Sermon: 6 Pentecost—Year C—Proper 11
July 21, 2019 + William Bradbury
Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42
Luke gives us a recognizable domestic scene. Martha, who owns the house, is getting things ready to lay a spread for Jesus and his disciples. Maybe she starts the preparations with a light heart. Perhaps whistling while she works. But then it’s clear younger sister Mary is not showing up to help, and an old mental story gets launched about how lazy and useless Mary is. Finally, Martha glances into the main room and sees Mary sitting with Jesus and the other disciples and that pushes her over the edge!
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.” Martha is justified in her anger, but what isn’t obvious is why Jesus doesn’t get this. Is he just a typical “MAN”, a thick-headed “GUY” who has no clue how hard it is to feed 20 strangers? Did young Jesus never help Mary fix dinner when she was under stress or did he assume meals appear by magic?
I’ve had numerous women say to me after hearing this gospel that they are angry at Jesus for taking Mary’s side! Is Jesus really saying that what Mary is doing is more important than eating?
Which raises the question: what is Mary doing? Luke says she is sitting “at the Lord’s feet and listening to what he is saying.”
In Acts of the Apostles, chapter 22, Saint Paul is once again telling his story of transformation in Christ and he says, “I am a Jew from the city of Tarsus, but brought up in Jerusalem and educated at the feet of the famous rabbi Gamaliel”, which is to say Paul studied under Gamaliel to become a rabbi.
So, when we hear that Mary is “sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him”, Luke is telling us that Jesus has invited her to be his rabbinical student. But this is crazy because women then were not allowed to be rabbis.
Now, let’s be careful here and not swerve into anti-Jewish tropes about the status of women. Jewish women were not kept from learning, as we see the Taliban doing in Afghanistan, destroying schools for girls and occasionally shooting girls like Malala.
The gospels tell us that women attend synagogue, use their own money, and have conversations with rabbis. Also, from this story we see women, like Martha, could own their own home.
But it is true that Mary is going beyond the culture of the day, first in not helping her sister in the kitchen, but also in acting like a man, being trained as a rabbi. We’ve got to see the scandal of this, just as we need to see the scandal that the first person Jesus commissions as a witness to his resurrection is a woman, Mary Magdalene.
When Paul says that in Christ there is neither male or female this is what he is getting at. Unfortunately, as the church spreads it too soon reverts to the surrounding cultural norms, which keep women from teaching men and speaking their mind in church. We know this of course in our own day as some fail to see the fullness of the mystical vision that in Christ men and women share a common and equal humanity as bearers of the image of God.
But there is much more to see here: First, let’s be clear Jesus is not demeaning Martha and the role of domestic serving. Jesus in Mark 10 says he did not come to be serve, but to serve and on a Galilean hillside Jesus feeds 5000. Then at the Last Supper Jesus takes off his robe, dresses like a slave, and washes the disciples’ feet, saying he is giving them an example they should follow. Serving is central to Jesus’ mission as the Christ.
When Jesus says Mary “has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her”, I don’t believe he is saying it is morally superior to study with a rabbi than it is to prepare food for a rabbi.
Jesus’s issue with Martha is clear when he says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
Mary is listening to Jesus without worry and distraction. Martha is serving Jesus with worry and distraction. In other words, Martha, who may have started her work with a joyful heart, has now stepped out of the flow of God’s Presence—not that God has left her, but since she is now caught up by the story in her head, she has forgotten God and slipped into judgment and attack.
Martha is to be commended for offering hospitality to Jesus in the first place and now Jesus reaches out in compassion to her, pointing out how she is trapped by the judgmental story she is telling herself and how she might disconnect from it and find again her place and peace in God.
Mary chooses to listen to Jesus, while Martha chooses to listen to the voice in her head.
Of course, when we get caught by the voice in the head and its reactivity, it doesn’t feel like a choice, but like something that is being done to us.
Martha thinks Mary is causing her distress, but it is Martha’s internal reaction to Mary that is causing her distress. If she really needs help so the supper won’t be lost, she could kindly ask Mary for a few minutes of her time, or she could ask Mary Magdalene or even one of the guys, like Simon Peter—which would have been an interesting experiment in our oneness in Christ.
But Martha is too mad to calmly ask for help, so she engages in triangulation by asking Jesus to talk to her sister for her. This happens all the time in family, church and business, when instead of talking directly to the one with whom we have an issue, we talk to others who we then expect to side with us against our “enemy”. Triangulation is destructive to the Beloved Community Jesus wants to create.
One final thought: Last week Jesus tells the lawyer the parable of the Good Samaritan who helps the man in the ditch and concludes with, “Go and do likewise.”
But this week Jesus is telling Martha that it is essential to be still and listen.
The Martha and Mary story is not saying that being a contemplative, like a monk or nun, is better than being active in the world, like a parent raising a family. Rather, to take Jesus seriously is to recognize that listening to Jesus and serving Jesus are two sides of one coin. If we aren’t regularly being still and listening to Christ, our serving will become brittle and self-righteous. Likewise, if we aren’t regularly serving others, then our prayer life will become self-centered and sentimental, or disappear altogether.
It’s why, as I’ve said before, Richard Rohr named his center in Albuquerque the Center for Action and Contemplation and says the most important word in the name is “and”.
N. T. Wright also points out we need both, for without action we wouldn’t eat, and without prayer we wouldn’t worship.
Finally, the great teacher of preachers, the late Fred Craddock, says, “If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be ‘Yes’.” Interpretation Commentary on Luke, page 152