One again, we have a very familiar Gospel passage at the center of our worship. Last week we heard Jesus tell the parable of the man from Samaria. Today we have an account of an event from Jesus’ ministry. And just like last week it will be helpful to hear the story afresh, lest we think we know what it says and just gloss over it.
In the course of his ministry travels towards Jerusalem, Jesus arrives in the village of Bethany and a woman named Martha opens her home to him, and his traveling companions. Remember back several weeks ago we heard Jesus sending out the seventy disciples and telling them to expect and accept the hospitality of those strangers they encountered? Well, here is a real-life example of what he was saying.
Martha is the homeowner, there doesn’t seem to be any husband, brother, or father around; her sister Mary lives with her [In the Gospel of John we do hear about their brother Lazarus, but he does not appear at all in Luke’s Gospel]. Somehow in the village, Martha encounters Jesus and extends an invitation to her house.
Martha welcomes Jesus and then sets about to prepare a meal. Mary takes a place in the front room, sitting and listening to what Jesus has to say. Something that would have been very obvious to first-century hearers of this story but may be lost on us is the fact that in faithful Jewish households the areas for men and women were pretty clearly demarcated. The kitchen was a woman’s area of influence and activity; the public room belonged to the men. And it's still that way in traditional Muslim households.
So when Martha comes to the door and tries to recruit Mary’s assistance, she’s not just asking for help, or chiding Mary for shirking responsibility for their guests, she’s trying to get Mary to conform to the traditional division of men’s and women’s spaces; and not to scandalize the important visiting rabbi.
But Jesus tells Martha that she’s so frantic and distracted that she’s missing the point of his visit, and missing out on being able to hear what he has to say; that in fact he wants both Mary and Martha to be in on this conversation.
It’s like those times when family or friends come to visit and you or someone else in your family has to be coaxed out of the kitchen, or whatever other place they are working, to set that aside for a while and spend time with the folks who have come to call – which is the whole purpose of the visit! After all, how easy would it be to put off reading a story to a young child or hearing about a teen-ager’s college plans or an adult son or daughter’s new young man or young woman because you were hyper-focused on getting a meal served or meeting some last-minute work deadline? We’ve all done that; and we’ve probably all regretted it later. Those moments come and go, and you can’t always get them back.
So, Jesus is saying to Martha: it’s important for you to be here, too. I want you to hear what I have to say, as well. We can take time for conversation now and enjoy the meal a bit later.
When Luke describes Mary as sitting at Jesus’ feet, he’s saying that she’s taking the role of a student who will one day be a teacher. That’s the way first-century rabbis-in-training were talked about; St. Paul describes himself as having sat at the feet of Rabbi Gamliel. It means that Jesus was inviting and expecting Mary to listen to his teaching, so that she would be equipped to share his teaching with others. And Jesus was inviting, urging, Martha to do the same.
In the Kingdom of God, as Jesus was living it and teaching it, the old boundaries were being broken down. Paul puts it very succinctly later on in the Letter to the Christians in Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no ‘male and female’; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28).
It’s a mistake, therefore, for us to think that there is some sort of hierarchy between different modes of service – as in, prayer and study are better than hands-on care for others. That is a false dichotomy that is very unhelpful. After all, in last week’s Gospel the Samaritan’s physical and financial care of the beaten Jewish man was offered as a very clear example of living God’s law. And at the start of that reading when the religious law scholar gave Jesus the answer about inheriting eternal life and the answer was: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself, that covered both contemplation and action. And the week prior to that, when Jesus was sending out the seventy disciples he fully expected them to accept the hospitality that was offered them; so clearly cooking, serving a meal, providing a clean and restful place are all valuable, and those things don’t just happen by themselves.
But today the invitation is to stay focused on Jesus and on what he wants us to learn, on what he wants us to receive from him. Jesus wants us – men and women both – to take the time to listen, to learn, to put what we hear into practice, to take what we live and believe as disciples and share it with others. We can’t do that if we are worried, and frantic, and distracted. The challenge for most of us, I suspect, is to find ways to take time intentionally on as close to a daily basis as possible. Coming to church to worship with others, to hear the Sunday Scriptures, to listen to the sermon, to pray the liturgy are all essential – but it can be a long time between Sundays; and even longer when your schedule doesn’t permit you to be here every week. At those times the near-daily practice of sitting quietly, listening to God in prayer and Scripture and silence becomes even more important. Otherwise we will all too easily find ourselves running on fumes and getting spiritually exhausted and ill-equipped, and even lose the thread of what the Holy Spirit is trying to say to us.
So hear the voice of Jesus speaking to you: come, sit, rest, listen, pay attention, and know that I am calling you in love so that I may send you forth in compassion to the world.
Let us pray.
O God of peace, you have taught us that in returning and
rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be
our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray you,
to your presence, where we may be still and know that you
are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~ BCP
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 21, 2019