The Burden of Ministry
Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
Martha is in a catch-22. On one hand, if she abandons her cooking and cleaning duties to sit down and listen to Jesus, her friends and neighbors would look down upon her. For she would be neglecting one of the most important cultural norms, hospitality. If Martha continues to work without complaint, who knows what would have happened to Mary after the guests left. Martha apparently has some pent-up anger and frustration at her sister for not helping. What is clear, is that for Martha this situation is not fair.
In this story, Jesus does not bend the cultural rules of hospitality. He doesn’t stand up for Martha and say you are exactly right. Why is it that the women are the ones in the kitchen? Hey, Peter and Paul go help Martha get dinner ready before we begin. On the other hand, he bent other cultural norms today. He permits women to sit at the feet of the teacher and learn. This is something that would not have happened in that culture. I think one could even argue that Mary was the first female disciple. She gives up her life. She is willing to be ridiculed for breaking the cultural rules so she could sit and listen and learn, at Jesus’ feet.
What we have is a difficult story. One that seems to present a dichotomy of service that carries through to this day. Is it better to sit, listen, and learn or to work, clean, and cook? I think of the Altar Guild who quietly works behind the scenes, to make sure everything is just right, so we can celebrate this Eucharist together. When done well, it requires attention to detail, dedication, and a prayerful heart as you complete this work.
We find that Martha didn’t have this prayerful heart. She found hospitality a burden. Much like so many caregivers, there is little credit for the work they do to keep a family running smoothly. And the work they do is often viewed as less valuable. Is the work of the Altar Guild less valuable than the work I do? Not at all. Nor is the work of a mother less than a father’s.
It is clear to me that Jesus chose the battles he was willing to fight. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the gospel wasn’t going to spread throughout the world overnight. My guess is that Jesus would have been happy for Martha to do her work of hospitality if this work was a ministry to Jesus and her family and not an undue burden being placed on her by society. As difficult as it was for Martha, she held the ingrained cultural norms as important, yet her anger distracted her from completing them in the spirit of love and generosity.
Believe me. I’m not blaming Martha. As a youth, I was often upset with my sibling when I believed that they were slacking off, making me carry the brunt of the work. Yet it was my choice not to slack off with them. It was equally my choice to get angry at them. What is clear is that we need both “Marthas” and “Marys.” The church wouldn’t survive without both. Our families wouldn’t survive without both. And even our inner being needs both. We need time for work, and we need time to sit, listen, and be fed. As much as I believe balance is important, I cannot say that balance is what this passage is about.
Jesus admonishes Martha. He says, “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” Mary has chosen Jesus over the work she was to be doing. Mary chose Jesus over any cultural expectation or norms. Jesus came first. Jesus is what was and is most important.
Christ Jesus, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” comes in and sits down in your living room. Do you leave him in the living room while you prepare the house and make food or do you prepare your heart and listen and learn?
There is an old joke I heard back in seminary; it goes something like this. Jesus walks into church one Sunday morning and a parishioner asks the pastor, “What should we do?” The pastor says, “look busy.”
The thing that makes this joke funny is that in the secular world, an employee, who is slacking off from their duties, may suddenly look busy when the boss walks in the door. This action may or may not be effective. But Christ knows our hearts. He knows if we have been slacking off. And for us to suddenly change our behavior just because Christ walks in the door, isn’t going to fool anyone.
Since a large part of our faith centers on Christ being with us, not only in the bread and wine but in our daily life, we are called to work hard doing the work he has called us to, each and every day. We are servants of Christ. We pick up our cross and carry it daily. If we have been slacking off on what Christ has been calling us to do, there is no way to suddenly look busy when he walks in the door. Christ will know the truth.
Now I hope I’m not going to confuse anyone as I bring this story back full circle. If Martha saw her work as serving Christ, as a ministry to him and her guests, then I don’t think there would have been any admonishment. Nor do I think Christ would have said that Mary had chosen better. Much like Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, our service to Christ, however it manifests in our lives, is always acceptable to him. If our service feels like a burden, which it often can, we may need to reevaluate that ministry. It’s possible that the ministry may always feel like a burden (I’m thinking of Simon of Cyrene picking up Jesus’ cross on the way to Golgotha).
Sometimes there is no way around burdensome chores. Yet, ideally, we could refocus our hearts in a way that makes the chore more of a ministry done with love. It is also possible that it may simply be time for us to put down that burden, like Mary, and sit at Jesus’ feet, until we either pick it up again after a rest or find the next bit of work we are called to do.