Grace Presbyterian Church
July 21, 2019, Pentecost 6C
In Praise of Martha. Yes, Martha.
Hot on the heels of the Good Samaritan parable (which, you’ll remember, ends with Jesus’s instruction to “Go and do likewise” in showing mercy to those in need), we come to an event that almost – almost – seems to contradict that instruction.
A little context is helpful here: this happens, as does last week’s account, during the journey that takes up the central portion of Luke’s gospel. In 9:51, Luke tells us that “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” That particular idiom points not only to the geographical destination of the city of Jerusalem itself, but also the inevitable confrontation that would take place there – the “final showdown” of Jesus’s earthly ministry that would end (or so it seemed) in his crucifixion. While trying to trace out a map of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem according to Luke would be a pretty vexing task, this town of Bethany was apparently on the way. (The town is not named in Luke’s account – it’s just “a certain village” – but the gospel of John tells us that these sisters lived there.) Even the most determined travelers need to stop and rest on occasion, after all.
We are told here that “a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” This raises a lot of questions for such a seemingly simple sentence: who is this woman Martha? Did she know Jesus already? How is it she is the “head of the household,” so to speak – it wasn’t unprecedented in this time, but it wasn’t common either. Did Jesus already know Martha? And what happened to the disciples? Were they not invited in? Luke, however, isn’t interested in such details.
The story is pretty familiar: Jesus enters the home, where Martha busies herself with the tasks of hospitality. Her sister Mary sits at Jesus’s feet – the traditional posture of a teacher’s disciple at the time – and listens, offering no help to her older sister (it’s not said, but you just knowthat Mary is the younger sister, don’t you?). Martha loses her patience, but rather than calling upon Mary to help, she appeals to Jesusto make Mary help her (more sister dynamics). Jesus declines, answering Martha with the somewhat cryptic words of verses 41 and 42, and – poof!– that’s the end of this brief narrative.
It’s at least possible, and maybe even likely, that Martha knew who Jesus was and vice versa. Earlier in chapter 10 Jesus commissions seventy of his followers to go out and visit and proclaim in the towns he intended to visit on his journey. It’s possible that Martha had hosted one or more of those witnesses in her home, and some have even suggested that she and Mary had actually been among those seventy. At any rate, that mission might well have provided a pretext for Martha to be prepared to welcome Jesus into her home.
Whatever the case, Jesus enters the home, where we first encounter Mary. We never hear from her, though, and there’s no suggestion that she speaks at all, even if she is in the disciple position at Jesus’s feet. This is actually a little odd, in that exchanges of questions and answers would have been expected between teacher and disciple; perhaps Luke just didn’t care about recording that, or perhaps she never spoke. Whichever was the case, she wasn’t providing any help to Martha, and this eventually got to Martha. She complains; Jesus does notcome to her aid, and the story is over.
And from this, for decades if not centuries, Martha has been made into the “bad guy” (so to speak) of the pair. And this isn’t fair. There is, in the end, a needed lesson that comes out of this encounter, but the church has long mastered the art of getting the wrong lesson.
First, let’s be sure that we understand that Martha’s work itself is not the problem. Southerners tend to think they have the corner on hospitality, but both the Jewish tradition Martha inherited and the Mediterranean culture in which she lived both mandated the provision of hospitality to any guest, even an unexpected one. The former is demonstrated in the reading from Genesis we heard earlier. Note that when the three men passed near Abraham and Sarah’s dwelling, Abraham went out of his way to welcome the unknown guests. (Just because Abraham referred to “my lord” – small ‘l’ – doesn’t mean he knew he was speaking to The Lord – capital “L”.) Both Abraham and Sarah end up thoroughly busy preparing food and drink for the three men, without the guests even asking. For the most part this story is told because of that out-of-the-blue promise by the stranger that Abraham and Sarah would have a son before long, but the extravagant act of hospitality offered by the two is almost prototypical of the expectation of hospitality in that tradition. So Martha is not wrong to be doing the work of hospitality: indeed, in ninety-nine similar situations out of one hundred, Martha would have likely been judged to be in the right.
But what makes this Situation No. 100? Notice how Martha is described: not as “busy,” but as “distracted.” Do you ever have the experience of getting so involved or overwhelmed, or “distracted,” by the “many tasks” involved in preparing for company that you almost forget you have company at all or why that company matters? That’s a bit of where Martha has ended up, and Mary’s absence doesn’t help. The tasks themselves take over in her mind, rather than the guest for whom those tasks are performed.
That’s a problem. And that problem is amplified by the fact that this is no ordinary guest Martha is hosting. Much as it turned out for Abraham and Sarah, this is not an occasion to be distracted and miss the message that this guest is bringing.
Remember, this is the Jesus who has “set his face towards Jerusalem,” and who had sent out witnesses in advance to the towns he intended to visit on the way. Whether or not Jesus had met Martha and Mary before this visit, it seems pretty clear that Jesus’s presence in this village was not an accident, and quite likely neither was his presence in Martha’s home. And when Jesus (again, Martha knew enough to call him “Lord” – capital “L” – rather than the more common “my lord” – small “l”) has come specifically to you, to speak to you and to listen to you, it’s kind of important not to miss that.
And it’s definitely out of line to seek to prevent another from being present for Jesus. Honestly, for me it’s pretty easy to be suspicious of Mary in this story and to suspect that she’d quite likely behave the same way whether the guest was Jesus or not, but in this case she does get it right. Jesus is here, and (as Jesus himself knows whether or not Mary or Martha do) Jesus won’t be there for long. Listen while you can.
Here lies the dilemma for us, those of us today who would learn from this story. The mandate that was given at the end of last week’s parable (which, you’ll remember, leads directly into today’s reading) doesn’t go away. We are still called to do. We are still charged to show mercy to the ones in need, to refuse to engage in hatred or fear of the stranger or the wounded or the foreigner in the land. We are still charged to provide hospitality. That doesn’t go away.
But we are also charged to stop and listen to the speaking of God. We are still called to study and reflect on the words of Jesus. And we are called to listen, listen always for the leading and prompting of the Holy Spirit, that pervasive presence of God that broke out at Pentecost and still moves and breathes and acts and, yes, speaks in the world today. God has not shut up; God the Holy Spirit still speaks.
We are still charged to listen for the calling of God. God is not a closed book, confined or imprisoned forever in history or tradition or bound up in the pages of a book. God is not contained, and the moment we decide we’ve got God all figured out and don’t need to listen anymore we become heretics. Yes, I used that word.
God still calls. Believe me, sometimes I wish God had stopped calling people years ago and that I was still in that comfortable old academic life I used to know. Being a pastor in this day and age is no picnic. But God does still call women and men into the vocation of service, whether in ordained ministry or in any other form. God still calls us to do the more mundane tasks of love and compassion and mercy as well. But being able to answer that call requires listening, and sometimes that requires stepping away from the work and taking time to be disciples, sitting at Jesus’s feet and doing nothing but listening.
In short, there is a time and a place to be Martha, and a time and a place to be Mary. To be honest, we live in a world that needs a whole lot of Martha-ing. Need and suffering are endemic, and compassion and basic human decency are in seriously short order. Our call is not to stand down from the world and retreat into some kind of supposedly splendid isolation or contemplation. We have work to do.
However, in order to do that work properly, we do need to spend time listening for God, awaiting the moving and prompting and sometimes cajoling of the Holy Spirit, studying and taking in the words and life of Christ, and making ourselves ready for that service to which we are called.
For Mary and for Martha, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #309, Come, Great God of All the Ages; #324, For All the Faithful Women; #—-, This One Thing Only; #306, Blest Be the Tie That Binds