The Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine
10:38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42, NRSV)
Let us pray: O Lord our God, your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Give us grace to receive your truth in faith and love, that we may be obedient to your will and live always for your glory; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
The past few weeks have been heart wrenching in our nation. Two more African American men – Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota – were both shot and killed by police. Racial tensions already at a boiling point were pushed even further the very next day by the senseless slaughter of 5 policemen in Dallas, Texas. These are very violent and troubled days in our country. As a Christian, I have wondered how God’s word is relevant to our situation and can it offer us any realistic words of hope for our racial tensions?
As we head into the Republican National Convention, our nation is both hurting and anxious. Hurting over the death and destruction of senseless gun violence and anxious to see what will happen next. I am not trying to pick on either side, Republican or Democrat, but my goodness are these two really our best choices? The things thought and said by each candidate leave one shaking their head and questioning, “Really?” It is truly an uneasy time in our nation. As a Christian, I have wondered how God’s word is relevant to our situation and can it offer us any realistic words of hope for our political tensions?
And another terrorist attack, this time in Nice, France. 85 people dead when an Islamic terrorist drove a truck through a crowd gathered to enjoy Bastille Day fireworks. As a Christian, I have wondered how God’s word is relevant to our situation and can it offer us any realistic words of hope for our religious and national tensions?
Luke tells us that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and one day he comes to a certain village where two sisters; Mary and Martha live. Jesus stops at Martha’s home. Martha’s sister, Mary, was also there. It seems like a tame story about hospitality offered to Jesus but it turns out that this in home visit is filled with tension.
Here is what happened to cause the great stress in the story: Martha welcomes Jesus into her home, she takes the initiative, and begins preparing a meal for him. It was her nature to be welcoming and hospitable to her guests, feeding them and providing for their needs. Martha is fulfilling the expectations that her culture has for women; making sure supper was on the table, making sure that the needs of the guests were taken care, and making sure that the household ran smoothly. Martha is doing her best to show hospitality to Jesus and to make him feel at home. But as she ran around preparing food, her sister Mary does something unusual. Normally in the ancient world, all of the adult women would have shared in the responsibility for preparing a meal, but not Mary. Instead she chooses to sit quietly at Jesus’ feet and listen to what Jesus is saying.
Martha in her busyness to prepare the food realizes that her sister is not helping her. So, when Martha reaches her tipping point, she goes directly to Jesus and complains about her sister not helping. Martha says, “Lord, don’t you care?” “Don’t you care that my sister (Mary) has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”
This story of Mary and Martha is full of contrasts; which one is better? Mary the contemplative one or Martha the active one? Which one is doing the right thing? Mary or Martha? It calls into question: birth order, personalities and family dynamics.
I have preached on this text many times before and I have always seen the point of the story as Mary’s attention to Jesus’ teaching is better and more important than Martha’s busy work. While that is a good interpretation it is difficult for me personally because I am much better at doing something than simply sitting still. When I am given the choice between sitting quietly and reflecting on life or being active and doing something, I choose being active. But Jesus seems to be praising Mary for her attentive listening over Martha’s action, service and hospitality. Martha was doing what was expected of her while Mary was breaking the rules.
Women were not supposed to sit with men, women were supposed to be like Martha, prepare the meal, serve the meal to the men, and leave the men so that they could listen. That was the expectation. But Mary did the unexpected and took the position of a disciple listening to Jesus teach. Martha was doing “women’s work,” while Mary was breaking tradition and doing “men’s work.”
The Gospel of Luke is seen as presenting a more “progressive” view of women, as Luke seems to value women as important as he regularly shows women in key supportive roles such as providing resources, money and hospitality to the men who followed Jesus in his mission and ministry.
So, here is Mary, breaking with tradition and taking her place with the men listening and learning, right alongside them. That is when Martha complains and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help out. Notice Jesus response, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Wow! What could he mean? The better part?
Maybe “the better part” is not about the difference between Martha and her work and Mary and her reflection because we need both to make the world go around – instead could it be that Mary has seen the possibility of doing something different?
Could Jesus be praising Mary for breaking with tradition and stepping into a new role that opens the way for new possibilities? Maybe when Mary took that bold step to sit at Jesus’ feet she is opening up a whole new way to view the world? Perhaps she was able to see things she could have never seen, or heard or understood before? Maybe Mary understands that Jesus is the better part because he is the one promises all things are possible. So, maybe, just maybe Jesus’ is trying to stretch our imagination to see what is possible in our own lives.
And all of this draws us back to the tragic events of the past few weeks. Take for example, the growing number of protests in our nation. I would like to believe that at their heart protests and marches are a positive but so often they are over taken by those with other agendas; those who wish to do violence or mayhem or looting. At their best protests and marches are a way to be seen, a cry to be heard, and opportunity to be noticed. It is a group of people gathered together trying to voice concerns to a culture and a government that seemingly pays no attention to them. While I believe that all lives matter it seems to me that Black Lives Matter less than other lives do. And it doesn’t stop there. The horrific violence earlier this summer and the massacre in the LGBTQ bar in Orlando, Florida, the growing resistance to admitting refugees to our country, the dirtiness and pettiness of this Presidential election, all of these are part and parcel outgrowths of our culture and our government and our way of living that doesn’t want “to see, or accept, or welcome, or value” others that are not like us.
While we are so busy drawing and redrawing lines between saying who’s in and who’s out, who counts and who doesn’t, who is worthy of respect and who is not. And this is where, as a Christian I believe that God’s word is relevant to our situation and it offers us words of hope for our tensions. It is clear from Luke’s Gospel and the whole of the New Testament that whenever we draw a lines to decide who is in and who is out, we can be certain that we will find Jesus on the other side with the least, the last, the lost, the outsiders.
So, it could be that Jesus is not rebuking Martha for her busy work and praising Mary for her sitting and listening but instead Jesus is offering her and all of us an opportunity to see more in herself than she thought possible and to see in ourselves more than we thought possible and in turn, to “see, accept, welcome, value” the same possibilities in others. May our eyes, ears and hearts be open!
Let us pray:
 The Reverend Dr. David Lose, Luke 10:38-42, Pentecost 9 C: An Invitation to More. This blog entry was the foundation of this sermon and I am indebted to Dr. Lose for his wisdom and insights.