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. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Luke 10:38-42 – Mary sits. Martha serves.
Colossians 1: 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. If, as Bruce Metzger suggests, Paul wrote Colossians in the 50’s from prison, this means that within 20 years of the crucifixion, people are singing songs about Jesus.
The divinity of Christ emerges early in Christian theology. The creed derives much from this passage. Through him all things were created. Here we have one of the earliest statements of the church: that God was in Christ, who reconciled God to the world, to all things (ta panta).
Luke 10: Mary and Martha
This week’s gospel reading is five short verses: Luke 10, verses 38-42. This story, like The Good Samaritan, earlier in Luke 10, is unique to Luke’s gospel.
Mikeal Parsons (Luke, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament) lays the text out as follows:
- Martha extends hospitality to Jesus (10:38).
- Mary listens to Jesus’s teachings (10:39).
- Martha attends to the duties of hospitality (10:40a).
- Martha complains that Mary has neglected the duties of hospitality (10:40b).
- Martha asks Jesus to instruct Mary to help her (10:40c).
- 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.
In 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. This is remarkable. 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.
St. Augustine says, in Sermon 103,
Our Lord’s words teach us that though we labor among the many distractions of this world, we should have but one goal… Martha welcomed [Jesus] as travelers are welcomed… You, Martha, If I may say so, are blessed for your good service, and for your labors you seek the reward of peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveler to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarreling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury? No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. Thus what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness; she was gathering fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God.
The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing writes, “And just as Martha complained about her sister Mary, so to this very day all actives criticize contemplatives.” This text has been used to fan the flame between activists and contemplatives for centuries, but is this a false dichotomy? It is unlikely that the very active Jesus is endorsing inactivity or even monasticism. What must be embodied in an interpretation of this text is the fact that Mary and Martha a sisters. Contemplation and activism are sisters. They squabble, but need each other. Jesus may be warning us that the activist Martha’s can swallow up the contemplative Mary’s, and this will not o.
We all know that serving, like all good works, can become an end into 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 our church youth group, confided in me that she hardly ever saw her mom. Her mom was so busy coaching, leading, 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 in the gut. You know there’s a problem when doing the work of God is destroying God’s work in you.
This is in no way to dissuade people from serving or practicing hospitality. 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. Those who are wired this way find sitting in a room quietly hypocritical. One can sit in a room singing Jesus songs and never be about the world-transforming ministry to which God calls us, and which Jesus modeled. 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, from a family systems standpoing, 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’ dramas.
John Jewell, in Lectionary Tales, has a piece on telling other people what to do:
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.”
Of course, some responses may be, “Have you spoken to her about this?” “What would you like me to do with this information?” “This must be difficult for you…”
41 – “But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things”
Jesus 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 tying 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. She has made the right choice. Don’t take that away from her…
Listening to Jesus precedes serving. If we jump into action, we take on a “Ready. Fire. Aim!” approach, like Peter. Our activity can be frenetic and unfocused. Ineffective, or at the worst, counterproductive.
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. Perhaps these two stories need to heard together.
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 reefs approaches. The crew might get lost. The ship could wreck. They will say, “We don’t understand. We were working so hard!” We must always be keeping an eye on the horizon.