psalmist ends. Rather than simply diagnosing the problem, he offers a solution – for himself anyway. He says that he’d like to be like a “green olive tree in the house of God.” I love the openness of this image. It creates room for more than one way to be fruitful, more than one way to be useful. As long as we’re rooted in the mercy and goodness of God rather than in our endless comparisons to others, there are lots of ways for us to be like a “green olive tree,” to offer nourishment and shade and hospitality to others.
We can serve and listen. We can offer welcome to the stranger without neglecting those who’ve been with us all along. We can value those protect and defend us without being blind to their excesses or prejudices. And most importantly, we can stop limiting God and ourselves with false choices. In the silence that follows, I invite you to think about what being fruitful and useful to God might mean for you – and who that might allow you to welcome into your life, into your community, into your heart. In the Name of the One who has created room for all of us, Amen.