Mary and Martha’s Jesus Encounter

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 11 – Year C – July 21, 2013

Kim Baker Glenn, Master of Divinity, Union Presbyterian Seminary

As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “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.”                                                          

                                                                                                                        -Luke 10:38-42


For those of you who don’t know me well, I’d like to share what I think is the one interesting thing about me: I love a good story! The story could be in the form of a good joke. I love to laugh, really laugh. Or it might come in the form of a book. I love a good novel. My husband swears that non-fiction is better. Just give me a good mystery! Other good stories could come from TV theme songs. Some of you may know what I mean. “Let me tell you of a story ‘bout a man named Jed”….  And I could go on about pop culture. But I’ve also discovered that there is a lot of good storytelling in the Bible. Every type of human drama is included; love, revenge, sex, murder, war, grace, mercy – it’s all there. It’s hard to miss! Some books are more story-filled than others, though. I don’t look for a good story in Leviticus. It may be there but it would be hard to find. Some writers tell stories better than others. When I’m for a good story in the gospels, it is really hard to do better than the stories in Luke.  While each of the gospels is rich in its own right according to characteristics unique to each writer, Luke is richer for its storytelling. Luke’s storytelling has balance of character, plot and flow.                    

Lucky for us Luke wrote two books in the New Testament. One is his gospel story of Jesus. His second book is the book of Acts that tells the story of the early church. There is a balance, a completion of the story if you will, when you take those two books together. It is in Acts that Luke makes clear that the mission of the disciples of Jesus is to carry the word of God and the possibility of salvation through Jesus into the wider Roman Empire. Considering that he knew that was his end goal, it is no surprise that Luke spells out the specific duties of the disciples through his storytelling in the gospel. He wrote his gospel with an eye to the future; a future time when Jesus would no longer be physically present; a future time where the disciples of Jesus would be required to take the place of the physical Jesus in the world. The stories he shared came from the times when the apostles were physically present with Jesus in his ministry and travels around Palestine. The stories we’ll focus on, the Good Samaritan and the story of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha. These two stories together provide a balanced view of the life of a disciple, as we shall see. That Luke was concerned with balance in life is consistent with the theory that he was a physician. Each of the three characters portrays one distinct part of what is required in a balanced life of discipleship.

The Good Samaritan and Mary and Martha seem familiar to us. First of all, we’ve been hearing these stories for decades; we acted them out as kids in Vacation Bible School. As adults, we’ve taught them to our kids in their Vacation Bible School. The two stories come around from time to time if you teach Sunday School or attend some kind of Adult Bible Study or Adult Christian Formation class. Each time you address these stories you might learn something new. Why is that true do you think? It could be because each time we engage the story, we ourselves are at a different place in our lives; facing new challenges; seeing things through different lenses with a different focus. But I’m going to give some of the credit to Luke’s literary skill here. Using very few words, he is able to create scenarios and characters that invite us in; that allow us to imagine that we know these people – or at least people like them. And the truth is, we probably do. Think about it, Don’t we all know someone who is a committed helper, an avid hostess or an introspective philosopher? Or maybe we recognize them in a part of ourselves. You see, in spite of a two thousand year gap, human beings – that is, human biological and psychological traits – are virtually the same. If it weren’t for the chemicals we’ve added to the food system, our bodies might be exactly the same. But that’s another sermon for another time.

Luke has cleverly and purposefully placed the Good Samaritan story right next to the Mary and Martha story in the text. Together they demonstrate the variety of ministries that disciples of Jesus are called to embody. So let’s review what we’ve been told about the Good Samaritan. We know that he is a man who comes from a marginalized and despised sect of Jewish society – the Samaritans. The key that unlocks this parable is found in what the Samaritan does. This man proves to be willing to suspend judgment by his peers, by his employer, by the victim himself in order to care for this bloodied and dying stranger. We know by virtue of our own experience that anyone who acts as the Samaritan did that day is motivated by real, authentic compassion; that physical sense of compassion that comes from deep within our souls and is put there by God. This despised man gives completely of himself, his time and his wealth for the well being of another.  By inference then, it’s about what we do when faced with the same kind of opportunity or challenge or crisis. Jesus said after the telling of this parable to “Go and do likewise.” Who of us can put ourselves in the Samaritan’s shoes and say we would measure up?

That is not an easy task to fulfill. In fact, it can be downright daunting. Just recently I was faced with caring for my husband after suffering a small stroke. I have a newfound respect for doctors and nurses and those professionals engaged in the therapy that has brought him back to almost 100% of himself. Although I could do nothing but give emotional support the process of doing that wore me out at first! And I was not even despised… though there were moments when …. Just kidding. He’s a great patient… most of the time. Nonetheless, Luke is right to point out that it is part of our call as Christ’s disciples to meet the needs of others as we are confronted with them.

So as a reader or, as in this case this morning, hearer of Luke’s gospel we move from that story of compassionate action to a house in a certain village. We are secretly hoping for a breather after the heavy soul-searching journey we have just been on.  And what he delivers is a companion piece that offers a sense of balance, not quite a breather but almost. After all, aren’t we all searching for a sense of balance in our lives? Today we will look to Mary and Martha to find it.

It was a recognized custom in 1st century Palestine that to show true hospitality a host or hostess must provide for all the needs of the guest. That included washing the feet of weary travelers as well as preparing a meal for them. Luke tells us that Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. The first century listener would presume that welcome included more than opening the door and taking Jesus’ cloak. We can assume that Martha would have opened the door, greeted Jesus and immediately started preparing to serve her guest.  As Jesus enters, Luke introduces us to another character, Martha’s sister Mary. Just to be clear, this is not Mary, the mother of Jesus or Mary Magdalene. Mary was a common name at that time. Kind of like John Smith or Jane Doe. Imagine with me for a moment, Martha has opened the door and Mary is standing just to the side, on the side of the living room not the kitchen. When Jesus enters he moves, as is customary, into the living and dining area where he would be invited to recline. Then Luke tells his first century audience something they don’t expect to hear. Mary, he tells them, sits at the feet of Jesus to listen to him teach.

Why is that unusual? What would shock them about that? While it is not at all shocking or offensive to our ears, it caused their first century ears to perk up. You see, sitting at Jesus’ feet was an act reserved for apostles and disciples. This was an act reserved for men in the Hebrew society. Women were expected to assume the role of hostess and server. Luke was telling them by way of this story that Jesus came in order to break down those social barriers, that the new covenant with God was available equally to men and women. And we know from the parable of the Good Samaritan that this new covenant was available to marginalized people, too. Jesus shattered the social and economic barriers, too.

Not only would all people, All humanity, now have access to a relationship with God and with Christ but All humanity would be invited to be Jesus’ disciple. Even Martha. Some commentators observe that Jesus rebuked Martha when she boldly insisted that Jesus intervene and demand that Mary help her with hostess duties. I hear it more as a lament; that Jesus is sorrowful that Martha doesn’t see what he is doing in allowing Mary a seat at his feet. He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; but there is need of only one thing: Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.”

Mary chose the better part. What do you suppose would make Mary defy the demands of her social structure? Do you suppose that being in the presence of Jesus she may have allowed herself to be naturally drawn to follow him?

Luke tells us that Martha was distracted with the tasks of serving her guest. It was part of her nature to want to serve. Quite literally the verb in Greek for distracted means “pulled away.” How many times are we “pulled away” from this most important task of hearing God’s word; of discerning God’s will for us? I know that many of my to-do lists do not include pray or “appointment with God.” I know in this busy, hyper-connected, wired world it is so very easy to get “pulled away” and distracted by many things.

Perhaps Luke meant to tell us that Martha allowed herself to be pulled away from the most important thing that had ever happened to her. Maybe being in the presence of Jesus, God manifest in human form would be enough for you to suspend adherence to the strictures of etiquette. Maybe Martha just needed to drop her apron for a minute and join Mary at her guest’s feet. Maybe we just need to drop our to-do lists and schedule some time for reverent worship and prayer or silent contemplation with God. Maybe if we are silent we can hear God’s still small voice.

So who is the best disciple: The Good Samaritan, Martha or Mary? The answer according to Luke is all of the above. Each of them exemplifies specific duties that Jesus desired to see in his disciples. Be compassionate. Provide hospitality. Listen and hear the word of God. Take time to be in God’s presence.  Does Christ look for each of those acts from his disciples every day? Probably not. But we need to be willing and ready.  Let’s together be prepared to respond. Set aside at least Sunday to be here at Jesus feet where we can hear and inwardly digest God’s word. If we do that, maybe we too, can be called true Disciples of Christ. Amen.