A watched pot never boils. Actually, it does eventually boil. It just seems like it never will. For me, the most frustrating part is that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make it boil faster. In the fullness of time, it will boil.
But I have also learned that a watched pot doesn’t catch on fire. Or melt. Yes, I melted a pot once. I used to have a stainless steel Farberware double boiler, two pots designed to fit together so that the bottom could be filled with water to cook whatever’s in the top pot without direct heat. But rice pudding takes a long time to cook, and if you don’t keep checking on it, the water can boil out of the bottom pot, and when the water boils out…well, I happen to know that if it stays dry long enough, the pot melts. The bottom layer of metal melted off and pooled down in the underside of the burner. One of my more spectacular cooking fails.
The problem is that some things just take time. Both of the activities in today’s story take time. Cooking and listening. Maybe the challenge is figuring out the right time, and trusting that the Holy Spirit helps do this. Though Psalm 31:15 says that our time is in God’s hands, we do get to choose how we use our time. Mary has chosen to listen to Jesus, while Martha is doing her best to be a good host.
If we were telling this story today, we could talk about Marvin and Ivan instead of Mary and Martha, but in Jesus’ time, gender mattered. Mary would normally not be allowed to join the men. The Talmud says that “If a man teaches his daughter Torah, it’s as if he’s teaching her foolishness.” The thinking was that women were intellectually unable to understand the intricacies of the Torah and Talmud, so the rabbis believed that if they taught their daughters Torah it would be as if they were teaching them to sin. But Jesus knows better and welcomes Mary.
Hospitality was a high value for Eastern culture. Even today in Palestine, the traditional women’s role is to do all of the cooking and food preparation. It is very unusual for Palestinian women to join male guests before they are done with all the food preparation. Failing to be a good hostess means disrespecting the guest.
Martha was doing her best to take good care of her guests, especially since one of them was Jesus. In John 11:27, we see that Martha knows how special Jesus is. She says, “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.” Given all this, it’s not surprising that Martha was complaining about Mary. She expected Jesus to agree with tradition and send Mary back to the kitchen.
William Barclay, the Scottish theologian who wrote a popular commentary series on the New Testament, calls this story a “clash of temperaments.” Mary is a contemplative; Martha is an active doer. God needs both kinds of people.
But Barclay also thinks that Martha is out of line in this situation because she’s showing the “wrong kind of kindness.” She’s doing what she thinks needs to be done without considering what would serve her guest Jesus best based on his current needs. Barclay suggests that at this time, with the cross looming in the near future, that Jesus needed peace more than fuss. If that’s true, then Martha was doing things her way, not necessarily Jesus’ way.
I can relate to wanting less fussing. When I was around eight years old, I got invited to spend the night at my friend’s house. Nothing unusual about that. The complicating factor was that I had a broken leg in a cast. My friend’s mom couldn’t stop fussing over me, worried about taking care of my leg. All her fussing was getting in the way of spending time with my friend. I just wanted her to leave us alone to play. Thankfully, eventually, she did.
Listening to the needs of the guest can be a deeper level of hospitality than assuming that we know what the person wants or needs. The author Priya Parker is a professional facilitator who wrote a book we talked about last year called The Art of Gathering. Parker says that when we’re hosting a gathering we tend to focus on the wrong things, like nailing the perfect recipe or having the perfectly decorated meeting space, when instead our focus should be on the people.
Parker says that one of the best gatherings she ever attended was a boar hunt in Tuscany, a day-long event, which began with the group chatting and joking, then three or four hours of hunting, and a community feast that night with food and wine…As they looked for the boar…one man told Parker how much the group meant to him. “He started crying and he said, ‘My wife died last year, and she was my entire world … If I didn’t have this boar-hunting club, I don’t know what I would have done. But this is my community, and this is where I belong. They check in on me; they greet me; they ask how I’m doing.’”
The opposite end of the spectrum, Parker says, are gatherings in which people “are not honored or respected or seen.” “I’ve been invited to places where you feel like people want you at their party because they’re afraid of people not showing up, and you’re a body in the room,” she said. “And when you actually show up, they pay no attention to you — they’re just delighted that they got a lot of people in the room. And on some level, you feel used.”
People are more important than just bodies in a room. When we pay attention to what people experience when they are with us, we can make sure we’re helping them know they are loved. Maybe Martha thought she was doing this.
Some people look at today’s Bible story and think that Jesus is telling us to live a contemplative life. John Calvin, the classic theologian, disagreed. He pointed out that we are only getting a momentary view of Mary. This doesn’t mean that she did this her whole life. There is a time for hearing and a time for doing. In this moment, with Jesus, the Son of God, speaking, hearing the word of God is more important.
But we don’t know what happens next. The story stops with Jesus telling Martha to let Mary be. Maybe the next thing Jesus said was, “Martha, you don’t have to do this now or do it alone. Let’s talk for a while and then we’ll all pitch in and get it done.” Both the hearing and doing can happen.
There was a group of retired men in Spokane Washington who would gather one day a week to do repairs around the church or to help in the community. They were well-known for their bright red caps with the logo “Happy Helpers.” Before they tackled repairs, they would take some time to support each other. Their leader said, “I always tell the group not to lose track of the thought that the first reason for life is fellowship.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put quite that way, but I would agree that people matter to God. It’s why Jesus tells us to love one another.
We might not ever be able to eliminate all the things in our lives those things that can draw our attention away from God, but, we can try to be more like Mary, taking time to pay attention to what God is saying and doing in our lives. We’re doing that right now, spending time in worship. It’s one of the reasons we have religious communities, to help one another seek and stay on track with God.
Maybe the hardest reality of life is that God lets us choose. That’s what strikes me most about today’s story.
“Mary has chosen…” (Luke 10:42)
In the version we read today, the NLT doesn’t use the word “chosen.” It says, “Mary has discovered…” One of the reasons it’s helpful to compare different versions is that their word choices can change our understanding of a verse. In this case, we could argue that the NLT might have made a better choice to stick with the word “chosen.”
We want to make the right choice, but the right choice isn’t always obvious. Sometimes there is more than one right choice. The first time someone pointed out to me that God often lets us choose, I had to choose between two different job offers. Both offered good money and benefits. I agonized over this decision for days. I made pro and con lists. I talked with family and friends. I pleaded with God to make it clear which one was the godly choice. I talked with my pastor, and he suggested that maybe they were both equally good and God was letting me choose which one I wanted.
Earlier in Luke Chapter 10, we read about Jesus sending out the disciples on a mini mission trip. They come back reporting that they had great success and Jesus is joyful at their willingness, saying, “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike.” (Luke 10:21) Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet is like what a child would do at story time. God reveals spiritual wisdom to the childlike, to those who humble themselves and listen.
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (1 Peter 5:6, NIV).
Often we hear discussions about today’s scripture in which we’re told that we need to be more like Mary. But maybe it’s not that simple. We get to choose. Depending on the situation, maybe we need to be more like both.
Maybe it’s like making French toast. Remember I said at the beginning that I melted that pan? I’ve also caught lots of things on fire. My problem is that things take time to cook, and so I would go do something else while they were cooking, but then I’d forget about them and leave them too long. So I’ve learned to do the dishes while I’m waiting, so that I’m still in the kitchen keeping an eye on whatever’s cooking, letting it take the time that it needs to take, but not leaving it so long that it catches on fire.
The problem with French toast isn’t so much that it catches on fire, but that it needs time to soak. If you just dip the bread in the egg, then it only coats the outside, and the inside is still just plain bread. But the longer you let it soak up the egg, the more it changes the inside so that it’s more like custard.
It’s the same for us. The more we take the time to soak up the Holy Spirit through God’s word, through conversations, through all the ways we listen and learn from God, the more we are changed to be more like custard….no, just kidding…to be more like Jesus, and the more we can trust that the Holy Spirit is working in us, guiding our decisions and our actions and our words.
It takes a lifetime, but in the fullness of time, we can be confident in the words of Philippians 1:6 that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Thanks be to God.
 Martha and Mary, Source: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48311, Artist: JESUS MAFA project, accessed at https://www.liturgytools.net/2016/07/pictures-16th-sunday-ordinary-time-year-c-martha-and-mary-at-home-jesus-friendship-hospitality-to-the-lord.html
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, Saint Andrew Press, 1956, pg. 144.
 As quoted by Meera Jagannathan at https://www.marketwatch.com/story/heres-how-to-host-a-dinner-party-or-meeting-thats-not-completely-lame-2018-05-18-1884855
 Meera Jagannathan, Ibid.
 John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. III, and the Epistles of James and Jude, trans. A. W. Morrison (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 89. As quoted in Feasting on the Gospels–Luke, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition, location 10561.
 Fairless, John; Chilton, Delmer. The Lectionary Lab Commentary: With Stories and Sermons for Year C (p. 246). The Lectionary Lab Press. Kindle Edition
 Fairless, John; Chilton, Delmer. Ibid. (pp. 246-247).