Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
1. This week’s gospel, the story of Mary and Martha, is the second of two stories about the kingdom of God, about listening and not listening to the good news of what it really is, what really is, what we really are. It is also the second of two illustrations of the summary of the law: Love God, and love your neighbor.
Last week we listened in as a lawyer asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He himself supplied the answer:
Love God, and love your neighbor. These are the first and greatest commandment, and the second, which is like unto it. “Do this, and you will live.” But then, because the lawyer wanted to secure his hold on the kingdom, he asked Jesus to clarify his terms. “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, and the lawyer learned there is more to the kingdom than fulfilling his obligation under the law.
In this week’s story, of Martha and Mary, we have another chance to see what the kingdom is – and more explicitly, who Jesus is. We see a woman being reminded of the first law, the love of God: the very reason for what we do, for all that we do, is the love of God.
There are two sisters. Mary takes the place of a disciple, sitting at Jesus’ feet. Martha -- distracted and worried by many things -- objects to this.
What she is doing is fine, in a way: it is the ordinary task of an ordinary day in an ordinary household. This is, however, no ordinary day: Messiah has come and he is under our roof, at this very moment. Rabbi is teaching: what are you doing in the kitchen when you could be listening, picking up pearls as they fall from his lips?
For a woman to take the place of a disciple was NEW: it was unexpected, unheard of. Jesus’ message of the kingdom breaks down traditional barriers. The love he shares with Martha, Mary, and us is so expansive, so outrageous, and so extraordinary that it overflows. The channels of ordinary piety cannot contain the Spirit. It floods into our lives. This is no ordinary day.
Maybe that makes Martha a little nervous. Maybe that is why she is busying herself among the pots and pans. She is doing hospitality – at a moment when the one thing necessary is to wait – to wait not on tables but to wait on the Lord, to listen to what the Lord is saying. To see that this is the day when righteousness and peace embrace: the kingdom has come to our house, Martha, and it is time to rejoice.
2. Like the lawyer Martha made a good effort. She wanted to do what is right. She may even have wanted, as the lawyer who asked the question did, to inherit eternal life. What is missing is that you do not earn your way into heaven. You celebrate its arrival in the midst of you. It is present, even in an ordinary day, even in the completion of ordinary duties. But when the day comes to listen to the Lord, take off your apron, drop the duster, set down your pen, turn off your computer, hang up your cellphone, and sit at Jesus’ feet.
Our culture values the doer. We say: “Come on, let’s get going; let’s get something done.” We get up early so we can ride the elevator up to the twelfth floor with the boss. At least I have. We spend our week getting things done, and at the end lean back in satisfaction at what we have accomplished. At least I have. But then on that same Friday evening, in the very next moment, I asked myself: What was this all for? Have I lost track of the very reason for what I was doing, as I was so busy doing business? Do I need to step back, take a long look, and remember why I am here?
The lawyer meant well but he may have forgotten the relationship, to God and the neighbor, which was the reason behind the rules. Jesus breaks the rules; but he fulfills the Law. He reinstates the relationship between God and us. He reminds us why we are here. And he does it in part by overcoming judgment with mercy, by showing us the outrageous abundance and the exuberant overflowing of the kingdom of Heaven. Remember this is the Christ who, presented with the need to feed five thousand, had them sit down and share five loaves and two fish – and they all were well fed. Maybe Martha is worrying too much.
3. Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying, took a disciple’s place. Martha, on the other hand, was “distracted and anxious” about many things.
“Mary has chosen the better part” – there is that word “chosen”. As Canon Lynell Walker has pointed out, the good news is that you can choose, that your time has come, that now it is your turn to be in the presence of the Lord. The part “which will not be taken away from her” – what is that? As Dean Brian Baker sees it, clearly Jesus is only there for the night but the Word of God will remain forever … as will the Spirit.
4. By the oaks of Mamre – the scene of this morning’s Old Testament lesson – Abraham, the exemplar of faith, saw three strangers approach. He was host to the three men. Sarah, in the tent, made cakes; a servant prepared a calf; and Abraham served the men himself, standing by them under the tree while they ate. One promised to return in due season, and that Sarah should have a son. [Sarah laughed.]
This is the classic example of Middle Eastern hospitality – the welcome to strangers, preparing them food. The blessing in return, here a promise of children – and thus a future with hope – is probably characteristic too: but here it has a larger purpose. The three men represent the three persons of the Godhead, indeed icons of this scene are entitled “The Old Testament Trinity”.
So here we have the image of hospitality – and the roles of men and women – that Martha and Mary and Jesus grew up with. For Mary to break with this pattern was a surprise. Yet here she is, sitting at the feet of the Lord and listening to what he is saying: she has taken her place among the disciples. This, even though tradition would indicate that those who sit in the presence of the guest would be men – the man of the house – and that the women would like Martha concern themselves with children, church, kitchen. … leaving the men to themselves to discuss man stuff like … what?
Is the Messiah here only for men? Is the Kingdom of Heaven exclusive? No, in one situation after another we see Jesus break the rules. The kingdom of heaven is for all people. He is here to announce it, to proclaim it, to manifest it, to usher it in.
So this is not your typical guest, nor your typical meal. The occasion is extraordinary. Jesus, the Messiah, is here present now in Martha (and Mary’s) living room. What to do?
Maybe it’s all a bit upsetting. I mean, Jesus breaks the rules. Who knows what he’ll do to my life? Maybe he’ll change it all around, stretch my boundaries, and eliminate my preconceptions. Maybe he’ll call me to some new level of service of which I’m afraid.
Martha may want a bit of business, ordinary business in the household, to occupy her hands while her mind races to take it all in. What we hear from her, though, is a plea: Lord, make my sister come help me in the kitchen.
Is this what you would ask Messiah for? If he were to come to dinner today at your home, what would you say to him?
“My Lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree…”
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
And what will he reply to you? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
5. I used to read a lot of mysteries. Mysteries come in several sorts. There are puzzle mysteries, like Agatha Christie novels. There are mysteries that present problems to solve, situations to investigate, and secrets to be discovered. There are stories to be told. Some mysteries are only resolved in the telling of the story. And some mysteries are only fully revealed as they are lived. “The mystery that has been hidden through the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints,” – “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” – is one of these last. To begin to tumble to the truth, in this story, takes all your living. God, who was present to Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Martha, is present to you, now, this morning.
Your freedom to act is in the present moment. It is today not yesterday or tomorrow that you receive the divine invitation. Now it is your turn. Today you are invited to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what the Lord is saying. This morning he has come to your tent – and he is here to share with you a meal. The cup is your salvation and the bread his presence.
Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (SPCK, 2001)
Herbert O'Driscoll, The Word Today: Reflections on the Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3 (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2001)
Herbert O'Driscoll, Patrick's Well (www.herbodriscoll.com)
Barbara Crafton et al., Geranium Farm (www.geraniumfarm.org)
Arthur J. Dewey, The Word in Time (New Berlin, WI: Liturgical Publications, 1990)
Sharon H. Ringe, Luke, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Thomas W. Walker, Luke, Interpretation Bible Studies (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001)
Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990)
Michael F. Patella, O.S.B., The Gospel According to Luke, The new Collegeville Bible commentary, New Testament; v. 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press)
Keith F. Nickle, Preaching the Gospel of Luke: Proclaiming God's Royal Rule (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
Common Worship (Church of England, 2000) http://www.cofe.anglican.org/worship/liturgy/commonworship/
The Book of Common Prayer (Church of England, 1662)
Oremus Bible Browser http://bible.oremus.org/
Stephanie Frey, “Living with Martha (Luke 10:38-42)”, Living by the Word, The Christian Century Magazine, July 13, 2004