Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
21 July 2019
The audio recording for this sermon can be found here.
Recently, I’ve noticed an interesting trend among Christians to identify themselves as either a “Martha” or a “Mary.” If you’re a “Martha,” you’re the busy, active type, involved in various activities of the Church. If you’re a “Mary,” on the other hand, you’re the quiet, contemplative type, preferring to spend time in prayer and devotion. When we read today’s Gospel from Luke, we certainly get that kind of contrast between Martha and Mary; they appear to be two sisters with very different personalities. It also appears that Jesus favors Mary, privileging the life of contemplation over work.
When we delve deeper into the text, however, the story becomes a bit more complex. To begin with, there are certain rules of hospitality to consider. Martha and Mary have invited Jesus over for a meal, and it is their job as hosts to prepare the table. The fact is, both Martha and Mary can’t be sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him. Then who would prepare the food? At the same time, if Mary were to join Martha in the kitchen, that would leave Jesus to sit alone by himself. That wouldn’t be very polite either. In the story, both Martha and Mary are doing what they should be doing. Martha takes care of the food, and Mary keeps Jesus company.
The problem for Jesus is not that Martha is busy preparing; it is her attitude. We read in verse 40 that “Martha was distracted by her many tasks.” Martha is stressing out and irritated, and she complains to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself. Tell her then to help me.” But how does Jesus respond? Instead of sympathizing with Martha, he says: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.”
What, then, is this “one thing, the better part” that Mary has chosen? Biblical scholars believe that the reason Jesus holds up Mary in this story is not to argue for the primacy of the contemplative over the active life. The reason is actually much more profound and radical. When Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, she is physically assuming the position of a disciple. In first-century Judaism, disciples sit at the feet of their master to listen and learn. Mary is thus no longer just the host engaging in polite conversation with her guest; Mary is claiming her place as one of Jesus’ disciples, a follower of his teachings.
This would have been unthinkable for a woman at the time. Yet, for Jesus and the movement that he began, women disciples formed an integral part of his ministry. The Gospels mention by name several women followers of Jesus: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Mary the mother of James and Joses. Women stood at the cross, they were the first to enter the empty tomb, and it is Mary Magdalene who is the first among the followers to encounter the resurrected Jesus. Since then, over the past two thousand years of Christian history, countless women have become disciples and leaders in the Church. And they are only recently beginning to receive the recognition and credit that they deserve. Our seminarian, Isaac Petty, is currently taking a fascinating course on the Early Mothers of the Church. You’ve probably heard the names of such Church Fathers as Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose, but how many of you have heard of the Church Mothers – Macrina, Thekla, Melania, Paula? During the Middle Ages, the monastic life of the convent provided opportunities for leadership and scholarship for brilliant women like Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. In the modern period, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Protestant missionary movement inspired thousands of American and European women to fan out across the globe as teachers, preachers, nurses, and doctors – all of them disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church still has a long way to go in realizing gender equality, but at the same time we can rightfully claim a history of women’s liberation and empowerment.
If you would please indulge me, I would like to share a personal example and tell you about my maternal grandmother, Shin Ae Lee. She, too, was a disciple of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Grandmother was born in the early twentieth century into a privileged background. Her family belonged to the old, traditional Korean aristocracy. But like all women in Korea at that time, including high-born women, she was denied any form of education because of the prevailing Confucian patriarchy. She had to teach herself how to read and write. In Confucian Korea, women were valued only as wives and mothers, and even rudimentary learning was considered improper. Moreover, women were physically confined to certain quarters of the house and were not permitted to go outside unaccompanied. Grandmother had a hard life, including the death of three of her children in infancy. During the Korean War, she along with the rest of my mother’s family became war refugees and suffered hunger and grinding poverty. Fortunately, by the time I was born, Grandmother was able to enjoy more stable, prosperous times.
And late in her life, she found her calling to serve as a deacon in the Methodist Church. Grandmother committed herself to working in the various ministries of the church. Her special passion was evangelism. She even partnered with a minister to plant a new church that grew to several hundred members. I was born in Korea and came to the states when I was eight years old. When I was growing up in Korea, my maternal grandparents lived with us. In spite of Grandmother’s busy schedule, she made time to take me to church every Sunday and vacation Bible School every summer. She planted and nurtured in me the seeds of the Christian faith. Grandmother found personal liberation and empowerment in the Church. Like Mary in the Gospel story, Grandmother claimed her identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ in spite of the oppressive patriarchy of her society and culture. But she was no quiet, contemplative type. She had a strong personality, and she was so busy with church work every day that I rarely saw her at home. In temperament, she was a “Martha.”
To return to the Gospel story of Mary and Martha that we began with, Jesus holds up Mary for claiming her place as his disciple, but that doesn’t mean that Martha is to be dismissed. In fact, the Church remembers and honors both Mary and Martha with a feast day, coming up soon on July 29. According to tradition, Mary and Martha represent two inseparable dimensions of the Christian faith. Mary represents contemplation, a life of prayer and devotion. And Martha represents action, a life of good works and helping others. Or to put it another way, Mary embodies the love of God, and Martha embodies the love of neighbor. Christ calls us to follow the examples of both women, minus Martha’s attitude, of course. Our personalities and dispositions may incline us in one direction, but we cannot neglect the other. As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to both the contemplative and the active life. In loving God, we love our neighbor, and in loving our neighbor, we love God.
As we look to Mary and Martha as pioneers and models of our faith, I would like to close with the Collect that we pray on their Feast Day:
O God, heavenly Father, whose Son Jesus Christ enjoyed rest and refreshment in the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany: Give us the will to love thee, open our hearts to hear thee, and strengthen our hands to serve thee in others for his sake; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and forever. Amen.
 The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p.1875.
 Calendar of the Church Year, according to the Episcopal Church. satucket.com/Calendar.htm (accessed July 19, 2019).
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!