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What’s it all about, Alfie?

By Mary Domb Mikkelson, Connecting Voices Editor

Talk about breaking all the rules!  In Luke 10:38-42 Mary and Martha give Jesus a run for his money – and, remember, he had lots of experience at it, consorting as he did with the untouchables of his day.  Think about it!  He conversed with women in public, “violated” the Sabbath by healing folks and (horrors!) even allowed his disciples to pick grain on it.  Perhaps most revealing was the time he shocked Peter with that famous discourse on “clean” and “unclean” food. Fulfilling the law, his stated purpose for being (Matthew 5:17), had, it seems, little to do with keeping things the way they had always been.

     All of which casts an interesting light on the story of Mary and Martha.  With a houseful of visitors, all needing their feet washed and their bellies filled, Mary plopped herself down at Jesus’ feet, not to wash them but to learn – hardly a woman’s place in the culture of the day.  It was as though she’d said, “the laws of hospitality be damned.”  Martha, on the other hand, was stuck in the kitchen, preparing a meal for  – Jesus and his followers—a mere 73 people.  She was playing by the rules (well, up to a point).  Being far from a happy camper, she had the audacity to complain, to interrupt the rabbinical discussion to demand her sister be ordered to help.  (Editorial aside:  any self-respecting 21st Century Martha would probably tell the men to get up off their butts and stir a few pots.)  In response to Martha, Jesus DID stir one, telling her to chill.  “Martha, Martha,” he chided, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

     Something’s not exactly Kosher here.  In the words of a hit 1966 song, “What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?”

     There was an urgency to Jesus’ words, perhaps reflecting a growing impatience with the way his followers so often missed the point of them. Is there a clue here – in his words and the urgency underlying them?

     Our Tuesday night Bible study group examined several.  It was noted first, with interest, that this story followed that of the Good Samaritan.  Martha, it was posited, was, like the Levite and the priest, pietistic; Mary, spiritual.  Martha exemplified, as Ken Notltie said in his sermon, “The Kitchen Table,” the following Sunday,   “action, good works and helping others;” Mary, “contemplation, prayer and devotion.” In other words, the ages-old poser of faith vs. works.

     This, in turn, brought up the subject of balance, a topic ably addressed in Stephanie Frey’s article, “Living with Martha” in the July 13, 2004 issue of The Christian Century.  Referencing Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, in which “what is better” is rendered as “the main course,” she conjectures that “Thinking of God’s word as the ‘main course’ in the feast of life…doesn’t give that immediate sense that listening is better than doing.  Rather, it places these activities in balance.”  Jesus’ message, she further points out, commands us “both to sit and listen, and to go and do.”  Summarizing the discussion, she says, “Living this side of Easter, we know what Mary and Martha could not know:  that hearing and doing are finally in the realm not of law, but of gospel – because the host of the banquet has himself become the main course.” 

     This essential balance was emphasized neatly in  Felix Carrion’s recent Stillspeaking Devotional, “Don’t Just Do Something.”    The “sit there” that followed ended with a prayer, “O God, grant us the wisdom to know when we are to ‘do something’ and when we are to ‘sit still.”  Either way, you are at work in and through us.  Amen.”

     Jane Carol Redmont, in “The Martha-Mary Double-Bind,” shares her ambivalence about the Lukan text.  “Every time I read or hear the story, I think: ‘This is a bad resolution.  If everyone went into the kitchen – including Jesus – we’d all have more time for contemplation and study.  And the dishes would get done, too.”  Her ambivalence, she adds, is shared by many in the Christian community, where the tale of two sisters is variously interpreted.  “We have Mary the contemplative and Martha the busybody do-gooder.  We have Mary…reinterpreted as the model for women in theological education – and…an English group once opposed to the emancipation of women named the Martha Movement.”   No wonder, as Redmont further reports, a Reformation-era pastor produced the following ditty:

     “Martha and Mary in one life

     Make up the perfect vicar’s wife!”

     Would, I wonder, a modern-day blending of the two produce the perfect vicar instead?

     Or, better, the perfect Christian?

      Redmont segues from these reflections to a discussion of the cost of taking sides (Martha’s way?  Mary’s?) and the suggestion that, instead, we who today seek to take “the better way” opt for sharing the “main course,” building a church in which “all ministries are honored, and in which the very shape of ministry can change in response to the world’s needs.”

     Which is precisely the direction that Bible study discussion took.  Might we, we asked, be as mired in ritual as were the Jews of Jesus’ time?  In our daily lives?  Our church life?  Our ministries?  Our worship?  Our mindsets?   Even our coffee hour, in which the serving of food and sharing of fellowship are ritually linked?   What would happen if we decided to bring our own cookies and just sit and talk?

     These questions—and the discussion that followed—became a metaphor for a much bigger one.  Would “getting out of the kitchen,” literally and figuratively, open us to the urgency of Jesus’ message, provide a reason – THE reason – for gathering as a community and for carrying that message and that community out into the world?  Would “our little light,” the “fireworks” of our faith, draw others to us – and to the wonder of God’s word, the “main course?”

     We have the Great Commandment, the “sparklers and rockets” of Christianity. 

     Shall we light them?

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