Sermon preached at Enmore, 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 17th. July 2016
Reading: Luke 10. 38-42.
The story of Mary and Martha, like the parable of the Good Samaritan which immediately precedes it, in Luke’s Gospel, is well known. However, unlike the parable which has a clear message, this narrative has been interpreted in a variety of ways and some of the interpretations have been, in my view, rather unhelpful. Furthermore I want to suggest that Luke’s placement of this episode immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan, is not accidental but is a clever teaching device.
Jesus and his disciples are ‘on their way’. Again Luke reminds us that they are on the way to Jerusalem and the shadow of the cross falls across this journey. Along the way the followers of Jesus are learning what discipleship looks like- how they are to live as his followers. In the coming of Jesus, something radically new has happened, which calls for a radically new kind of obedience. The story just told of the Good Samaritan suggested a radical obedience that broke cultural, ethnic and theological barriers. The Martha and Mary story is equally revolutionary.
Entering a village, Jesus is invited into the home of Martha who has a sister, named Mary. This is the first and only mention of these sisters in Luke’s Gospel. We do meet them again in John’s Gospel where we learn that they lived at Bethany and had a brother, named Lazarus. The text says that Jesus was welcomed into Martha’s home- there is no mention of the other disciples, so we assume that they found a billet elsewhere. Martha, as owner of the house and hostess does what is expected of her. She gets on with preparation of the meal but Mary, presumably the younger sister, instead of helping Martha, sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him.
At that time the expression ‘to sit at the feet of someone’ meant that you were their student. In Acts 22 when Paul recounts his early life, he declares that he was brought up in the city of Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel- one of the leading Rabbi’s of the day. So when Jesus accepts hospitality in Martha’s house, Mary takes the role of a disciple. In so doing Mary broke one of the rules of her society-women were not permitted to be disciples and to sit at the feet of a Rabbi, this was for men only. Furthermore in that culture houses were divided into areas for women and areas for men. Apart from serving food a woman was not to enter the male domain-dinner parties were men only occasions. Martha is not just annoyed with Mary because she is not helping her but she is upset because her sister is behaving as though she were a man. Martha’s frustration builds up to the point where she finally goes to her guest and asks him to intervene, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”
The reply Jesus gives is somewhat enigmatic and has been reviewed and puzzled over for centuries: “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.” What did Jesus mean?
First of all we note that Jesus does not rebuke Martha for her careful and busy preparation –he uses her name twice so that his reply will be softened. He does not denigrate her service but he does affirm Mary’s behaviour. He tells Martha that only one thing is needed. Some have taken this to mean that Jesus is saying, ‘only one course is necessary- you can cut out the dessert!’ That is to trivialise what Jesus is teaching here. The ‘one thing’ has nothing to do with food, rather it is ‘the better part’ that Mary has chosen. But what is that better part? In the history of Christian thought from the ancient world to the modern there has been a tendency to divide Christian service into two sometimes competing duties- the Martha model of active service and the Mary model of quiet contemplation. People are often categorised as being either a Martha or a Mary. Medieval Christians were inclined to elevate the choice of the contemplative Mary over the active Martha but in Western Christianity since the Reformation the Martha model has been more highly regarded. But is this a helpful distinction and is this how we should read this narrative? I want to suggest that it is not a really helpful division of duties and furthermore it is a misreading of the text.
It is obviously true that some people are by nature and temperament, quieter and more reflective and that others are more outgoing and active. Both kinds of people have a part to play in the economy of God’s Kingdom and as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians we use our differing gifts to build up the body of Christ. It is also true that there are times for action and times for thought and reflection. The Samaritan didn’t sit and contemplate the plight of the injured man but immediately took restorative action. There are several examples in the Scriptures when Jesus took time before he responded – the raising of Lazarus is one obvious example but there are others, such as his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and his reaction when the religious leaders wanted him to stone the woman caught in adultery. On both those occasions Jesus was silent at first, refusing to be pushed into precipitous action. So I want to suggest that the Mary, Martha distinction of contemplation versus active service is unhelpful and that to read the Mary/Martha narrative as teaching that Mary’s attentive listening was superior to Martha’s hard work in the kitchen is to miss the point of the passage.
Remember, the context-Jesus and his followers are on the way to Jerusalem. His time of active ministry is drawing close to its conclusion. Jesus comes to the home of Martha and Mary as an honoured guest. The most important person in the home that evening is Jesus. Jesus’ word to Martha is that she is worried and distracted by many things. As we have noted one of the distractions was the behaviour of her sister. The things Martha was doing were good and done from the best motives but none the less they were distracting her from the most important thing which was to spend time with the guest, Jesus. The lawyer who asked the question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ gave the answer, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbour as yourself.’ In the parable that followed and in the narrative about Mary and Martha, Jesus taught that love of God calls for radical obedience which cuts across society’s expectations, traditional barriers of race and class and assumed gender roles. Love of God involves both activism as expressed by the Good Samaritan and intentional listening to Him as modelled by Mary.
We are told that Martha ‘was distracted by her many tasks.’ Living in the 21st Century we know all about distraction. We live in a world where we have competing messages impinging upon us throughout the day. Our days are filled with text messages, emails, and demands of work, and family. Concentrating on one task is often difficult. Distraction is part of our world every day. So this story of Martha and Mary has particular relevance for us-Jesus says one thing is needed- one thing is to have first priority in our lives- listening to him. Above all the other voices demanding our attention, keep your attention on Jesus. That is what Mary did- she didn’t care if she had a meal that evening, she was determined she would concentrate on Jesus and his words. Nothing else mattered and Jesus said, ‘this will not be taken away from her.’
Borrowing words from our collect for today, let us pray: ‘Eternal God, make us attentive to your voice and alert to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.’ Amen.