Forget Martha; Be Like Lazy Mary and Jester Jesus (Sunday Homily)

un tal

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18: 1-10A; Ps. 15: 2-5; Col. 1: 24-28; Lk. 10: 38-42.

What do you think you’ll regret most as you lay dying? If you’re like most, it will be that you spent too much time at your day job – too much time working and not enough time socializing and enjoying life. Study after study affirms that.

Commenting on this regret, one Hospice nurse said:

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

I’ll bet almost everyone reading this can relate to those words and would like to avoid final regrets about overwork.

Problem is: our culture sets overwork as an ideal. In fact, we’re taught to prize overwork. This is especially true of “American” culture where unlike our European counterparts, we spend an average of three hours per week more on the job. That adds up to something like a month more of work each year than our Europeans sisters and brothers. Most important, Americans take fewer (and shorter) vacations. The average American takes off less than six weeks a year; the average Frenchman almost 12. Swedes take the longest vacations – 16 ½ weeks per year.

Today’s gospel reading from Luke urges us to correct our tendency to overwork before it’s too late. In doing so, it directs our attention to the counter-cultural nature of Jesus’ teachings.

Yes, Jesus was extremely counter-cultural. We shouldn’t forget that. As Deepak Choprapoints out (in his The Third Jesus), the Sermon on the Mount, which captures the essence of Jesus’ wisdom, has him explicitly telling his disciples not to earn a living, save money, plan ahead or worry about the future. Of course, most of us don’t listen to Jesus when he says things like that.

And did you notice the description of the “Just Person” in today’s responsorial psalm? Man or woman, they harm no one, do not slander, speak ill of no one, and refuse to accept bribes. All of that raises no eyebrow. We yawn: none of that seems particularly counter-cultural.

But how about, “They lend not money at usury?” What about that? Yes, lending at interest is considered robbery and is forbidden in the Bible. (What if all Christians (and Jews) kept that commandment? Our world with its economy based on credit and interest, would be entirely different.)
The world would also be different – our lives would not be the same – if we acted like Mary instead of Martha.

The misdirection of traditional sermons obscures that possibility. Customarily homilists understand the story of Martha and Mary in a strictly spiritual sense. Their commentaries use the two sisters to compare the active and the contemplative lives – as though poor Martha stood for lay people having to wait on others with no time for prayer like the more otherworldly Mary. Martha’s sister “choses the better part” like a contemplative “religious” eschewing “the world of work” and spending their time pondering the spiritual teachings of Jesus and living a life rapt in prayer and contemplation.

I used to think that too – until I read Un Tal Jesus (“A Certain Jesus”) written by Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother, Jose Ignacio. (The book has been translated into English under the title Just Jesus.) The authors are Cuban and now live in Nicaragua. Maria is a former nun; Jose Ignacio, a former priest.

Together the Lopez-Vigils created a series of radio programs broadcast all over Latin America. The shows dramatized the four gospels and presented a very human Jesus – the one who emerges from recent scholarship on the historical Jesus.

In Un Tal Jesus, Jesus is black, has a winning smile, and a very down-to-earth sense of humor. (The photo at the top of this blog entry shows Jesus as depicted in the Lopez-Vigil’s book.) The human Jesus portrayed in that radio series scandalized many and inspired even more throughout the Latin world and beyond.

As the Lopez-Vigils envision it, today’s episode takes place in a Bethany tavern owned by Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. It’s a place of eating, drinking and lodging for travelers. It’s a place of laughter, joking, over-eating and drunkenness. And Jesus is right there in the middle of it all.

Passover is approaching, and the inn is full of pilgrims. It’s steamy, noisy, and loud. Martha is on the job, waiting on tables and controlling the rest of the staff. Meanwhile Mary (whom scholars increasingly identify with Mary Magdalene, Jesus closest female companion) is distracted by conversation with Jesus, who is bantering with his friends.

And what are they talking about? Religion? God? Spirituality? No, they’re joking. Jesus is posing riddle after riddle. And Mary finds it completely entertaining. In part, their dialog goes like this:

Jesus: What’s as small as a mouse but it guards the house like a lion. One, two, three: Guess what it is!
Mary: Small as a rat…and…it’s a key! I guessed it, I guessed it!
Jesus: Listen to this one: It’s as small as a nut, has no feet but can climb a mountain.
Mary: Wait… a nut going up the mountain…a snail!…Ha, ha, ha, tell me another one!
Jesus: You won’t guess this one right. Listen well: It has no bones, it is never quiet, with edges sharper than scissors.
Mary: It has no bones… I don’t know…
Jesus: It’s your tongue, Mary, which never rests!

Well, Mary and Jesus might have found that sort of patter entertaining, but Martha did not. She’s in charge of the inn and is worried about her guests waiting impatiently for their food while bread is burning in the oven. So she makes her complaint to Jesus: “Stop your chatter and let my sister do her job!” It’s then that Jesus makes that remark about Mary’s choosing the better part. She’s chosen socializing and play over work.

Does that scandalize you – Jesus distancing himself from work? Well, it seems completely consistent with what I said about Jesus earlier. It coincides with his general approach to work, money, profit, saving, and anxiety about the future.

What difference would it make in our own lives if we accepted that message: socializing, community, and fun are more important than work? What difference would it make in our culture if, in a context of widespread unemployment we elected candidates advocating “spreading the work around,” spreading the money around, shortening the work week, and affording us more time with friends and family, eating, drinking, joking, and playing?

What difference would it make to us on our death beds?

What do you think?

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

6 thoughts on “Forget Martha; Be Like Lazy Mary and Jester Jesus (Sunday Homily)”

  1. I love it! I sometimes joke to friends, “I retired early – when I was six years old.” The real joke is that I actually did. I rejected the money driven role my parents and society had prepared for me, and never looked back. Of course I got a lot of flack from the Marthas of this culture. They tried to shame me and threaten me every way they could, but I refused to bend to their joyless way of life. Was my life one long party? No, in some ways I had more than my share of suffering, but it was not the quiet resignation that comes from living a life based on someone else’s wishes and ideas. My freedom from conventional life was not cost free. But I would never dream of going back and caving in and conforming to what was essentially a death-culture that was offered to me. I tried to “follow my bliss” as elusive as it often turned out to be….


    1. Congratulations, Mike.I’d like to hear more. How did you manage to follow that bliss. In some ways, I think I have done the same. Peggy and I often agree that we’ve been incredibly blessed by “falling into” academia and getting paid for reading books, braveling, having interesting conversations with students and colleagues, and trying to implement in community what we’ve learned in the process. A colleague of mine has said, “I’m the laziest man in the world with the easiest job in the world.” In some ways, I must agree as that sentence applies to me. However (as you say) the who process was not cost free. Still it wasn’t as high as I’ve seen others pay. Please let me (us) know more. With your permission, it might be interesting to post your observations on the blog.


  2. Agree with mikeK’s focus here: ” …the quiet resignation that comes from living a life based on someone else’s wishes and ideas.” There’s no way to prove this theory under current educational systems, but I suspect if Montessori were the educational ideal, there would be more people in touch with their own wishes, ideas, ideals, and in possession of the technical skills needed to turn dreams into reality.

    Disagree with the focus on “work/overwork” as a source of pain. If you are skilled at handling the physical universe, and possess the education and tools to rework reality, it is an expression of joy in life to work at full capacity with energetic dedication.

    I’m not dead yet. While I still possess a functional body and the privilege of living in a temperate climate, I’ll work as hard as I can, and take pleasure in doing so! And who knows what waits on the other side. Some people claim that those on the other side work harder than we do, and if we knew what goes on, we’d be giving our all to this life…. but I can’t prove that, either. Just a guess. I don’t want to regret having wasted minutes, hours, days or years…


    1. I agree, Mary. Many of us find pleasure in what others might describe as overwork. That’s terrific. Still for so many people work in our system (if they’re fortunate enough to have it) is joyless and filled with resentment and exploitation. There’s something good about “choosing the better part” as described in the Martha and Mary contrast.


  3. When we stop asking our Inner Spirit “what do you want me to do today, for whom?” is the immediate cause for regrets. If at the end of the day we have asked, and listened, and done, the only regret will be that we could not do more … of whatever it is.

    Last night we played Cards Against Humanity until midnight with friends and family. 🙂



    1. Good for you, Hank. Our world needs a lot less work and more fun. I was just reading this morning that early hunters and gatherers worked about 15 hours a week in order for their families to subsist. The rest of the time they did arts, crafts, enjoyed spiritual ecstasy, swam, ran, made love, played and goofed around.


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