A sermon, based on Luke 10.38-42, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 21, 2019
I sympathize with Martha. She’s in the kitchen breaking a sweat, bustling with pots and pans in hand, preparing a meal for Jesus, whilst Mary sits at his feet listening to his teaching. Martha wants Mary’s help. Jesus admonishes her, albeit mildly, for her anxious, fussy hospitality, which he doesn’t require, making a point about Mary’s attentiveness, which he does desire.
This story has several threads of meaning…
The heart of hospitality offers to guests what they most want or need…
Another. Jesus’ teaching is the “one needful thing,” “the better part.” For when applied, when lived, it has eternal-life-long value…
Yet another. The point is not to be either Martha or Mary, but both. Active and contemplative. As active contemplatives, we are to take time to listen to Jesus, and then, as contemplative actors, our deeds will arise from our faithful (not fretful) consideration…
Still another. The larger social, political point is not the hospitality of Martha or Mary, but of Jesus, who, counter to that deep-rooted patriarchalism of his day, invited a woman to be his disciple and to learn from him.
Again, several threads. Nevertheless, today, I take Martha’s side. I understand her. Yes, we are human beings whose eternal worth comes from our God-given dignity, yet I still hear that inner voice (which sounds like my father and my mother) telling me that worldly value is measured by my human doing, the more, the better.
I side with Martha for another reason. Kindness. Yes, the host is to be responsive to the desires of the guest. Yet, when the host has given the best she or he can provide, the guest, in gratitude, even more, mutual generosity, at least, can say, “Thank you” and, certainly, never issue a reprimand, however mild, well-intended, and instructive.
Even more, Jesus, in a counter-cultural act, having welcomed Mary as a student, on the other hand, in a culturally-commonplace manner, dismissed Martha, silencing her, putting her in her place.
Today, again, sympathizing with Martha and, in the spirit of Jewish Midrash, which seeks to interpret biblical texts by imagining and adding missing details, I, as preacher, will be her advocate. Giving her a voice. Giving voice to her concerns. Luke doesn’t tell us what Martha thought, how she felt, and what, if anything, she may have wanted to say in her defense. I offer some possibilities…
Martha turned on her heel and slumped back into the kitchen; the rebuke of her friend ringing in her ears. She was doing her best. Wasn’t that good enough?
And what was it that the good rabbi sought to teach her? She had listened to his word to her sister. About a “neighbor” being anyone in need and being a good neighbor by trying to help, whether the one in need be Jew or Samaritan.(1) She would give that some thought. After all, Mary wasn’t the only one given to prayerful contemplation.
But now was not the time for idle hands! Besides, being helpful was precisely what she was doing. And there was a meal to finish preparing. What would Jesus have her do? Serve nothing? Never!
Martha took the pot off the fire, spun around, and headed out of the kitchen. Stopping, she gazed for a moment at Jesus and Mary continuing in conversation. Martha cleared her throat.
“Jesus, I’m sorry, but I’m still distracted by many tasks!
“But I’ve thought about what you said. ‘Mary has chosen the better part.’ Chosen? Who wouldn’t choose ‘the better part’ if she had a choice and if only one thing was needful and if there wasn’t a house full of people? You, Jesus, and all your hungry disciples?
“So, Mary chooses to listen to you. Great! Who feeds you and, I repeat, all your disciples?
“You who fed five thousand because they were hungry and because you loved them, you wouldn’t send them away.(2)
“You who told a parable about sheep and goats, the sheep being blessed inheritors of God’s kingdom because they, in welcoming and feeding the neediest, welcomed and fed you.(3)
“See, I have been paying attention. And see, that is what I’m trying to do for you! Welcome and feed you!
“And one other, most important, most needful thing. It’s all about love. Food and drink. Pots and pans. Preparing and setting the table, and cleaning up after you. That’s one way I show my love for you.
“That, Jesus, is my instruction about what’s going on here.
“Now, you didn’t ask me, but let me give you some advice. I think you need to re-think your teaching so it makes sense out here in the kitchen. In fact, Mary, stay right where you are. Jesus, you get up and follow me!”
(1) The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37)
(2) Matthew 14.13-21
(3) Matthew 25.31-40
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632-1675)
Christ with Martha and Maria (1886) Henryk Hektor Siemiradzki (1843-1902)