The Good Samaritan isn’t the only Bible story that’s made its way into everyday - or near everyday - use. There are lots of characters, lots of phrases and stories that have become familiar, not for their place in the Bible, but their place in our everyday lives. All exemplary, but not all positive.
Look at Mary and Martha. The gospel of Luke shares a brief story about Jesus stopping at a village where he’s welcomed by Martha, apparently with the traditional hospitality of a first century Hebrew home. Martha bustles about busily, distracted by her household tasks, while her sister Mary just sits at Jesus feet and listens to him speak. Martha’s a little put out and asks Jesus to tell her to help him. His response is that Mary has chosen to focus on the only thing that’s really needed, while Martha is distracted from it by her work. Apparently.
Marys are dutiful disciples. Marthas are, at best, industrious and hard workers. They’re also the caste of household servants in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” They’ve also, in many a sermon, born the brunt of making the wrong choice.
That’s assuming, of course, that you see this little vignette as an either/or moment, where one is in the right and one, well, not so right. Listening to the teachings of Jesus are more important than the work of our daily lives.
What a useful scripture passage that would be for pastors! It sure seems as if Jesus is saying “whatever you’re doing that you think is so important, it’s not really. What’s really important is listening to the Good News from Jesus.” So, get thee to a church on Sunday morning!
But is that really the point?
Personally - and I know I’ve said it a lot - I don’t see Jesus as an either/or kind of guy. I think Jesus is an and/with. At the very least, I think Jesus means to say that, in this moment, I’d rather you stop working and visit with me, but I see that the work of hospitality is important. In fact, we need both and need to make time for both. “Look at my life,” Jesus would say, “look at my life.”
The word and the work need each other. There must be time for learning, for reflection, for rest, just as there is time for the hard work of healing, showing compassion, working for justice and helping the oppressed and broken down. Remember how we are all created with the divine spirit and of the earth?
And maybe the issue isn’t really the work itself anyway, it’s the distraction, how it’s overwhelmed Martha. Perhaps the real point here isn’t just the need for both, but the balance of both and the integration of both. That’s what makes wholeness in our lives.
Our lives. That’s another great feature of this story. It’s not two of the chosen disciples that are made an example. Neither is it two unnamed random characters who demonstrate it. It’s not a parable. It’s an encounter between Jesus and two women, they have names and they are family. The balance of word and work doesn’t just bring wholeness to our selves, but to our relationships, to our families, and to our world.