Whether it was sharing a bedroom with one of my siblings for most of my childhood, or having housemates as an adult, I can sure relate to Martha’s frustration with Mary. There always seems to be that one member who doesn’t pull their weight, plays the role of helpless, or gets so easily—and conveniently—focused on some other project when it’s time to pitch in for the shared chores. It’s best to get that visceral commiseration to the story out of the way, lest it distract us from the real scene being played out here…
Though Mary is the one Jesus says has chosen “the better part,” the “one thing” that is needful, Martha’s frustration is real and reasonable: by all intents and purposes, Mary’s help would have been appropriate according to the cultural values and expectations of the time and place. Mary’s help might have also paved the way for Martha to feel like she could sit and listen to her guest.
How Martha tried to triangulate with Jesus in order to publicly rebuke her sister, isn’t so reasonable or easy to chalk up to the culture… No, her anger is simply a part of her humanity, and the human tendency to have massive blind spots burst forth in raw emotion.
Martha’s blind spot is actually a symptom of distracted discipleship. Like we’ve been seeing over the last few weeks, the lectionary is leading us through Luke’s narrative commentary on discipleship. In fact, like many other exegetes, Justo González argues that Luke intentionally put the Good Samaritan and Martha’s story together, part of a larger “context of Jesus’s preaching about the kingdom and radical obedience.”
Like the lawyer who prompts the Samaritan parable, Martha’s blind spot is revealed by the fact that she has missed the point of obedience. Though there are other ways to understand what is going on in Martha’s mind and heart, I tend to think that she is suffering from a little vainglory. It’s that one vice that is unique among the rest in that it requires having faith and religious practice in order to commit it. In other words, it takes a good thing in order to become a bad thing.
Vainglory happens when we become focused on what we are doing rather than why we are doing it. This is not to be confused with someone who is simply going through the motions of faith—that’s more like sloth. Vainglory is what happens when we value the doing of good Christian duties, when we use the good doing as the measure for ourselves, when we become proud of all of our Christian doing, and use our service to compare and deem ourselves better than others. Vainglory can lead, like Martha shows here, to being so distracted by the doing that the doing’s all you can see.
Luke’s choice of the word “distracted” in verse 40 is telling. (See the Textual Point below for more on the different word used by Jesus in verse 41.) Martha is distracted by her many tasks (elsewhere translated in the New Testament as “service” or “ministry”). The Greek word for “distracted” has a definition that actually describes the character of this distraction: it is the kind of thing that happens when focus is pulled from one reference point to another—to be quite busy and therefore to have one’s attention all the time shifting. The only stable and constant thing is the doing itself. Rather than having activity revolve around a central focus, the focus becomes scattered, we might even say thin or worn, unable to prove its true purpose. Over time, this habit will make its own rut in our lives, and the doing itself will become the focus.
This is probably why Martha complains about Mary’s lack of doing—the doing is all she can see as necessary, and she therefore assumes it matters to Jesus as well. After all, Martha believes herself to be in the right… After all, when she started all this doing, she had the right intentions… After all, she is doing what is expected and even more so, what is needed. She orders (literally commands Jesus) to get her sister in line! Vainglory on full display.
Martha also does that thing we humans do when we’re trying to prove our point with our question. It’s a manipulation tactic, of course, and it reveals our own judgement on a situation when we cry, “DON’T YOU CARE???” Martha’s vainglorious judgement of herself as being in the right puts her at odds with those around her; she is now the victim of injustice because she understands her way (of distracted doing) as the only right way.
Martha surely understands something to be wrong with this situation, but her distractedness has led her to the wrong conclusion: an outward solution where someone else is the problem rather than a good look inward to the true source of the issue.
Jesus turns her there. He first lovingly responds in a way that feels like he’s trying to snap her out of her distractedness: he calls her name twice, expressing that he truly does care for and about her. (Grammatically, the double vocative is a cue of the emotional charge to the greeting.)
Then, Jesus reminds her about where focus should be, on the one thing needful. Mary has chosen to focus her attention on this needful thing, which is his very presence with them. By doing so, he invites Martha to also choose this better focus, and he refuses to tell Mary to turn away from him.
One of the reasons why the “needful thing” is sitting still and listening to God is because we are really good at busying—and fooling—ourselves. If we were to be more honest in our prayer lives with God, the Holy Spirit might lead us out of our own distracted discipleship.
Pastor Trevor Hudson recounts in Beyond Loneliness, a book on prayer, about this very thing. During a pastoral care conversation, a recently divorced woman was talking about not knowing what do with her anger about what had happened in her marriage; she knew it was incongruent with the call to discipleship and forgiveness that Jesus lays out as the way of faith, but she also knew that she was too angry to forgive and mean it. Hudson’s direction to her was to let the Holy Spirit do the changing inwardly. How? By praying the Psalms that matched what she was feeling right now until they no longer seemed to fit. In other words, she was to pray those Psalms about enemies and anger that we modern Christians sometimes have a hard time with, until she no longer found that that was what she wanted/felt for her ex-husband. The woman did so, and over a long period of time, she found that the Spirit redirected her prayers for/about him, first to a neutral space, then slowly to a place of simple blessing.
Without such a practice, this woman might have become distracted from true discipleship by what she thought was appropriate discipleship. She could have become focused on the doing or speaking that looks right, instead of having her faith truly borne out from a loving disposition. She could have become so distracted by the many good tasks that make up our Christian calling that she became disconnected from its power source: the very presence of God. She could have become like Martha. Fortunately for her, and for Martha, the Lord awaited, ready to receive and reorient, present and at work.
Jesus uses a different work to describe Martha as distracted in verse 41 than Luke does in verse 40. Whereas Martha is depicted as being overly fraught with her many tasks, Jesus speaks about her inner state that has led her to focus on outward service: her worry and distraction has pulled her away from the one thing that might re-center and calm her anxiety about her service… The one thing that is needful for a hurried soul is to sit at the feet of Lord, so that, through the soul care of attention to the Word, she might be made whole and focused again, able to practice attentioned discipleship.
The story about prayer that closes the commentary (above) would serve as a great illustration.
Here’s a personal anecdote to stoke your own wonderings:
I’m back in graduate school and as part of that arrangement, I have three part-time jobs of various weekly hours that can total up to 30 hours per week. Before going back to school I worked full-time in a local congregation for over a decade, so I have experience doing work that is diverse and time-consuming. However, I have found that though I work fewer hours now than I did before, it feels like I’m working more! Like Martha, I feel distracted while working on one job’s task because I know what I need to work on for another… When I noticed how much anxiety my work was causing me, I took time to reflect in prayer on what I was noticing (I did this a few times). I came to a couple of conclusions, one of which I see Jesus pointing to with Martha: what is the one thing?
All of my work, school included, has a religious, service-oriented focus. Each is good and meaningful, but I needed to see them all as related to one thing, my calling: my service through each of them needed to be connected to a higher purpose from God so that none of them became their own end. I needed to un-distract myself from the tasks themselves and connect to their purpose (their true end), and I could only do that if I took time to sit at the Master’s feet and reflect in the presence of the Holy Spirit about what God is up to in my life. To undistract myself, I needed to be re-oriented on how I was viewing these jobs.
Our lives are full of distractions, so how will we keep our focus on Christ?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 17, 2022
Luke 10:38-42 Commentary