Amos 8:1-12 – God’s judgment. Listen, you who trample on the poor and cheat the needy: You will rot like a basket of summer fruit.
Genesis 18:1-10a – The Lord appears to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, in the form of three men.

Psalm 52 – Why do you boast about your evil plans you powerful?
Psalm 15 – Who can live on your holy hill? Those who do not lend money at interest, take bribes, testify against the innocent.

Colossians 1:15-28 – The Christ Hymn. Most scholars believe that Paul is quoting a hymn here. If so, it would be one of the earliest hymns about Christ ever written. Amazing how the divinity of Christ emerges so early in Christian theology. The creed derives much from this passage. Through him all things were created. And one of the earliest statements of the church was that God was in Christ, reconciling himself to the world. To all things (ta panta).

Luke 10:38-42 – Mary sits. Martha serves.

Mary and Martha

This week’s gospel reading is five verses: Luke 10, verses 38-42. Five short verses. This story, like The Good Samaritan, is unique to Luke’s gospel.

Mikeal Parsons (Luke, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament) lays the text out as follows:

  1. Martha extends hospitality to Jesus (10:38).
  2. Mary listens to Jesus’s teachings (10:39).
  3. Martha attends to the duties of hospitality (10:40a).
  4. Martha complains that Mary has neglected the duties of hospitality (10:40b).
  5. Martha asks Jesus to instruct Mary to help her (10:40c).
  6. Jesus responds that Mary has chosen the better activity (10:41–42).

He points out that travel narratives often focus on ancient Mediterranean customs of hospitality. Kindness is to be shown to strangers as a social and religious obligation.

38 – “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.”

A certain village: John tells us the village is Bethany (John 11:1), but Luke does not, though he does mention Bethany twice later in his gospel.

JewishAnnotatedIn The Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT), Amy-Jill Levine points out that this is clearly Martha’s home: “Martha welcomed him into her home.” Martha is a householder. Jesus has a running critique of householders. Mary may have lived in the house with Martha or in another house nearby, but in either case, the text makes it clear, we’re now in Martha’s domain.

39 – “She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”

Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. JANT points out this is much like the synagogue. Keep in mind most synagogues were small – a few families – and they met in homes. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning. Jeffrey (Luke: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) says that women were not permitted to sit at the feet of a rabbi. She is a follower, a female disciple. This would not have been lost on Luke’s hearers.

40 – “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.’”

Martha is distracted with “pollen diakonian“, literally, “much serving.” Luke’s first listeners would have understood Martha to be doing the right thing. She is tending to the duties of hospitality. Serving is a good thing. Jesus tells us to serve God (4:8). When Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, she immediately begins to serve them (4:39). He reminds us we cannot serve both God and money (16:13). So, some tension is created in the story.

We all know that serving, like all good works, can become an end unto themselves. They can create a sense of moral superiority. They can distract us from loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. We can create a veneer of service without loving God and neighbor a whit. But is this what Martha is doing?

Like Martha, we can become very distracted by our tasks. We can be driven by the tyranny of the urgent. Such business can drive us from love of God and others. I am reminded of a mother I knew once who coached, drove her kids around, and volunteered for every school committee. She was a supermom. She loved her kids. Thing is, one of the kids, who was in my youth group, confided in me that she hardly ever saw her mom. Her mom was so busy coaching, leading, and volunteering “for her kids”; she was too busy to spend time with them.

This is a phenomenal lesson for those who are leaders in the church. We can become so obsessed with doing “God’s” work, we lose track of God. If I’m so busy working for God, I may not be able to find time to spend with God. We all too easily neglect prayer, listening, and centering. As a chronic workaholic, this passage is like a punch to the gut. I recall Bill Hybels saying, you know there’s a problem when doing the work of God is destroying God’s work in you.

I have discovered that people experience faith in different ways. There are those whose faith finds its deepest expression in serving. There are those whose faith finds its greatest expression in prayer and worship. The apostle Paul says that we should offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, for this is our spiritual worship. People who are wired this way find sitting in a room quietly (navel-gazing), a bit hypocritical. One can sit in a room singing Jesus songs and never be about the world-transforming work to which God calls us. Jesus didn’t sit around navel-gazing. He had a vigorous itinerary of preaching, teaching, and healing. There is, however, an extreme on the other side. We can work like crazy, serving the wrong people, in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons, because we weren’t listening. But is this what Martha was doing?

What we have here is a classic triangle. “Jesus! Do you not see what is happening? Isn’t it awful? Isn’t it terrible what she is doing to me? Tell my sister to help me! Send her back to the kitchen.”

No one can be in ministry long without experiencing this. “Pastor! Open your eyes! Can’t you see what’s happening? Isn’t it terrible what they are doing to me? What are you going to do about it? What kind of pastor are you? What kind of church is this that lets such things happen?” How easily we get manipulated into others’ drama.

John Jewell, in Lectionary Tales, has a piece on telling other people what to do:

Jewell: Judith Orloff M.D. in her book, Emotional Freedom, writes, “People who feel out of control tend to become controllers. Deep down, they’re afraid of falling apart, so they micromanage to bind anxiety.”

41 – “But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things” 

He doesn’t take the bait. He responds directly to Martha, without getting pulled into the triangle.

Repeating her name twice might be an attempt to comfort her. There, there, Martha. This sounds to me like the way one might comfort a child, though this is conjecture on my part. Parsons confirms that in this time and culture, repeating the name (conduplicatio), is a rhetorical device to convey compassion or pity.

Distracted (thorubazay) again and this time worried (merimnas) too. Μaρθα Μaρθα, μεριμνaς καὶ θορυβάζn περὶ πολλά.

The preacher needs to turn this back on his or her listeners: What has you worried and distracted today? What has you so worried and distracted that you don’t have time to listen for God? Sit at Jesus’ feet? Perhaps listening to Jesus is a way to cope with our worries and distractions.

Paul uses the same word for “worry” in Philippians 4:6.

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Paul sees prayer as an alternative to worry, fear, and anxiety.

42 – “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” 

In Luke 12, someone will attempt to triangle Jesus again. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” It seems people are always trying to manipulate Jesus. He didn’t take the bait then either. “Who made me the boss of you?” (12:14)

He’s nicer to Martha. “Martha, Martha…” Don’t worry. Just do what Mary is doing. She has made the right choice, the “better part.”

Listening to Jesus precedes serving.

It’s interesting that this story falls right on the heels of the story of the Good Samaritan, a story whose point is that the hated enemy, the Samaritan, is my neighbor whom I am called to love. This is made clear through the Samaritan’s serving the injured man. First a story of serving, and then a quick reminder about listening.

I believe Luke recounts this story to send a message to his church, the church to which he is writing: Serve, but don’t get so caught up in your serving that you lose sight of the One whom you serve. When we don’t listen to Jesus, we just might find ourselves feeding the naked and clothing the sick.

One thing matters. And that one thing is paying attention to Jesus’ teaching.

One last analogy. On the high seas, one could get so busy swabbing the deck, washing the nets, and trimming the sails that one might forget to check one’s bearings. Before long, the ship inches off course. The crew might get lost. “I don’t understand. We were working so hard!” We must always be keeping an eye on the horizon.