The text of the sermon, based on Luke 10.38-42, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2022.
First, a word about a tradition from our religious forebears. Jewish Midrash. A method of biblical interpretation that, in addition to discerning the moral teaching of a text, seeks to fill in the gaps about events and persons when details are lacking. Midrash asks and answers difficult questions that arise where and when scripture is silent.
Today, in the style of midrash and with the liberty of imagination, I approach this morning’s gospel reading.
I sympathize with Martha. She welcomes Jesus into her home; setting about to prepare a meal. Her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. Martha wants, demands Mary’s help. Jesus rebukes her, albeit mildly, “Martha, Martha…” For he doesn’t require her elaborate preparations. Mary’s devoted attention, however, he does desire.
This story has many morals…
About hospitality. That it’s more important for the host to offer what the guest most wants or needs.
About Jesus’ teaching. That it has priority above everything else. As God’s Messiah, his word, literally, has eternal-life-long value.
About symbolism. That Martha represents action and Mary, contemplation. And that the issue is not either-or, but both-and. That we are to be active contemplatives and contemplative actors. That what we do is to be the fruit of thoughtful consideration and not agitation.
About the larger social, political point of hospitality. Neither of Martha nor Mary, but of Jesus. That he, counter to the patriarchal ethos of his time, invites Mary, a woman, to sit at his feet; the culturally recognized posture of a disciple.
All that said, I sympathize with Martha. I’m a human being. My qualitative self-worth derives from my creation in the image of God. I believe that. However, I still respond readily to the voice of my inner critic that measures my value quantitatively by my human doing. The more, the better! So, I get Martha!
There’s another reason I sympathize with Martha. Kindness. It is important for the host to respond to the desires of the guest. And when the host has done her best, it is equally important for the guest, with reciprocal generosity, to say, “Thank you,” and, surely, not to offer a reprimand, however mild, well-intended, and instructive.
This episode brings to mind another, more traumatic biblical story. Cain and Abel. Without apparent or stated reason, God rejected Cain’s offering from the harvest while receiving Abel’s offering from his flock. Cain, discouraged and angry, murdered his brother.
Martha had the good sense not to strangle Mary, at least not in front of Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus, like God in Genesis, shows favoritism. On one hand, in a counter-cultural act, he welcomes Mary, a woman, as a disciple. On another hand, he puts Martha, a woman, in her place; a culturally commonplace act. Then and now; for sexism remains alive and unwell!
I sympathize with Martha.
So, today, after centuries of this story being told – Martha silenced, with no indication what she thought and felt, and what, if anything, she might have said in her defense – I, in the spirit of midrash and of equality, ask her to speak…
Martha stormed back into the kitchen; her friend’s rebuke ringing in her ears. She was doing her best. Wasn’t that good enough? What was the learned rabbi trying to teach her?
She had overheard his word to Mary about a “neighbor” being anyone in need. And that being a neighbor meant showing love by helping anyone in need, whether Jew or Samaritan. Mary wasn’t the only one who liked to listen and learn. 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. What would Jesus have her do? Serve nothing? Never!
Martha spun around, heading out of the kitchen. For a moment, she stopped, looking at Jesus speaking to Mary, reverently gazing into his eyes. Martha cleared her throat.
“Jesus, I’m sorry, but I’m still, in your words, ‘distracted by many things’!
“I’ve thought about what you said. ‘Mary has chosen the better part.’ Chosen? Who wouldn’t choose the ‘one needful thing’ if she had a choice? If only one thing was needful? If there wasn’t a houseful of people? You, Jesus, and your hungry disciples? Mary chooses to listen to you. Great! Who then feeds you and, I repeat, all your disciples?
“You who fed five thousand because they were hungry and you loved them enough not to send them away.
“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.
“See, I have been paying attention. And see, that is what I’m doing for you! Welcoming and feeding 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!”
© 2022 PRA
Illustration: Christ with Martha and Maria (1886), Henryk Hektor Siemiradzki (1843-1902)
#hospitality #equality #counterculturality #sexism #discipleship #theserviceoflove
 In Luke 10.41, the Greek word, thorubozomai, here translated “distracted,” is generally expressed in the active voice, connoting, in this case, being in a state of uproar. In a word, Martha is pitching a fit!
 Genesis 4.1-16
 See the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10.25-37.
 Matthew 14.13-21
 Matthew 25.31-40