Jesus and the disciples are on the move. They enter a village and receive life-giving hospitality from two sisters in the intimacy of their home. Martha prepares the meal while Mary sits listening at the feet of Jesus. It is a beautiful scene that lasts but for two verses before Martha barges into the living room from the kitchen, upset that her sister has left her to do all the work by herself. Jesus lovingly tells her that Mary has chosen the “better thing” and invites Martha to leave the distracting, exquisite preparations aside and simply order in a pizza.
The typical dualistic manner of interpreting this story is to demonize Martha and celebrate Mary; we assume the activity of self-centered service is subservient to the “better choice” of reflective contemplation. There is an invitation, however, to avoid this interpretive mistake if we read the narrative in the light of the Good Samaritan story that immediately precedes our text.
Two Essential Stories
In the setup for the familiar story of the Good Samaritan, a lawyer responds to a poignant question from Jesus by quoting the Great Commandment, “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 love your neighbor as yourself.” This statement introduces not only the well-loved parable, but also our story of Mary and Martha. Both stories are about people driven to hospitality by love of God and love of neighbor. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus honors the love the Samaritan shows for his neighbor. However, in our story, where Martha models love of neighbor and Mary depicts love of God, Jesus sides with Mary.
In both stories Jesus commends the one who would have most likely been rejected by the crowds: A Samaritan enemy and an ungracious host. Jesus seems to see in the Samaritan and in Mary a purity of heart that comes from what Kierkegaard called “willing of one thing.” This is a posture wherein all of our scattered longings and misplaced desires are set aside in deference to the “one thing needed.”
Purity of heart is to will one thing.
Why not Martha?
The challenge with Martha is that she is lost in the horizontal plane of rivalry. With Jesus in the other room, her attention is instead focused on Mary, robbing her of the joy of “willing one thing” and leaning into what is “better.” Jesus responds by intimately repeating her name twice in a compassionate call back to the essence of the first part of the Great Commandment. It is, after all, the act of “loving the Lord your God…” that serves as the source for “loving your neighbor as yourself.” The vertical focus on Jesus eradicates rivalry and gives life, vitality, and sustenance to the horizontal dimensions of life.
These stories remind me of what is at the core of the Urban Training Collaborative that is served by Street Psalms. In my office, above my desk, hangs a plaque from my ordination into the Street Psalms community. In the very center are the vows of the community: Action, Reflection and Discernment. The three words are written out in a circle thus equating the essentiality of three activities. The “one thing essential” at the center of it all is the person and work of Jesus.
Is it time to order in some pizza?