This wonderful story about Jesus and the sisters Mary and Martha has led to many theological interpretations in the history of the church. I remember hearing, to my dismay, that the Roman Catholic Church, during the Middle Ages, used this passage to rank the contribution of women. It was evident, they declared, that the contemplative life was of more value than the life of women in general – women charged (by culture and tradition) with the tasks of keeping their households.
When the reformers interpreted the passage, some viewed it as proof that we are justified by faith – not by what we do. Mary, they said, demonstrated great faith by sitting at Jesus’ feet. Therefore, she was justified. Martha’s sin was trying to earn her acceptance by doing all those tasks to welcome Jesus.
I went to seminary as Women's lib was making an impact on the church (and society). I read an interpretation (from a woman) that said, "Martha should have shoved a casserole in the oven and been done with it!”
Scholars noted that the the original Greek speaks of Martha’s service (a designation not readily evident in the New Revised Standard.). Moreover, the word used is the same word used frequently to describe what Jesus did – how he served God and in serving God, served others.
“Jesus didn’t do us any favors!” one scholar said. “He set us up to pit these two sisters against each other, praising one and criticizing the other!” Another asked, “Why is it Jesus can serve, but Martha can’t?”
What is happening in this semi-familiar story?
The Rev. M. Thomas Norwood, Jr., took note of where Luke placed this story. It follows the story of the Good Samaritan. Luke, again, had a story about men and balanced it by relating a story about women. Furthermore, it is a story about women that, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, challenged the conventions of his day – cultural and theological conventions.
Martha had welcomed Jesus into her home. She had extended a hospitality not always shown to Jesus. Martha was doing what was expected of her, what was expected of all women. Actually, she was doing what was expected of all hosts. Jesus had critiqued the Pharisee Simon when his hospitality had fallen short. We might expect, therefore, that Jesus would praise Martha.
The real surprise in this story is what Mary did. Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” It was astounding that Jesus would allow a woman to sit at his feet, as a disciples would sit at a teacher’s feet. The rabbis had declared, “It is better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman,” and, “It is better to teach a daughter to be a prostitute than to teach her the Torah.” The parable of the Good Samaritan, according to Norwood, upset their notions of who should be considered a neighbor. Here, Jesus challenged their understanding of the place of women.
So, what's Jesus' problem with Martha?
She was distracted! She was distracted. She missed the very thing that Jesus was offering her by coming to her house. He offered her the chance, the opportunity, to sit at his feet – to be a disciple. But she focused on other things. Current scholars agree with that woman who said, “Martha needed to make a casserole, stick it in the oven, and be done with it!” She became so focused on the details of hospitality that she forgot the most important part – being present for and with her guest. I can picture a Martha Stewart spread – the perfect place settings, napkins folded in fancy designs – crystal and silver – and a meal that makes mouths water. But instead of being there, with her guest, this Martha was busy making sure everything was just right.
I loved the reflection from one scholar who said that the church where he grew up honored Martha, not Mary. They honored the one who served. We know that the church can’t exist without our Marthas, both male and female. We are dependent on those who make sure that what needs to happen, happens. And the church is called into service – to reach out to the world with ministries of compassion and mercy – with works for justice and peace. We need Marthas.
So, what do we do with this story?
One of the primary issues with the way that we have traditionally heard this story is that we hear it as an either/or choice. One person is right. One person is wrong. Mary chose the better portion. Therefore, Martha’s “serving” has to be considered a bad choice.
This is the way we hear things in our world. People assert “Black lives matter.” Think of the responses to that statement. Some leaders have suggested that the very statement led to the shootings in Dallas because by saying “Black lives matter” a declaration was being made that Police do not. We’ve also heard those who respond negatively saying that the statement “Black lives matter” lessens the value of other racial/ethnic groups.
On an NPR program, this past week, a commentator reflected that the aftermath of the shootings in Dallas seemed to give us a little reprieve from the competing narratives in our country. He suggested that, at least for a moment, we moved beyond thinking that the only way to have justice was to have a particular narrative become the dominant one. On another program, a commentator noted our national history of turmoil when a particular group felt that its dominance was being threatened – particularly White Protestants. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century the fear was directed toward the Irish and Roman Catholics. Did you know that the Irish were not even considered white when census counts were taken? You had a choice, white or Irish.
Some years ago, as part of my coach training, I had a phone coaching session with an experienced coach. She was listening as I talked about some ideas. At some point I said that I needed to make a choice between two options. “What a minute,” she said. “You’ve fallen into that trap that says there’s only either/or, not both/and.”
The assertion "Black lives matter” does not diminish the value of others. Rather, it calls attention to the practices in our own society that have said, many times without words, that Black lives do not matter. We see it in our own area – in the stories about the schools that have perpetuated inequality by providing sub-standard education. Someone from the movement said, “It’s not a war cry. It’s a plea. Please see us!” We need to hear the cries of those who are on the edges of our society – because of race, religion, sexual orientation, illnesses and addictions – and know that hearing them does not threaten our own value in God’s eyes.
We need to learn that we live in a both/and world, not an either/or world -- at least when it comes to seeking justice. Justice that is available only for a limited group of people is not really justice. God’s call is for justice that transcends our divisions, justice that brings diverse groups into peaceful, fruitful, energetic and creative co-existence.
Norwood says of this gospel lesson that "Luke is not forcing his readers to choose between service and worship. Thus, this is not the time to criticize church or social activists, nor is it the time to give approval to those who reject such activism. Rather the text speaks a needed word to a church that has too often tried to educate without Bible study and serve without worship.”
Jesus truly challenged this dear friend of his, Martha. One scholar said that the church would do well to hear his words, for the church, too often, is distracted. We get caught up in our own busy-ness, our own churchy things. In today’s changing world, we get distracted by the question of what the future will bring – and how we can ensure our existence in that future. Somehow, in the midst of that, we forget to sit at Jesus’ feet and be nourished. We forget that our call comes first, to be disciples, and then to go where we are led.
Martha left no room in her serving to sit at Jesus’ feet and be nourished by his friendship and his teaching. She was so focused on the meal, so focused on “nourishing” that she missed the opportunity to be nourished, to partake of the meal that was God’s presence in and through the Christ. The choice isn’t to be Mary or Martha. We’re, each of us and all of us, to be Mary and Martha, seeking the balance that gives faith and ministry life.
This world, this society needs those who refuse to accept the narratives that say we are safe only when another’s voice has been denied. This world, this society needs the service of those who are grounded in the ways of the Christ who welcomed unexpected folks into discipleship and chose unlikely heroes for his stories. We gather to worship because we are invited to sit at Jesus’ feet, to hear the word, to be nourished by his loving presence as we break bread together. This is our Mary time. The Martha time is outside these doors.
This story of the Good Samaritan is very, very familiar. It has made its way into our culture in many ways. Good Samaritan laws can be found in various places – laws that protect those who are striving to respond to accidents from prosecution if there are unintended consequences.
It is a challenge to hear this story and let it speak to us in new ways. First, we have to remember that it is a parable – a story told to paint a picture about God, God’s realm, and God’s values.
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey explored the context of the parables, particularly in Luke. The context is not only the written word, but the times, the religious assumptions and the cultural practices of the day. He has suggested that we lose much of the impact of these stories when easily lift them out of their original context and don’t consider the ways they would have been heard.
One of Bailey's first suggestions for hearing and interpreting this parable is to make sure that we place it within the dialogue. The parable builds on the conversation Jesus was having with the lawyer. “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” Our 21st century ears hear lawyer and think of the lawyers of our day. But that’s not what a lawyer was in Jesus’ day. A lawyer was someone who knew God’s law. A lawyer was a specialist when it came to the faith. This lawyer, in time honored tradition, stood up to ask a question of Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There is already tension in this story. The lawyer stood up, a sign of respect offered a teacher, yet his intent was to test Jesus.
He was testing Jesus. We might guess, therefore, that he had an answer or answers in mind. One of the assumptions of this lawyer’s faith was that those who were pious would inherit life – an eternal inheritance. What he might have expected to get from Jesus was a list of the things that should be on the list of behaviors for pious living. Some have suggested that the lawyers were “uneasy about Jesus’ attitude toward the law.” (Ibn al-Tayyib) Perhaps he was looking for proof that Jesus recognized that keeping the law was central to inheriting God’s promised fullness of life.
Jesus turned the question back to the lawyer. “What is written in the law? How do you read?” The lawyer showed a good understanding. He combined the commandment to love God found in Deuteronomy with the commandment to love one’s neighbor. He then challenged Jesus. “And who is my neighbor?”
That’s the question that generates the parable. “Who is my neighbor?” In Leviticus, which provided the commandment to love one’s neighbor, the neighbor was defined as one’s brother and the “sons of your own people.” As time passed, the concept was expanded to include all of the Jews. Those outside, however, were not included in any way. It had even been suggested that “heretics, informers, and renegades should be pushed into the ditch and not pulled out.” (Midrash on Ruth).
The lawyer was asking a scholarly question: How would Jesus define neighbor? Jesus’ answer is unexpected. First, he didn’t give a list that would carefully and narrowly define who the lawyer’s neighbors would be – so that he could reassure himself that he was living within the law. No. Jesus told a parable – a parable that shattered the narrow definitions that would allow the lawyer (and all his hearers) to live comfortably with a sense of righteousness.
Bailey, in his study of this parable (a study that commands much more exploration than this time would allow me), notes its careful construction. It begins with with three scenes of those who “come, do, and go.” The robbers come to the man, strip, beat and leave him. Then the priest comes, sees, and passes by. The Levite comes to the place, sees, and passes by. Bailey noted that the man had been stripped and left half dead, which was a way of saying he was near death – so, we must assume, unconscious, unable to speak. This matters in the story because we might then begin to understand the actions of the priest and the Levite. If he had been stripped and was unable to speak, it would have been impossible to know if this man was Jewish – a member of the clan – a neighbor according to tradition. The original hearers of the story would have known that the priest was likely returning from service in the temple. He could not tell if this was a good man. He could not even tell if the man was alive. By law, he was forbidden to get closer than four cubits to a dead man. Bailey says, “The priest was the victim of a rule book ethical/theological system. Life for him was a codified system of ‘do’s and don’ts.’” He goes on to suggest that, “This mentality persists in many forms in our day and continues to claim to offer the security of having quick answers to all of life’s problems and questions. The answers assure the devotee that [the person] is in the right and seem adequate until we face an unconscious man on the side of the road.”
I think about those times that the church has been called upon to minister to the strangers that are in need. When one of my sisters was in an accident, far from home, I called a local Presbyterian Church to ask for a response while she and her boyfriend were waiting for family to arrive. “We only help our own!” I was told. Years later, a family passing through town one winter evening asked for help. I contacted the minister on call. He asked me, “Are they Christians? We won’t help anyone who is not a Christian.”
Bailey suggests that the Levite would have known that a priest was ahead of him, for he, too, would have been going home after temple duties.. He didn’t have as many rules to follow. But he, like the priest, would have feared defilement. And, perhaps, he was afraid that if he stopped, his action would have been seen as a critique of the priest’s inaction.
The Samaritan came. The hearers of this parable, the first hearers, would have expected a Jewish layman to be the next character in this story. But Jesus told them that a Samaritan came. “Samaritans were publicly cursed in the synagogues; and a petition was daily offered that the Samaritans might not be partakers of eternal life.” (Oesterly, 162) The Samaritan’s actions are filled with God imagery. He binds up the wounds. He pours oil on them. He restores health. He then provided refuge for the injured man, taking the expense upon himself.
This was no easy thing to do. It would have been assumed, when he arrived at the inn, that he was responsible for the man’s injuries. If the man were Jewish, as we are led to believe, his family and the victim himself, might have been angry at the intervention – even when it meant that his life had been saved. Such was the hatred of Samaritans.
Through the centuries, interpreters have said that Jesus is the Good Samaritan. Bailey says, “He appears suddenly and unexpectedly from the outside and acts to save.” Even though he was Jewish (through and through), he was feared and, ultimately hated, not unlike the Samaritans.
Jesus was not willing to answer the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” He would not give a list that allowed the lawyer to know who belonged and who didn’t belong. T. W. Manson observed, “The question is unanswerable, and ought not to be asked. For love does not begin by defining its objects: it discovers them.” So, instead of answering the question, Jesus challenged him to know what the real question was, “To whom must you become a neighbor?” The lawyer is challenged to understand that he must “become a neighbor to anyone in need. To fulfill the law he had to reach out in costly compassion to all people, even his enemies.” (Bailey).
Bailey notes that the parable has two kinds of sinners, those who hurt the man with violence, the robbers, and those who hurt him by neglect, the priest and the Levite. All three failed to do good.
To whom must we become neighbors? That question still challenges us as the church. It is so easy, so tempting, to define narrowly who it is God calls us to serve and who it is we can and should count as our enemies. The world around us is very willing to tell us who may be trusted and who should be feared. We draw our circles and carefully screen who it is that we allow in and who we keep out, convinced that doing so will ensure our safety.
It doesn’t work. We see that reality daily. The divisions cause anger and hatred and fear to fester. The “other” looms large as an enemy that must be destroyed. We wake to news that makes us mourn and can encourage us to retreat, to seek our own protection and purity. We strive to keep our “clans” safe – however it is we define them. An article in the paper this past week spoke of the high death toll in Bagdad and the question posed by those suffering. “Where is the outrage?” they wanted to know. “Why is there mourning when the terrorists strike Paris, or Brussels, or Orlando, or San Bernardino, but not when they strike here?” Have we labeled them unimportant, unworthy of our concern, notice or care?
We see, as well, the consequences in our own society of living comfortably and easily with the divisions, with the clans, that prevent us from living into God’s call to be neighbors to all. There was a beautiful quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King posted on Facebook this week. ‘Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding a deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only love can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
We have the horrid stories making the news. Yet, there are powerful stories of people living out love in concrete ways in the midst of our own darkness. After the shooting in church in Atlanta, those affected chose to respond in ways that sought healing, not a perpetuation of violence. I think of the shooting at the Amish schoolhouse and the powerful witness of the community that reached out to the shooter’s widow. People responded to the Pulse nightclub shootings by affirming love’s power to drive out the darkness.
I loved Jon Stewart’s reflections on the shooting of the Dallas Officers. He said, “You can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.” Many protestors, those who had assembled to hold officers to high standards, quickly became those who stood by in silent tribute to those who were injured and slain. They recognized that violence was not the answer to violence.
There is no law against love. There is nothing to prevent us from seeking the well-being of our neighbors. And, we are not asked to narrowly define who those neighbors are. They are, in our own community, those who look like us – and those who don’t. They are those who worship as we do, and those who worship differently or not at all. Our neighbors cannot be defined by race, class, sexual orientation, political affiliation, even by nationality. For God so loved the world, we proclaim, that God sent God’s only son…not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Galatians 6: 7-16
Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” That statement, from 2nd Corinthians, is very familiar. It is often used liturgically as an assurance of pardon. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” Those words are echoed in the passage from the letter to the Galatian Church. Paul ended this letter with a written shout! He took the pen from the person who was setting his words down and wrote in his own hand. It was the all caps shout of modern communication. “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; BUT A NEW CREATION IS EVERYTHING!”
“A new creation is everything!”
In this passage Paul is not saying that we, as individuals, are new creations. He is not individualistic in his approach. Instead, the new creation is broad – it is a change in the world itself. Individuals are a “new creation” as they participate in the realm of God which has come near, offering transformation to the entire world.
What does new creation look like? Paul’s entire letter speaks to the characteristics of the new creation. It is broad, broader than anything they could have imagined in a world that valued divisions as a way of keeping order. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
The gospel lesson for today has a similar theme. Luke had already told us about Jesus sending out the twelve – a story that appears in Matthew and Mark as well. Now, he tells a story unique to this gospel. Jesus sent out the seventy (or in some versions, the seventy-two.) Scholars suggest that this number reminded folks of the “seventy” nations of the world. So, sending out seventy was a way of saying that Jesus’ mission and ministry was for all people.
There are some wonderful things to note in this passage. It has become a favorite passage of the “missional” church movement. It paints a very different picture of what evangelism might (should) look like. At a conference one leader said she was heartened by the message they were to proclaim. “Peace be to this house” and “the kingdom of God has come near to you.” There is no highly developed teaching here. The passage talks more about the demeanor of those who had been sent out. They were to establish relationships in the communities to which they were sent. They were to establish those relationships by being recipients of the hospitality offered them. “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid.” We might think of the story of Peter before he went to Cornelius’ house. He dreamed about a feast being offered to him – yet it was a feast of unclean food. God said to him, in this dream/vision, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” To be a guest of Cornelius, a true guest, he would have had to accept the hospitality Cornelius offered. “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean,” Peter said to Cornelius.
The early church’s radical inclusiveness was one of its profound proclamations in a world which was divided. Faith communities that demonstrated oneness in Christ, where there was no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, were, in themselves, a witness to the gospel, to the message that the realm of God had come into the world in a new way.
How have we lost that vision? Let us not fool ourselves. Our world is as comfortable with division as the ancient world was. We identify groups of people. Some are deemed acceptable, others, not! Modern churches are seldom a testament to erasing division. On the contrary, we more often than not, demonstrate division and exclusiveness. This is, we are told, the most segregated time in American society. We have churches that carefully draw their boundaries, using theology and practice, so that undesirables are kept out. There is an old joke about someone moving up the social ladder – and having to change churches as a result. I can’t tell you how many times someone says to me, “I can’t go to church. I don’t have the right clothes!” The church is divided – by race, by theology and practice, and by economic status. What would happen if the church chose to live into Peter’s declaration, “God has shown me I must not call anyone profane or unclean”? What would happen if we looked at the divisions that give comfort to some in our own world and said that we will strive to live beyond them, that we will seek a new way of being radically inclusive?
This weekend we celebrate this country’s Independence Day. “E pluribus unum” (Out of many, one) is part of the Seal of the United States. For years it was the unofficial motto of our country until, in 1956, congress adopted “In God We Trust” as the official motto. Let’s consider that “unofficial” motto, e pluribus unum. It has been around since the Revolutionary War. “Out of many, one.”
It has been, through the years, an ideal that calls us and yet remains elusive. It appeared on all the early literature as the country sought independence, yet, we know, that there were those who were not included in its ideal, even in the earliest days. We should remember the slaves who had no right to be counted. We should remember that women had no right to vote, to participate in the decision process. We should remember the Native Americans who lost their lands and their traditions as the newcomers pushed for more and more land.
There are pieces of our history that remind us how difficult it is to embrace the notion that our many are one. It seems that every new wave of immigrant is greeted and treated with great distrust. The vision of “oneness” gets narrowly and carefully defined so that “strangers” are readily considered a threat and excluded from the vision.
I wonder if Pierre Eugene de Simitiere, who suggested the phrase e pluribus unum had in mind Paul’s vision for the early church, a vision of acceptance that denied the divisions Paul’s world thought necessary. Whether or not he did, it is a wonderful ideal that still challenges us. We hear the challenge in the rhetoric of the day – rhetoric in many circles that tells us that those who are different are to be feared and are to be excluded. We’re told that we can’t afford to be welcoming, that we can’t trust differences.
Last week’s passage from Galatians spoke about the gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Paul said, “There is no law against such things.” There can never be a law against “being the church.” Perhaps it is time, in our country that is torn asunder, to strive for the new creation that God has initiated in and through Jesus, the Christ. The church could embrace its call to be a place that practices a radical inclusiveness. The church could embrace Jesus’ call to encounter the world in ways that invite relationship.
It is a frightening thing to live into God’s radical vision of shalom, of peace. To do so asks vulnerability of us. It asks us to be recipients of the gifts others offer us. It asks us to sit at their tables, eat their food, hear their stories – and know, that somehow in all of that, the realm of God is drawing near.
Christmas Eve Service
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We continue to be mindful of the dangers of this pandemic, so we are not having in person worship services. You may join us on Facebook each week , Sunday morning at 10:30 AM, or watch the service later on Facebook. The services are also connected to this website by sometime on Monday in the worship section.