Grace Presbyterian Church
July 17, 2016, Pentecost 9C
Last week’s sermon was about doing. The Samaritan was, in the words of the lawyer interrogating Jesus, “The one who did mercy to” the man who had been assaulted by robbers. Being a neighbor was ultimately about who came to the aid of the one in need.
Today’s sermon is going to sound like a contradiction to last week’s. The one who is busy seems to be castigated and chastised for doing the work of serving, important and necessary work. What it does represent, instead, is a need for discernment, for each one of us.
This is a very familiar story, this one of Martha and Mary. It’s too familiar. The story is often told and preached with particular “tweaks” added and unexamined presumptions included without even thinking about it. And, with its two female protagonists face-to-face with Jesus, it is a major, major trap for any preacher who falls into the mistake of “choosing sides” with either industrious Martha or contemplative Mary, or even of reducing the two characters to stereotypes of (female) Christian discipleship. Given the (hopefully) evident fact that I am not female and the potential questions of gender roles and restrictions embedded like tripwires in this story, it’s too easy to get in trouble preaching this text. Try to defend Martha, and you’re reinforcing old gender stereotypes about a woman’s place being in the kitchen – and only in the kitchen. But, endorse Mary and her breaking out of that stereotype, and you’re still in trouble; now you’re endorsing the passive, submissive role of a woman sitting at the feet of a (male) authority figure. Really, you can’t win.
Before negotiating this particular theological minefield, it is helpful to remind ourselves of where we are and how we got to this place. The tenth chapter of Luke is part of this gospel’s travel narrative, the story of the teachings, confrontations, and other events that are recounted as part of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem. The narrative actually is initiated towards the end of chapter nine, when the text notes that Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem.”[i]
So far on the journey the primary events have included an unpleasant encounter with a Samaritan village, in which the disciples wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans in return for not receiving them (Jesus had to rebuke them for that); the “mission of the seventy,” part of the sermon two weeks ago,in which Jesus sends out pairs of disciples to preach, teach, and heal across the region, and from which those disciples return rejoicing that “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”[ii]; and, finally, the story heard in last week’s sermon, in which a lawyer who challenges Jesus on the law ends up getting a lesson in being a neighbor.
We do need to keep this background in mind, because it offers us the chance to break out of some of the assumptions and stereotypes that have clung to this story over the generations, and might allow us to hear in it a warning that is not at all gender-bound or stereotyped.
Jesus enters a village, where he is greeted by a woman named Martha who welcomes him into her home. Catch that? Her home. Some scholars have suggested that Martha’s home might have been one of those visited by a pair as part of the mission of “the seventy.” At any rate, it is Martha’s home and her place to welcome Jesus.
In the next verse sister Mary is introduced, sitting at Jesus’s feet as Jesus teaches. Unlike the richly narrative account of the Good Samaritan incident, we get only bullet points here, and barely that – Jesus arrives; welcomed by Martha, etc. Also, where’s Lazarus? Don’t these two have a brother who dies and is raised by Christ? In the Gospel of John, yes, but there is no mention of Lazarus here.
Back to the bullet points; Mary sits at feet, Martha distracted by tasks. Now here’s the most fertile place in the story for readers over the ages to start “filling in” unmentioned details. Think about it: in your own hearing and reading of this story, what “tasks” is Martha distracted with? Be honest – you don’t learn when you cheat.
How many of you were picturing Martha distracted with “kitchen” tasks – cooking, or otherwise preparing a meal? Or perhaps “cleaning” tasks?
Now would we have conjured such images if the folks welcoming Jesus were two brothers named Samuel and Simon?
Over the years many, many scholars, commentators, preachers and others have presumptively “filled in the blank” about Martha’s tasks with the stereotyped “women’s work” of their own ages, so you’re hardly alone – you’ve been well conditioned. But here’s where a bit of sermon rule-breaking comes in, about quoting Greek in your sermon (we’re taught not to). Where the NRSV and other translations use the word “tasks,” the Greek texts have a form of the word διακονια. It might sound familiar, or perhaps sound like the English word “deacon,” which indeed is related to that Greek word.
Now διακονια has a wide range of meanings, centered around the concept of serving. The kind of kitchen tasks we were just considering can be included but are hardly exhaustive of the full definition. In fact, as biblical scholar Warren Carter points out, the overwhelming majority of the times when this author uses the word, either in the Gospel of Luke or the book of Acts, these domestic tasks are not what the author has in mind; rather, the tasks are those of service as in a “church” or church-like body, tasks that might include caring for the needy, distributing gifts given for the poor, or possibly even including proclamation (that would be preaching).[iii]
Hmm. Thinking of Martha and Mary as house preachers certainly puts a different spin on this story, doesn’t it? At any rate I hope this allows us to lay aside questions about “women’s work” and get to the vital word of warning to any follower of Christ, of any gender, who hears this passage today.
In the movie City Slickers, one of the title characters, played by Billy Crystal, comes under the scrutiny of Curly, a crusty but enigmatic cowboy played by Jack Palance. Crystal’s character is one of a handful of urban folk who have signed up for an authentic old-fashioned cattle drive; these folks are to Curly a confused and messed-up lot. They come out to do a cattle drive thinking it will suddenly straighten out their confused and messed-up lives, when in fact those same confused and messed-up lives will just be waiting for them when they return to New York. Curly continues to suggest that folks don’t take time to know what’s important; too many things get in the way. To Curly the secret of life is: “this,” as he holds up one finger. “One thing.” Crystal’s character asks what the “one thing” is, and Curly answers, “That’s what you have to find out.” We, however, know what the “one thing” is, or at least should know.
The virtue of Mary in today’s scripture lesson is that, in that moment, she chose “the better part,” or as the Greek texts would really translate, the “good part” or “good thing.” That does not mean that such passive sitting is not always the right thing to do. But in that moment, with Jesus in the house teaching, Mary figured out what the “better part,” the “good thing,” even the “one thing” was and fixed on it. Martha, on the other hand, got distracted or disturbed by many things when the “one thing” was sitting in her living room.
The tasks of ministry are needed, now more than ever. But without the “one thing,” the teaching, the life, the very presence of Christ at the center of our doing and serving, the work too easily become distraction, disturbance, even uproar and damage to our faith. And we can’t afford that.
We live in a world where society is too willing, gleeful even, to enshrine injustice into law, to establish poverty as a necessary or inevitable condition for others to profit, and to tolerate a tidal wave of abuses against our fellow children of God. Even so, we can’t lose the One Thing. We must take the time, as counterintuitive as it feels, to stop, sit at Jesus’s feet, and listen.
The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner (yes, him again) warns us of just what it really can mean, and what it really can take, to stop and sit at Jesus’s feet:
What deadens us most to God's presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort … than being able from time to time to stop that chatter including the chatter of spoken prayer. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent.
We really do have to stop and listen. Cut the chatter. Eliminate the noise. Stop and listen for the Word that gives meaning to our doing. Stop and hear the Word that is the motivation and source of strength for all of the tasks that await us as a church. When we fail to do so, we get cut off from the One Thing that makes all the work and doing matter.
On that day, that one time, Mary got it right, and as Jesus said, it wouldn’t be taken away from her. Neither will it be taken from us to sit and listen at Jesus’s feet. At least, not until it’s time to get back to work.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal except as noted)
#309 Come, Great God of All the Ages
#450 Be Thou My Vision
#---- This One Thing Only, Loving God
#702 Christ Be Beside Me