We Are Martha
Martha! What are you doing? Whoa, Martha is standing her ground! Are you sure that’s what you want to do Martha? Stand up to Jesus?! Look at her go! You go girl! “Lord,” she says, right to Jesus’ face, “do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to lend me a hand.” (NRSV/The Message)
Most people, seem to take Martha’s side these days, even though Mary “chose the better part,” according to Jesus. Martha’s just doing the service that she was supposed to do, it is pointed out. But, how do we know Martha didn’t want to sit at Jesus’ feet too, like her sister Mary? After all, Martha was the one, quite commendably, and with a fashionable hospitality, to “welcome” Jesus, into “her” home. Maybe she just wants some attention and support from Jesus, in order to get some help with the chores that were equally Mary’s. Maybe Martha was just trying to get Mary to get off her, ‘you-know-what’ – so she could come sit at the feet of their Rabbi too!
What’s more, service to others is something Jesus himself continually advocates for, so why would he want to criticize that? I have to admit, working hard and accomplishing things, is a high priority for me too! On the other hand, a life of prayer is often a low priority, for us Protestants, in general. Next to Benedictine Catholics and many Orthodox communities, not to mention the traditions of Native peoples and many Eastern religions, we don’t prioritize prayer, contemplation, or listening skills, as highly. Probably none of us, reading this story, however, get it right when we pit Mary and Martha against each other, especially when we see the dynamic between them as one of listening vs. doing. Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, much more consistently compares listening and prayer, with, a worrying distractive-ness.
Jesus often goes away by himself to pray and center himself, as he does right after leaving Martha and Mary’s house. And he famously tells the disciples, a bit later in Luke, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear… can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
And so what strikes me about Martha, who clearly starts out her day as the champion of hospitality, yet ends up venting her anger, on the one she has welcomed, is “her stand,” her willingness to “stand her ground,” on principle. And, to learn from it. Listening and contemplating the Word of God, is our bigger picture, says Jesus. But surely he is not rejecting Martha, or her well intentioned service and food preparations –– outright. Martha, “stands her ground” – but in principle, and in dialog – no one is ‘shooting anyone down.’ “All of us are Martha,” and we can learn from her.
The President, surprised the nation this week, making an unannounced, and unscripted, speech, in the White House Press Room. He began by identifying himself, once again, with Treyvon Martin, saying he could have been him 35 years ago, and how he was familiar with, and experienced the discrimination and racism all African-American young men do growing up in our culture. In effect, he was saying, “I am Treyvon!”
He also noted towards the end of his remarks, that, “I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching… at least you [can] ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? (An obvious quote from Dr. King’s, I Have A Dream speech.) That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy,” said the President.
As a moral imperative, I agree, this is a deeply needed value. But as a practical exercise, it too often misses the mark. I know far too many white folks who have asked themselves this question, and just as quickly answered it in the affirmative, without understanding its often surprising implications. They say, ‘I am not racist. I am wringing as much bias out of myself as I can. I would never judge people based on the color of their skin. But, I am against affirmative action. I don’t think we need the voting rights act anymore in this day and age. And, I think we should pass a law against wearing baggy pants too low!” That last part actually happened in Green Bay, WI this week! I know, for myself, the more I learn about the ways my privilege is complicit in furthering racism in our society, the more I answer the President’s question with “it ain’t enough, especially for a people unfamiliar and untrained in prayer and contemplation. Soul-searching is a beginning, a starting place which needs to be combined with open and honest conversation and dialog.”
When Abraham and Sarah welcome the three men who suddenly appear by their tent – welcoming them to drink some cool water, to rest in the shade, wash their feet, and have a bite to eat – they show the hospitality that not only was expected of them, but they go even further than required. And, of course, it turned out to be a very good move! The men were messengers, angels, from the LORD God. And after their rest and refreshment, and receiving this hospitality, then they deliver their news. Asking for Sarah, they tell her husband that she will have their son, in due season. And so the promise of a chosen people through Abraham and Sarah, is reiterated in a very dramatic way. And it’s the NT writer of Hebrews that lifts them up for us, ever after, as models of how we are to treat our neighbors. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (13:2)
When I think of the tragedy of Treyvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman, the grief his mother and father carry with them, the unjust “Stand Your Ground” law that enables this nightmare to go, as yet, unpunished – I can’t help but think of the divide between us. Racial, yes, but also ethical and moral, one based on the love of neighbor – inherent in most religions – which is a much needed ethic of, ‘standing your ground’ on the principle of: hospitality before profiling, and on faith and dialog with our fellow humans, before solving problems with guns.
When Jesus talks about who our neighbor is and what they look like, he offers the picture of the enemy-Samaritan, the one who acts, toward us, with the grace and love of God, even in risking his reputation. And when the Hebrew writers offered up a picture of hospitality, they remembered the self-giving and vulnerable welcome that Abraham and Sarah risked, with three strangers, when they walked onto their property unannounced. When we live-out these examples, then they will know we are a people of faith, as we ‘stand our ground’ on hospitality and trust, for the justice and peace for all, in the realm and Kingdom of God!
If we forsake a life of theological contemplation and prayer, and are worried about things to the point of distraction and anger, we may miss the better part – like, the living word-of-life, a parable or story of hospitality, and an opportunity to give of ourselves and make the world a more hallowed ground.
Mr. Zimmerman, when he profiled an unarmed teenager as a criminal, and when he got out of his vehicle to take matters into his own hands against the express wishes of his superiors, this is the new “worried distracted-ness” of our time. And to hide behind an unjust “stand your ground” law, is really at best a cowardly ethic, which risks only the true moral and ethical underpinnings of our society, based on our life of faith. Citizens, and people of peace and hospitality, expect much better than that, and demand change. We ‘stand our ground,’ in conversation with Jesus, un-armed, and anxious to learn from the Rabbi, our Lord. We are Martha!
Even through the tears of mourning and loss that wash over us in these days of deep moral soul-searching, we pray that it will lead us to the dream that one day [our children] will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Are we ready to have that conversation? I’m not sure our “souls” have been that “searchable” up to now! But we have the tools already, in our tradition and our scriptures. Let us find a way then, to stand our ground on the ethic and practice of hospitality, where loving our neighbor as our self, is understood as equally as its twin – that is, ‘speaking truth to power, speaking as Martha.’