This Gospel story and the story of the workers in the vineyard who all get paid the same despite how long they worked generate more heat than any others. Why would Jesus chide Martha, who is working to put a meal before him?
I have heard sermons about the active versus the contemplative life preached on the story of Mary and Martha (favoring, of course, the contemplative life). Every woman who has ever served on the altar guild, or put on a parish brunch for the day the bishop visited, who washed dishes while everyone else enjoyed conversation, feels immediately put down by this story. Somebody has got to do that stuff. So, why is Jesus upset?
There are several things worth noting about the story. First, and so obvious that we miss it altogether, is that Mary is a woman. It would have been at least as shocking to Luke’s first readers that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet as would have been Jesus’ rebuke of Martha. Women did not sit at the feet of a teacher. Perhaps the point of the story is that women can be disciples in Jesus’ circle.
Secondly, I wonder to what extent this story reflects the struggle between the itinerant missionaries of early Christianity and the settled householders. Clearly, in the Didache, there are rules for how long a missionary can stay (and they must never ask for money!), and what a householder’s obligations are. If this story reflects that controversy, then surprisingly enough, we have women in both roles — Mary as Jesus’ traveling companion and Martha as a householder.
Finally, the NRSV translates verse 41 as “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” The Greek word translated “distracted” is thorubaze. A quick trip to Liddel and Scott reveals that everywhere except the New Testament (and the word is used to mean “distracted” only at this verse — pretty thin evidence for this meaning), it means to raise a public outcry, to cause a tumult or uproar. Perhaps this verse ought to be translated, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and raise a fuss about many things.” I wonder if the story might suggest that whatever part we have chosen, we should not worry about what others have chosen. If you can’t stand a dirty kitchen and choose to clean it, don’t fuss that others don’t.
The story of Abraham and Sarah is also surprising. It is narrated in so few verses, but clearly took a great deal of time. Abraham says to Sarah, quickly take three measures of flour (the best), knead it and make cakes. How long does that take — you’ve got to heat the oven and all the rest of it. Abraham tells a servant to kill a calf and prepare it. How long does that take? And how many people will it serve? Clearly this is not a meal just for the three men, but Abraham’s whole household (herders, servants, etc) will eat. If Abraham is sitting in his tent at the heat of the day (1:00 pm?), when will this meal be ready? 5:00 is pushing it. By the time the men go on to Sodom, it must be late in the evening. And according to the narrator, Abraham doesn’t even know who these guys are. It would have been great shame to him not to entertain them. It is great honor to entertain them this lavishly. I wonder what would happen if we treated visitors to church like that?