I prefer to think of Martha in slightly more generous terms than the Gospel credits her with today. Luke writes that Martha was “distracted by her many tasks,” but I don’t feel that truly honors Martha. Instead, I think of Martha as being focused. Focused on the tasks at hand that needed to be accomplished. Focused with a level of attention to detail that ordered her world. A level of attention that demanded that work was ordered to be done first, before leisure and relaxation could be had.
Perhaps, I want to think of Martha as misunderstood because I know exactly where Martha is coming from. In fact, without any context given in the story, I instantly think of Martha as the older of the two, with ne’er do well Mary, that irresponsible carefree sister, obviously representing the younger child. Now, this probably says more about myself and my own sibling relationship, than anything that is explicitly mentioned in the story but it strikes me that I would order them so. I find myself in Martha. I find myself respecting her commitment to the work that needs to be done. I find myself empathising with her request for assistance to fulfill the work that needs to be done. I understand her sense of responsibility, both her own, and the responsibility that her sister needs to honor to their relationship and their home in fulfilling her tasks. This responsibility comes out of a set of expectations for behavior and work, expectations that are thought to be shared, expectations that one feels must be met before time for rest, for sitting, for listening to a traveling teacher.
And, like Martha, I find that my singular focus is often misplaced, or at the very least, misguided, keeping me from seeing the moment for what it is, keeping me from seeing what is unfolding so graciously in front of me, keeping me from taking in a special moment in life. When your focus is misplaced, you often miss what is directly in front of you. When your focus is misplaced, you fall into the trap of being so singularly focused that you forget that there is more than one path, you forget that the journey can be just as important as the destination, you forget that the work of man is nothing if you don’t recognize Christ in your midst.
And, shockingly, you can learn something from your younger sibling. Mary does not just sit at the feet of Jesus and engage in idle conversation. Mary does not shirk her supposed responsibilities to take a break and chill out with a cool guy staying the night. Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. She listened with intent. She listened to the presence of God in her midst, she soaked up the experience with all that she had. She didn’t forget her responsibilities to her sister and their home, she just knew that this greater responsibility trumped any other tasks that could wait a day. Unlike Martha, Mary hears Christ, recognizes Christ, listens to Christ, and intimately knows Christ with immediacy, absorbing his teaching with the same passion and devotion that Martha holds for the responsibilities they have for their home.
When Martha sees this, she short-circuits a bit. Confused, frustrated, perhaps embarrassed at the gal that her sister would have to simply sit and listen to Jesus, Martha asks Jesus to admonish her sister, direct her back to the work at hand, direct her to fulfill the responsibilities that she has. But Jesus does no such thing. Instead, Jesus commends the actions of Mary, while drawing into focus the misplaced focus of Martha. It is not an admonition of Martha, but rather a reminder that in listening, we have to hear what is being said, not what we want to hear being said. It is a reminder to Martha that for all of her focus, intention, personal responsibility, she will miss life as it passes right by her if she cannot realize those special moments in life that are occurring right in front of her. She will miss life if she cannot open herself to truly hear and absorb what is being shared, rather than staying on the single-tracking of order, tasks, commitments, expectations.
When we fail to absorb, fail to truly hear what is being said, when we stay on our singular-track instead of sitting at the feet of someone desperately hoping to reach us and teach us a piece of their experience of the world, then we miss our chance to grow and be shaped by this world. Once again this week, Black Lives Matter has been answered (perhaps genuinely) with a retort of All Lives Matter. All Lives Matter is the retort of Martha. All Lives Matter is the retort of a singular-tracking mind that is focused on a certain order, responsibility, on fulfilling certain expectations. All Lives Matter is the retort of misplaced focus, misplaced importance. It is the result of failing to sit and listen. It is the result of misguided care at best, and you’d be hard pressed to not see it by now as downright negligence and even willful ignorance. Because, the Black Lives Matter campaign is not about black lives above all others. It is not even about specifying one group vs another, and claiming superiority therein. Rather, if you truly listen to what is being said, you will hear that Black Lives Matter is because for too long in this country black lives have not mattered, at least no where near as much as the lives of others in this country. It is because All Lives Matter that it is important to denote that Black Lives Matter too (and no one is saying that only black lives should matter), due to the fact that this does not appear to be the case yet in our society.
If you still need convincing, one of my favorite explanations of this Martha/Mary conundrum in hearing what is truly being said, in recognizing the world as it truly exists in front of you, rather than the world as you want to see it, comes from a webcomic addressing this issue. Two houses stand side by side, as one burns on fire. There is a cartoon character with a fire hose who states that All Houses Matter and thusly all houses should be treated equally regardless, and proceeds to douse the house that is perfectly fine as the other continues to burn. When you say All Lives Matter, no matter your intention, you are stripping away the fact that we should take special note of the lives of our black brothers and sisters in this country, lives that face greater risks as they try to go about their daily life. When you say All Lives Matter you fail to follow the example of Mary, you fail to open yourself to truly hear the teaching of Christ, you fail to open yourself to truly hear the teaching of Christ that comes from your neighbor.
And we must desire to open ourselves, open our hearts to hear each other truthfully, honestly. When we open ourselves to hear, when we let go of our single-tracking Martha selves and embrace the different responsibility we have to listen as illustrated by Mary, then we can truly hear the pain in another’s voice, hear the sorrow in their story, hear the joy in their journey, hear the teaching of Christ that comes through them. This teaching is enlightened through their sharing fully of themself, a sharing that can only be done when they know that they have a captive and engaged audience, an audience that is prioritizing the teaching that they are receiving in that moment over the general responsibilities they have on a regular basis. These are responsibilities that are not forgotten, simply reprioritized. These are responsibilities that can wait.
As Mary sits at the feet of Christ, she radically alters our understanding of where we need to put importance in our lives. Her radical act does not forgo all responsibilities for the rest of her life. Her radical act does not even say that those other distractions are unimportant in the big picture. But, it is in this special moment that Mary recognizes that sometimes we need to change our focus. We need to see the forest for the trees. This doesn’t mean that we should stop caring for the trees, but rather, we need to understand what our work is for. We need to understand that stopping and listening to Christ, listening to Christ in each other, enables us to see the bigger picture. It enables us to recognize that Christ is present amongst us. It enables us to take the opportunity to open ourselves, open our hearts, to truly listen to the message of Christ that is at work in this world.
It is sharing that message when we stand in solidarity in proclaiming Black Lives Matter. It is sharing that message when we actively challenge the Martha’s of this world that wish to proclaim All Lives Matter. It is sharing that message that All Lives matter has never been an acceptable response because it maliciously misses the point. It misses Christ’s call to this world. It is a distraction. It keeps us from recognizing Christ as he sits in our home, teaching, while we do the busywork of that home around him. It keeps us from learning, from growing, from being made whole with our neighbor through Christ. That should be our goal. It is attainable. If only we remember that our chance to be a Mary can come at any time, in any place, and we just need to accept this and listen to Christ in our midst.