9th Sunday after Pentecost
July 21, 2013
Luke 10: 38-42
Mary and Martha. Here’s another familiar story, one that has caused a great deal of handwringing in some quarters. I don’t know about you, but every time this story is read in a group of women – certainly women of my mother’s age and often women of my own age – they get defensive. “So who’s supposed to prepare the meal for Jesus?” they ask. “What’s wrong with asking for help from a sister who is ignoring her duty, even if it is to sit at Jesus’s as a student and soak up everything he has to say?”
This story needs some serious unpacking if it’s not going to be heard as Jesus scolding Martha for fixing dinner for him, and telling her that her work is not important. Although the women in the modern age want to defend Martha from this supposed put-down, that’s not always the way Martha was perceived. The Mediaeval mystics saw Martha as the competent housewife, picturing her with a bound dragon at her feet. She has successfully conquered the old order and is the champion of powerful women. In John’s Gospel Martha comes out to debate with Jesus as he arrives late at Lazarus’ bedside. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Martha is also the one – according to John the Evangelist – who confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. So what’s the deal, here? What is the better part Jesus is talking about that Mary has chosen? What is the problem with Martha?
We’ve been talking about hospitality for the last several weeks, without really highlighting it as the major theme. As the seventy are sent out, they are sent without resources, expected to engage people in the towns and villages where they go and to accept the hospitality that is offered them. Those who offer hospitality to them are to receive blessings for welcoming Jesus’ disciples and the messengers of God’s Good News. The story of the Good Samaritan is also deeply engaged in the theme of hospitality. The priest and the Levite ignored the needs of their fellow countryman, leaving him without resources. The Samaritan, the least likely candidate to offer hospitality, is the one who stops and not only binds his wounds, but gives him a safe place to recover, probably at considerable expense. And don’t forget that the Good Samaritan story also tells us that when we are in need, hospitality may not come from the place we expect, or from someone who is comfortable for us.
Stop a minute and think about how you would want to welcome Jesus into your home for dinner. What would your hospitality look like?
My friend, Larry, the best cook I knew invited me and a few of our friends into his kitchen for cooking lessons. We learned how to use a chef’s knife, how to flame a sauce and make Lemon Mousse for dessert. Larry was the ultimate dinner host, and he taught us to season the salad in the kitchen so that no one saw your secret ingredients, and then to mix in the dressing at the table to serve it so that you could be part of the party. He taught us to prepare almost everything ahead of time so that you spent the time with your guests. Larry spent most of his time at the table with his guests, so that he didn’t feel cut off from the fun he had prepared.
Poor Martha. She got stuck in the kitchen and then tried to triangulate Jesus into her unhappiness by asking him to send in her sister. One thing I’ve learned as a hostess and as a housekeeper is that it is easy to get stuck. Planning goes awry and there you are, cut off from all the fun and making yourself crazy. Could Jesus have been reminding her that there were other options, and that she had gotten so overwhelmed she had lost track of them?
And Mary…is it really better to choose to be with a guest at the expense of serving a guest? Somehow the Reformers took this story to mean that Martha failed because she was trying to please Jesus with her good works, and what was really needed was trust in Jesus’ work and words as the “one thing needful.” I’m not sure about it, but I think I’d come down on the side of my mother and her injured friends who wanted to know if Jesus and his disciples were willing to go without dinner so that Mary and Martha could sit at his feet to learn from him.
If we are ever going to step outside of the old arguments and injuries to find something useful for us in this story, I’d like to suggest this: contemplation and action in the Christian life is not an either/or proposition. Contemplation, sitting at Jesus’ feet to hear his words, without ever rising up to have Jesus’ love and grace propel us into service to others is not enough. Neither is getting so involved in serving the world that we forget that we serve others because we see Jesus in them, and we respond to Jesus’ love with overflowing love toward the world. It is said that on the wall of the tubs in which Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity washed the bodies of the dying was a sign which read, “This is my body.”
If your gift to Christ’s body in the world is service, remember that your service is anchored in study and prayer, because otherwise you get distracted and frustrated and forget the gift you are. If your gift is prayer and study, remember that your invitation is to share your love of the Word with those who have not heard it and to carry in prayer those who depend on the service of your gift. For no matter what your gift – service or prayer – the roots of our gifts are in God’s love and grace. Neither of these gifts stands alone. We do not earn anything by our service nor do we gain anything by our prayer, if we do not see that our part in God’s work in the world is because of God’s invitation. We are forgiven our failures to stay rooted in God’s love, not because of how hard we are trying, but simply because God loves us. Our gifts of service and prayer are meant to flow from our gratitude for the love and mercy we have received.
How is it that God’s love for the world is mediated in our prayer and service? Kind of funny, but that’s the way it is. How will you welcome Jesus in the stranger, in the guest, in those you love and cherish? How will you use your gratitude for God’s overwhelming love for you, as you look out at a needy world? What is the better part you are called to choose? Amen.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.