Ninth Sunday After Pentecost — Erika Spring
When we come to the Bible and read a familiar story, it can be too easy to skim over it, not taking time to read the details or to sit and wonder about what the text really means. We often come to familiar Bible stories with an expectation that we already know what it means, and it can be hard to see something new.
Luke’s story of Martha and Mary is just like that. It’s a short story, only four verses long, and its short length makes it very easy to skip over. Besides, this is a story that we teach to our children in Sunday School. It’s easy to see the obvious dichotomy between the two sisters. One sister, Martha, is running around in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, preparing a meal, setting the table, putting on her best hostess face, making sure everything is just right because they have an honored guest in the house. The other sister, Mary, behaves exactly the opposite, sitting at Jesus’ feet, quiet, listening, making sure she soaks in every single word Jesus says.
Traditionally, we have come to this story and talked about the differences in Martha and Mary’s behavior. Martha is clearly the do-er, the one who is overburdened and overscheduled. I myself relate very well to Martha, as I function best when I’m busiest, and I’m sure many of you relate to Martha as well. To use Greenville Strengths Finder terms, I have the strength of Achiever, so my goal is always to accomplish everything. I find myself saying YES to so many things that I don’t have time to smoosh them all into my life…or I find myself literally running from one meeting to the next because I didn’t leave any time for a location change…or having to write things like “Sleep” in my calendar just to make sure nothing gets scheduled over it! It can be an exhausting life, even if it is filled with all good things that we enjoy. Sometimes we can overwhelm ourselves with good things.
One of the authors of “The Sun” magazine, Luci Yamomoto, wrote once about her overscheduled life. She said: “Every year my life feels a little more frenzied. From the minute my alarm clock rings, I’m off [and running.] I can no longer sit down without feeling guilty. But at the laundromat, I can justify sitting still: I’m not doing nothing, I’m doing my laundry.” Like her, I sometimes want a place where I can sit down without feeling guilty.
Martha is determined to keep doing, to not sit down, to make a great meal for Jesus. And all of this comes from a devoted place—it was common practice in that culture to make a big meal when a guest visited your house. Martha is doing what is socially expected of her, attempting to welcome Jesus into her home in the best way that she knows how.
Martha really gets the raw deal in this story. She’s really only doing her best, and yet she’s viewed in this story as the sister who “didn’t get it.” Martha’s critiqued in this story…she missed the point…she was too busy focusing on all of the tasks at hand that she missed JESUS. She missed the fact that the son of God was sitting right in front of her. Jesus even challenges Martha in verses 41 and 42. He says: Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…Mary has chosen the better part. I’ve heard many interpretations of this story—many sermons—that end with: so we must all be more like Mary.
And that’s not entirely untrue. Spending time at the feet of Jesus is important. Philip Yancey, in his book called Rumors of Another World, writes about when he visited New Zealand and went to watch sperm whales off the coast. He watched the whales come to the surface of the ocean, breathe deeply, and create a spectacular spout before disappearing under the water again. He writes this: “To the whale, most of my daily surroundings … exist in an ‘invisible’ world, for its eyes can only take in sights level with the waterline. The whale has its own lively, congested habitat of marine plants and sea creatures. Yet unless it surfaces for oxygen once an hour or so, it dies. Though it knows little about the world above the sea, it needs vital contact with it simply to survive.”
We are like that whale, needing to make contact with Christ to sustain ourselves, and Mary knew that. Jesus is our lifeblood, what sustains us even when we don’t know it or see it. Mary is an attractive character in this story because she knows that—she knows what’s important. She instinctively wants to spend time with Jesus, dropping everything to sit at his feet and listen, and we can identify with that too.
That is the story, right? Martha and Mary. Work and rest. Busyness and worship. The “wrong” sister and the “right” sister. The one we shouldn’t be like and the one we should be like.
But is it really that simple? Like I said at the beginning, sometimes when we read a familiar story in the Bible, it loses its ability to surprise us. We think we already know what it means. But there is something else surprising in these few verses.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Martha is clearly depicted here as the formal head of her household, because she is the one doing the welcoming. For a Jewish woman of the first century, this means either she is a widow or that she has never married. She was in a socially vulnerable position, and she does an unthinkable thing: she invites this stranger, this rabbi, this unmarried man into her home. She probably invited Jesus’ entire band of travelers into her home too. And Jesus responds with another unconventional thing: he accepts her invitation and enters her home. This is not the way things were usually done. And, as usual, when we encounter Jesus, we see him breaking with tradition.
And then in verse 39 we read: Martha had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. Jesus entered the house as a rabbi and began to teach. The Greek indicates that Jesus is not just talking about the weather, but he is teaching the Torah, and Mary is sitting at his feet. Mary is assuming the traditional posture of a student who is learning from a great rabbi. And this is nothing short of scandalous.
There were only a few things a woman could do that were worse than inviting a strange rabbi into her house, and being taught by a rabbi was one of them. There are two contemporary rabbinic sayings that Mary likely knew—the rabbis said, “It is better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman,” and “It is better to teach a daughter to be a prostitute than to teach her the Torah.” But Mary was being deeply drawn in by Jesus, so she sat down anyway, in a position of learning, and began to listen to his words.
Martha, worried, interestingly does not go to her sister and ask her for help. Instead, she goes to Jesus and complains, saying, “Tell Mary to help me!” And Jesus responds, Martha, Martha. You are worried and distracted by many things, but there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen what is best, which will not be taken away from her.
Here Jesus is defending Mary’s right to be a disciple. He was telling Martha that this right to be a disciple can’t be taken away from her. Mary, a woman, is allowed—is CALLED—to be a disciple too! The real issue in this story is not who does the dishes or sets the table—the real issue is what happens because of Jesus’ presence. The presence of Jesus changes things. Life will be different, and some of the old rules and patterns will not work once Jesus arrives.
This is a familiar story, and we think we know it when you come to it. But if we look at it a different way, we see that Jesus was breaking down walls—again. In Ephesians 2, Paul writes, He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. And look at what comes right before the story of Martha and Mary—it’s the story of the Good Samaritan, what Elise preached on last week, a story that Jesus uses to show that Samaritans are God’s people, too. Jesus was always breaking down walls, inviting the people whom others shun to come closer. He was always putting people in their place—and that place was right next to him. Other people were saying to the Samaritan, to Mary, to Martha, “This is where you belong, on the outside,” but Jesus was always responding, “THIS is where you belong, right next to me.”
Jesus was always re-writing society’s rules, including the outsider, because he forbids us from seeing people as “other.” Samaritans are welcome. Unmarried women who spend too much time preparing food are welcome. Women who sit at the feet of a rabbi are welcome.
And of course this means that people who may make us uncomfortable are welcome too. Prisoners are welcome. Immigrants are welcome. The rich are welcome, the poor are welcome. The LGBTQ community is welcome. And, a particularly important fact for us to remember this week: Muslims are welcome.
This week, many of us watched the TV in shock as we saw a horrific attack on the city of Nice, France. 84 people were killed, including children, during a celebration of Bastille Day. It seems like not a week goes by without another story of the violent destruction of people’s lives.
And in the face of the Nice attack this week, we must grieve with France. We must be outraged at the loss of innocent lives. We must cry out against the violence and the loss, pleading with God and ourselves that nothing like this ever happen again. We must stand with France in solidarity. And we must work for peace.
And at the same time as we grieve and cry out against this injustice, we must refuse to allow ourselves to be dragged into the us-and-them rhetoric that becomes so prevalent at times like these, for that is another injustice. Some are already calling for Muslims to be targeted or jailed, arguing that the Islamic faith is the real perpetrator in attacks like these. As the us-versus-them, Christians-versus-Muslims, rhetoric grows in response to Nice and other attacks, we must also stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Just as Samaritans and unmarried women are welcome, Muslims are welcome. We must be voices of radical love and peace during times of dissent. We must continue, like Jesus, to welcome the outsider and break down walls where the world would like to build them. The Gospel of Jesus Christ can never be about keeping others out.
There’s a lot to think about in these few short verses. And maybe you’ve never thought about this familiar story in this way. But I hope we can at least consider the idea that in this visit to the home of Martha and Mary, Jesus was doing what he was always doing. He is picking up broken people…inviting in people who others told to stay out…he is forbidding us from seeing each other as “us” and “them.” It’s brother, sister. For there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither us nor them. We are all one.