19 July 2010

The One Thing Needed

Luke 10: 38-42

 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 18th July 2010

            Are you the Martha-type or the Mary-type?  Are you Martha or Mary?  I’m also talking to the guys here:  which one are you?  Martha is the doer, the organizer, the planner, the busy-one, flitting about (to use a good Scots word); she gets things done.  Martha is also the servant, the care-provider, extending hospitality and welcome, attending to the needs of others.  Mary is the opposite of Martha; she’s the contemplative, the listener, she’s casually spending her days in conversation.  The way the story is told, Jesus obviously lifts up one way of being over the other, rebuking Martha and applauding Mary.

            Now, if you’re a Martha-type, Jesus’ words can sound pretty cruel and unfair, particularly because this story follows on the heels of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that calls for sacrificial service to one’s neighbor as the way of the kingdom.  In fact, this is a theme throughout Luke’s gospel, the importance of diakonia, that is service.  It’s from this word diakonia that we get the word deacon, the one who serves (literally, a deacon is a servant who waits on tables).  Martha has just extended hospitality to the guest, to Jesus.  Shouldn’t Martha be applauded for her service?  She is sweating away in the kitchen getting the meal together.  And what is her sister doing?  She’s not helping at all, she’s extending no hospitality.  Mary’s sitting on the floor, at Jesus’ feet, listening to Jesus.  Apparently, from Martha’s perspective, Mary’s doing nothing.

            Mary is listening to Jesus when Martha comes by, obviously agitated, and tells Jesus to tell Mary to get her but off the floor and help.  This is a classic example of triangulation.  Instead of communicating directly with someone, we turn to a third person to say or do what we’re reluctant to say or do directly.  Very often a lot of interpersonal damage is done when we triangulate or find ourselves being triangulated.  Actually, Jesus allows himself to be triangulated here.  Martha approaches Jesus assuming that he would be on her side, assuming that she was in the right, doing the proper thing, the proper thing for a woman to do in his time (prepare the meal), while Mary was being neglectful of her responsibilities.  That’s when Jesus rebukes Martha.  Jesus probably wouldn’t have said anything to her had she not complained to Jesus about Mary.

            Are you Martha or Mary?   Who wants to be Martha if you’re going to be rebuked by Jesus?   Is Jesus really saying that Martha was in the wrong?  Shouldn’t we be like Martha?  Isn’t the Christian life about service to the Kingdom, serving the needs of our brothers and sisters?  Shouldn’t we be extending hospitality and welcome to everyone in God’s name?  The kingdom needs doers, planners, people who care and provide for the needs of the saints, building homes, teaching church school, visiting hospitals and care centers, caring for the homeless – and because we love to eat, we need people to make the tuna fish casseroles and Jell-O molds for potluck suppers and people to bake brownies and cookies for fellowship hour.  Where would the church be with Martha-types?         

            Where would be without Mary-types?  The reflective listener, the contemplative, the thinkers and dreamers, those willing to engage in conversation around ultimate things. 

            But we have to be careful here.  It’s not a matter of either-or, Martha or Mary, although I’ve intentionally set it up like this.  In fact, this dualist way of thinking is not helpful and leads to a misreading of the text.  It might appear to be this way, given Jesus’ rebuke of Martha.   Again, Jesus probably wouldn’t have said a thing to Martha but for her complaint of Mary.  What Martha was doing matters.  What Mary was doing also matters.    Both ways of being matter in the kingdom.

            What Jesus cautions against is not the many ways Martha is serving, but the spirit behind the way she serves.  It’s difficult to see this in the English translation, but embedded in the Greek we find a Martha who is, yes, the doer, but she’s running in ten thousand different directions at the same time; she’s being pulled and dragged away from the things that matter most.  As a result, she’s nervous, concerned, anxious, and agitated.  She’s worried.  She looks over and sees her sister calm, unbothered, without a concern in the world, talking away with Jesus.  Then she explodes, “Lord, don’t you care?”  Or, “How careless can you be?  Don’t you see what she’s doing?  She should be in the kitchen with me.  Tell her to help me.  It’s not fair.  Tell her.”  At that point I can imagine Jesus standing up, placing his arms on either side of Martha, hold her arms down, gently but firmly, calmly, looking her in the eye and saying,  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  there is need of only one thing.”   Yet, implied in this statement is that Mary, not Martha, knows what it is.

            So what has Mary chosen?  What is Martha missing?  What is the better part?  What has Mary done? That’s the point of the story.

            I’ll get right to the point.  There are two themes here, both inter-related.  Both require us to remember that when Mary sits at Jesus’ feet that they are very human feet, but also the feet of God.  In other words, she’s not engaged in idle chatter with a stranger-as-guest who shows up at one’s house.  They both know who he is.  They call him, “Lord.”  If we probe a little deeper here, we see that this is really a story about hospitality or welcome:  it’s about how we receive the Lord.  How do we live in the presence of of God?  How do we welcome the Lord’s presence in our lives on a daily basis?  How do we welcome the Lord where we live – in our lives, in our households, in the life of the church?  Are we running about, flitting about, distracted, worried, anxious, busy-bodies with our to-do lists, always on the go, and thus failing to be attentive to the guest in our midst, of the Lord in our midst?  Mary recognized the nature of the guest and she throws protocol and tradition to the wind.  Jesus is more important than tradition.  Mary takes advantage of the occasion, of the visitation, sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him.  To be like Mary is to listen to him.  To choose the better part is to choose to take the time to listen.

            Go a little deeper; Luke depicts Mary in an unconventional way for his time.  The women would have been in the kitchen or outside by the ovens cooking, while the men stayed inside to talk.  (I saw this in the Congo.  The women cooked and talked outside.  Only the men ate indoors at the table.)  But here Mary is welcomed into the world of men, as it were, and, what is more, the fact that she is listening to Jesus suggests that she is being attentive to his teaching.  Luke depicts Mary as a disciple – as a student who sits at the feet of Rabbi Jesus to learn from him.  And that’s what matters most.  Martha is missing out on this opportunity because of all her distractions – distractions that prevent here from being a student of the Lord.

            And to go deeper still – and this is easy to miss in the English – the text says, Mary “listened to what he was saying.”  This might sound like idle chatter or a generic conversation before supper, but it’s not.  The Greek is singular, ton logon – literally, the word. Mary was not listening to words, but to “the word,” as in “The Word,” with a capital “W.”  Not the Word, as in the Bible, but the Word as in, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God (John 1:1).”   The same Word made flesh in Jesus; God’s Word spoken in the flesh to us.  “Word” in both the Old and New Testaments refers to the divine, creative speech of God that creates, redeems, restores, and renews creation and God’s people.  The Word is the dynamic, purposeful presence and power of God.  The Word is active; it does something, it moves us and allows us to move.  It’s the Word, the creative divine voice, that’s found in the pages of scripture; it’s the Word embedded in the sermon and released by the Holy Spirit.  When you sense God speaking through the words of the sermon, it’s not me; it’s the Word in the words at work.  It’s the Word, the creative divine speech embodied in Jesus, so that to hear his word is to hear the Word of God.  The Word of God is creative – it offers new vistas, new horizons, new ways of living and being and serving.  As Karl Barth (1886-1968) said, “The Word of God always tells us something fresh that we had never heard before from anyone.”[1]  Mary knew this, that’s what she chose and nothing will distract her from hearing the Word.

            Marys and Marthas are both needed in the kingdom, but what takes priority is being attentive to the Word of God.  Both Mary and Martha’s way of being need to be undergirded by the Word of God – the very Word Mary took time time to adore and ponder at Jesus’ feet.  She took the time to listen for the Word of God – the very Word of life that grants meaning and purpose to our lives. When the focus is on the Word of God, then everything else falls into place, then we have the energy for everything else; when the focus is not on the Word – on God’s vision, God’s purpose – we might be busy and productive, but toward what end, for what purpose? 

            My friend, Tom Long, teaches at Emory University and tells the story of years ago being part of an advisory group to the chaplains at a major university.  Their job was to meet, to listen to reports from the chaplains about their work, and to offer support and counsel.  At one point they were asking questions of the chaplains.  One member of the group, an older gentleman, asked, “What are the university students like morally these days?”  The chaplains looked at each other, wondering how to answer that question.  Finally, one of them took a stab at it.  “Well,” she said, “I think you’d be basically pleased.  The students are pretty ambitious in terms of their careers, but that’s not all they are. A lot of them tutor kids after school. Some work in a night shelter and in a soup kitchen for the homeless.  Last week a group of students protested apartheid in South Africa…” As she talked, the Jewish chaplain who was listening to her began to grin.  The more she talked, the bigger he grinned, until finally it became distracting.  “Am I saying something funny?” she said to the Jewish chaplain.  “No, no, I’m sorry,” he replied.  “I was just sitting here thinking.  You are saying that the university students are good people, and you’re right.  And you’re saying that they are involved in good social causes, and they are.  But what I was thinking is that the one thing they lack is a vision of salvation.”  They all looked in shock at the Jewish chaplain.  “No, it’s true,” he said.  “If you do not have some vision of what God is doing to repair the whole creation, you can’t get up every day and work in a soup kitchen.  It finally beats you down.”[2]

            Without that vision of God’s salvation, without a grounding in God’s Word, it’s easy for us to become anxious, frenetic, distracted Marthas, going about our business and busy-ness, getting things done, but frustrated and maybe even resentful of others and not taking delight and joy in the work before us.  It’s so easy in our lives to be go, go, go, and forget the reason why we go, go, go.  It’s so easy in the church to get caught up in all the activity, with our committee meetings filled with motions and minutes, but missing the Spirit, missing the joy and passion.  It’s so easy for church folk to get burned out.  Sometimes that’s caused by the circumstances in the church; other times it’s because the work has become an end in itself, the work has become divorced from the worship. That is, we have forgotten why we do what we do and for whom. 

            Mary knew what mattered most – hearing the Word, being attentive to the presence of Christ, drawing upon his love and grace and then in love being graceful to a world in need.  If you don’t have some vision of what God is doing, it finally beats you down and burns you up.  Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his Word, listens to his vision.  Without that Word we won’t last long in the Martha-like work required of us in the kingdom.  “It will finally worry us, distract us, anger us, exhaust us, and beat us down.  With that Word, though, we can prepare meals for the hungry, care tenderly for the sick, show hospitality to the stranger and keep on loving and living in the name of Christ.”[3]

            The one thing needed is the Word of Jesus who continues to speak to us all the time.  Although we often fail to hear because of our distractions; our distractions hinder us from listening.  But to listen to his Word – that’s the better part, the good part, the best part that once received can never be taken away.  The one thing needed is the Word, the Word of Jesus, whose word to us is the very Word of Life.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.5.ii (Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1975), 133.
[2] Thomas G. Long, “Mary and Martha,” sermon online at http://day1.org/1052-mary_and_martha.print.
[3] Thomas G. Long, “Mary and Martha.”