Housekeeper or host

Clare L. Hickman

St Luke’s Episcopal Church

July 21, 2019—Proper 11C

Genesis 18:1-10a; Col 1:21-29; Luke 10:38-42


          It is so easy to picture the scene. Here’s Martha, faced with unexpected company, running around and trying to get everything ready. While hastily prepared food cooks over the fire, she moves through the house with a broom and a rag, wondering how so much dust can have gathered since yesterday. And then after the meal, she works to clean up—it is, after all, a small house, and no-one wants to sit with dirty dishes at their elbow!

          And all the while, there is Mary. Sitting beside Jesus and making conversation. Learning from him, basking in his presence. And when Martha dares to suggest she help, Jesus scolds her and praises Mary.

          We can just see it, can’t we? For me, a long history of cleaning up after family dinners just hovers in the background of this story. And so when preacher after preacher starts to talk about the value of living like Mary: of sitting quietly in the presence of God, of prayer instead of busyness, contemplation instead of action…. Well, it’s hard not to seethe a little.

          Even when the preacher chooses to defend Martha, to suggest that both “doing” and “being” are necessary for a holy life, we are not really shaken out of this mind set. We still have this image of what this story is all about.

          But does it really hold up to such an interpretation? We imagine Martha in the role of the wife whose husband has just brought home his boss for dinner unannounced. But the passage clearly states that Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. As the head of the household, she has invited Jesus. It was her choice, her decision. She is not the overworked housekeeper; she is the host. More than that, careful reading of the texts shows her to be a significant disciple and minister in the early church.

          In the Johannine story of the raising of Lazarus, we don’t simply see Jesus’ famous personal relationship with Mary and Martha. Martha has a profound theological discussion with Jesus about the resurrection, and then she utters a statement of belief about Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God (John 11:27) that directly parallels Peter’s more famous confession. (Peter went on to be the first pope, Martha to be the patron saint of janitors… you make up your own mind which of the two is more honorable)

Anyway, here in Luke, our translation obscures it a little, but there are still signs of her significance. For instance, where we read that she has a sister Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying, there is early textual evidence to read this as describing Martha’s sister Mary, “who ALSO sat at the feet of the Lord….” As in, our host Martha was a disciple, one who sat at the feet of Jesus, and so was her sister Mary.

          Similarly, where we read about Martha distracted by her many tasks, the word translated as tasks is “diakonia”: service. It’s a word that means “work” in general, but in the early Church also signifies Christian ministry. Diakonos. Deacon. One who serves.[1]

          So our image of the stressed out, undervalued worker bee who is unfavorably compared to her spiritual sister doesn’t really hold water. The text suggests that Martha is a disciple and minister of some importance, not a background figure who somehow “doesn’t get it.”

          Which leaves us with the question: why does Jesus scold her? It really is unlikely that Jesus is comparing her “doing” unfavorably with Mary’s “being.” Prayer is action, after all, and any action can be prayer.

          Instead, it seems to be a story that asks us to examine why and how we are doing what we are doing. That is, Jesus’ comment “Martha, Martha” points a finger not at what she is doing, but how she is doing it.

          After all, what she is doing is the work of hospitality: a key religious and cultural value. She is following in the steps of Abraham, an icon of hospitality who was famous for welcoming the stranger. But the way in which she does this strikes a sour note. Maybe it’s been a bad day. Maybe it’s the weight of years of resentment toward a slightly spoiled younger sister. We don’t know. What we do know is that Martha just isn’t feeling the love. She is not serving with joy. She’s doing the work, and that’s great, but she doing it from a place of resentment and anger.

          Whereas Abraham, well, Abraham was known to keep his tent flaps open in all four directions, so that he could watch for any travelers approaching. And when he sighted one, he would run and greet them, offering them precious water and his finest foods to meet their needs. There is a sense of overflowing pleasure in his welcome, uncluttered with any sense of obligation or expectation of repayment. He acts out of joy.

          Is your work, whether that be your prayer life or more obviously active tasks, a burden or a joy? And if it is a burden, why is it that you continue to do it? Is it truly because “no-one else is going to do it and it has to get done”? Does it really have to get done? Is there really no one else to do it? Truthfully, occasionally, might that sense of resentful obligation have become its own twisted kind of reward, a petition for your sainthood on the basis of your martyrdom?

          I believe this story reminds us that God desires our joy, first and foremost. Not our grudging obedience or our long-suffering performance of tasks we hate. Our joy. Which might come from letting the task go and finding something else to do. It might come from finding someone to carry the work with us, to be our companion. It might come from finding a new way of doing the thing, letting go of the resentment and rediscovering the joy that could still be had.

Joy is there to be had. And it’s not a distraction from our spiritual life; it is at the core of our spiritual life. So be ready to welcome it. Heck, go to seek it out and embrace it!


[1] “Martha” entry by Mary Rose D’Angelo in Women in Scripture, ed. Carol Meyers (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2000), p. 115f.

Clare Hickman