Sermon - Sixth Sunday After Pentecost (7/21/2019)
Gen. 18:1-10a; Ps. 15; Col. 1:15-28; Lk. 10:38-42
Jesus and his disciples are coming over for dinner! That is presumably a lot of people – Jesus plus at least 12 guys, maybe more – a couple weeks ago we read about a total of 70 disciples, men and women. That is presumably a lot of work. Is there room for everyone to sit? Do we have enough food in the house? Is the bathroom clean? If you’ve ever had a house full of guests on Thanksgiving, you can imagine the stress Martha and Mary must have been feeling.
In the ancient world, hospitality was a truly sacred responsibility. The first reading today is one of the classic Old Testament stories of hospitality. Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent, in the shade, on a hot day, when he looks up and sees three travelers on approach. Abraham does not know who these three travelers are – but the text says it was the Lord who appeared to Abraham that day. Some people have thought, well, of course when God appears it is as three persons. But Abraham would not yet have been thinking of the Trinity, but something much more straightforward: human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, so to honor guests is to honor God. As Jesus would say, whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me. Abraham saw the arrival of these travelers as an opportunity to serve God, and that’s how people in the ancient world understood hospitality to strangers.
But the ancient world was also a patriarchal place, and so Abraham goes out of the tent to greet the visitors, while his wife Sarah stays in the tent. Abraham says to them, Please let me bring you water so you can wash your feet, please rest under my tree, please let me bring you some bread. And when the visitors accept Abraham’s kind offer, Abraham goes into the tent to find Sarah, and starts giving her baking instructions. And then Abraham finds a servant – a slave, really – to get the veal ready.
After Sarah and the slave have finished their work, Abraham brings the food out to the visitors, and Abraham stays with them while they eat. “And where is your wife Sarah?” they ask Abraham. Back in the tent, of course, Abraham says. That’s where the kitchen is. Where else would she be? That’s the way things worked in ancient times.
The gospel reading today begins: “Now as Jesus and his disciples went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” And so right from the beginning, we have something different about this story of hospitality. It is Martha’s house. It is Martha who welcomes Jesus and receives him. Martha is not waiting in the kitchen for her husband to receive Jesus and his entourage into his home. It’s Martha’s house and Martha is the one who welcomes Jesus.
I make this point, not simply because it’s right there in the text of Luke’s gospel, but because the story of Martha and Mary has so often become a story about the two options for women who follow Jesus: they can work in the kitchen like Martha or Sarah, or they can sit quietly like Mary and listen to the men talk, but that’s about it. Sometimes people talk about this story as if those are the only two roles open to women in the church. But Martha has agency in this story, she is the head of the household and she is the one who is welcoming Jesus. Martha is not Sarah, stuck back in the kitchen baking bread for the guests that her husband is entertaining; Martha is Abraham, the host, the one who is doing the welcoming. (Compare John 11:20!)
And then there is Martha’s sister Mary, who also plays a role in ancient times that was generally reserved to men – she sits at the feet of Jesus and listened to his teaching. Women, of course, in those days would not have been allowed to learn Torah with the rabbis, but Jesus apparently did not follow this rule.
It’s a beautiful picture – until, inevitably, a conflict breaks out. Martha is overwhelmed with her duties as a host and she’s frustrated that Mary is not helping her, and she snaps. And Jesus, somewhat surprisingly, seems to take Mary’s side against Martha. And I’m not completely sure what to make of this – but I do know that the usual interpretation of this story that I heard all the time growing up is not the right interpretation.
I remember learning that this story was about Action versus Contemplation. Mary is listening to the word of Jesus, she is attentive to Jesus, the presence of God. Mary is the contemplative, the one focused on spiritual things. Martha is doing the housework, she’s putting on a dinner for a houseful of guests, she’s bogged down in the details of everyday life and has lost sight of the spiritual things, which are really so much more important. That’s what I remember being told about this story growing up – Martha is focused on the material but Mary is attuned to the spiritual, and “Mary has chosen the better part.”
I’m convinced that is not the way to read this story, for a couple of reasons. One is that, while some Christians have had the idea that some people have a vocation to a “spiritual” calling that is intrinsically higher and makes them better Christians than regular laypeople who have families and jobs in the everyday material world – Martin Luther and the Reformation quite rightly rejected this view. All baptized Christians are equal as followers of Jesus, and every calling is a blessing from God and an opportunity to live a life of faith and response to God’s grace. So Jesus can’t be saying that Mary is better than Martha because Martha is still ensnared in everyday responsibilities while Mary has fled the world and now can focus on lofty spiritual things.
But even more, the whole idea that the spiritual and the material should be separate from each other is contrary to everything we read in Scripture. Abraham respected his guests and met God precisely through the material gifts of water and food and shade that Abraham provided them. Just two chapters earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk. 8:21). Hearing the word of God and doing the word of God are not two different things for Jesus. They always go together.
And on this point I will cite none other than Pope Francis, who likes to say: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.” Thoughts and prayers don’t excuse us from action, but lead us to action. We honor the guest both by being attentive to the details of hospitality and by being attentive to what the guest is saying. And, at different times in our lives, all of us need to do both. Always doing, doing, doing but never taking the time to reflect on why you’re doing it – that’s exhausting. Always thinking and talking but never putting anything into practice – that’s useless. This idea that there’s an opposition between action and contemplation is simply wrong, and so that can’t be the point of this story.
So what then is the point? One clue is the way that Martha deals with her frustation. If she had asked my advice, I’d have suggested that she go in and whisper in Mary’s ear, “I’m sure this is a fascinating conversation, but right now I really need you to help me bring out the hummus.” But, Martha makes a different choice. She makes a scene in front of everyone, and addresses her complaint not to her sister but to Jesus: Look, Jesus, can’t you see how hard I’m working? Can’t you see, Jesus, I am doing everything I’m supposed to do, unlike my lazy sister. Come on, Jesus, lay down the law for her. Tell my sister she should work as hard as me.
And Jesus looks at her and calls her by her name. Martha, Martha. You’re trying too hard. You want to be the best host and impress me by throwing the most wonderful dinner, but that’s not what’s important here. What’s important is that the kingdom of God is arriving, has come to your house today. You don’t earn the kingdom of God by being the best host – you receive it as a guest. Even if this party is a flop, Martha, you are loved. Mary gets that. So can you.
Martha and Mary do not appear again in Luke’s gospel, but they reemerge in John’s gospel near the end of Jesus’s ministry, when their brother Lazarus dies. In that story, it is Martha who is the first person in John’s gospel to say to Jesus: “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” In the other gospels it is Peter, but in John’s gospel it is Martha who is the first person to confess Jesus as the Messiah. And in that story, it is Mary who performs the extravagant deed of hospitality in anointing the feet of Jesus with perfume.
So perhaps it’s not too much to think that Jesus did not so much as take Mary’s side in her argument with Martha, but that Jesus taught both Martha and Mary something about life in the kingdom of God. Then they both confessed faith in Jesus and they both put their faith in Jesus into action. Where both experienced, as we do once again this morning, that whatever we may think we’re doing and however hard – or not – we think we’re trying, it is Jesus who is the host and who invites us, as often as not in spite of our actions, into the presence of the Kingdom of God, into faith in him, into his teachings and the acts of service that flow from them, into reconciliation with one another and the fullness of life.