The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11C)
July 21, 2019
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Among the thousands of rules and restrictions that governed Jewish social life in the time of Jesus, three at least come into play when reading the story of Martha and Mary. First, and I quote Philo of Alexandria, “women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house” (Spec. 3.169, 171). Second, a Jewish householder was obliged to show hospitality to travelers (which explains Abraham’s actions towards those three men). Third, while it was not impossible for a Jewish woman to acquire education (she could attend synagogue, learn the Scriptures, the oral tradition which explained the Scriptures, and even to become “learned” if her husband was a rabbi), rabbis did not take women as disciples; and for a rabbi to come into a woman’s house to teach her was unheard of; and for a rabbi to be alone with two women who were not his relatives was scandalous. Martha and Mary: a story of a Jewish woman doing precisely what a Jewish woman normally did; a story of that woman’s sister (probably younger) and how she irritated her older sister; a story of Jesus who stirred up the hornets’ nest .
The story occurs where it does in the Third Gospel because it illustrates what might happen when a household offers hospitality to Jesus. Martha is the first to appear on stage, receiving Jesus into her home. There is more to say about her, but the storyteller withholds anything further for a moment. He turns abruptly to introduce Mary, her sister, adding two key pieces of information. Mary was “sitting at the feet of Jesus,” and she was “listening” to his word. This behavior is what we might call culturally surprising; “to sit at one’s feet” is a technical term for “being a disciple”; and in Luke’s Gospel especially, “to listen to the word” is to have joined the road of discipleship. Surprising: but a feature of the Third Gospel is the presence of women (including Mary Magdalene) among the growing band of disciples. And Mary, Martha’s sister has joined up.
“But Martha,” Luke tells us, “was distracted with much serving.” And the contrast leads to a complaint. And the complaint takes an unexpected. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” What lies beneath these words? Irritation? Anger? Resentment? Jealousy? Anger? Or some mix of all these things? And how did she expect Jesus would respond? In lodging her complaint, the attempt to enlist Jesus’ aid in this struggle with her sister ends in self-indictment. It is not that she is selfish (despite the repetition of my, me, me). Her busyness is about hospitality, and she takes it seriously. There is something more fundamental at work in Martha, something Mary has opted out of.
But if our text ended at this point, or if this was one of those postmodern “choose your own ending” stories, how would you have Jesus respond? The pastoral counselors among us might argue that Martha needs affirmation: “Martha, sit down, have a glass of lemonade.” The peacemakers among us might argue that Mary should go and help her sister: “Go along Mary and help your sister; we’ll take up where we left off after dinner.”
But Jesus, true to his mission, lays the groundwork for a bit of Messianic interruption. He begins gently: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.” The double naming of Martha signals emotion and concern, and that Martha should take this seriously. What comes next is not exactly an affirmation; more of a diagnosis. The routines of hospitality were exacting, and this was no ordinary guest . . . you’re wearing yourself out. What began gently continues in a gentle tone, but veers in a devastating direction. “But one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Luke leaves out the next part of the story: the slamming of the kitchen door; the clamor of pots and pans crashing against the walls. Or did Martha do instead what the hearers of all Jesus’ parables were encouraged to do: “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” The Messianic interruptor at work. Martha represents the safety of cultural routine, the reliability of the habitual, the necessity of ticking all the boxes of Jewish hospitality. Greater Judaism had transformed its relationship with God into the habitual, and the law (applied to thousands of facets of every day life) became a hedge around Israel, or this was the goal, to ensure that every Jew operates according to the system. But the habitual is mindless—this is what habits are for anyway—to relieve people from the work of conscious engagement. But behavior then loses its capacity to be an expression of the heart.
Mary represents “one who has ears to hear,” and the potency of this promising condition reveals itself in a single word of Jesus’ description of her: Mary “chose.” She exercised her volition, agency; she decided on her own to do something counter-cultural with a greater objective in view, to step out of the habitual even if it put a relationship at risk. In that little verb, Jesus depicts Mary as a true disciple, using her mind to reevaluate everything that had been habitual, culturally appropriate, orthodox, but life-sapping in so many ways (all that Jesus categorized when he said, “You have heard that the ancients said”), and to catch a vision for authentic, Messianic faith (that is, the Messianic “But I say unto you”).
We are creatures of habit; and all too often captives of routine. These behavioral devices are shaped by our preferences, or by our responsibilities; by our likes and dislikes. We are drawn to a certain kind of people; and we veer away from others, in just as much need, who are easier at a distance. We take consolation in thinking, “well, that’s just the way I am,” and that may suffice for some people in some cultural and social spaces. But we are called not to inertia but to change; not to do as we have always done (it is easier, after all), not simply to “being,” but to “becoming” of which there is no end. To becoming Christ-like; “Christ in you, the hope of glory; mature in Christ.” If we have ears to hear, for God’s sake, let us listen. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2019 Philip H. Towner