Christ has shown us that God is with us now and always, and when God is here we rejoice, we serve, we focus on God whom we love, and so are reconciled to each other in Christ.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 16, year C; texts: Luke 10:38-42; Genesis 18:1-10a; Colossians 1:15-28
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Let’s hear that once more:
“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. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Mary was distracted by her sister’s serving; so she looked at Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is working to prepare a meal and will not sit beside you and listen, as I do? Tell her then to come sit down.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Mary, Mary, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Martha has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.’”
Does that make a difference in how you hear this story? It does for me. I’m tired of how easily this story has been read and interpreted to abuse Martha and her focus on serving, and to make it a story pitting two sisters against each other. Such a quick and easy take falsely positions the contemplative life against the active life, the thinker against the server, and simply doesn’t do justice to the facts of the story. Imagining Mary as the complainer opens up the reality that the problem Jesus is addressing has nothing to do with the different activities of the sisters. But that still leaves us with the question of what problem Jesus is addressing, then, doesn’t it?
We don’t easily understand the point of this story. Beyond the common interpretation critical of Martha we usually hear lies the complicated problem that it is not a particularly complete or well-told story. There is much detail we, the listeners and readers, want to know that the narrator does not tell: Who else was at dinner? What was the history between these sisters? What did Martha say, or better, feel, after Jesus’ remarks? And most of all, what in the world did Jesus mean?
This story has all the markings of a remembered event that was passed down but not fully understood. Some listener present, or listeners, saw this moment, which would have been awkward for any of us to witness, wouldn’t it? You’d remember the time Jesus and Martha had words and everyone felt like slipping into another room. What was remembered was the precipitating comments by Martha, and the enigmatic comment by Jesus. People knew what he said was important, but if this Gospel is a fair indicator, they didn’t seem to be sure why it was so. Luke doesn’t embellish anything, or add any commentary or further description. He simply relates the brief episode and allows successive new listeners to try their best at what the first disciples likely weren’t sure they understood themselves.
One thing we can say for certain: the ultimate question in this story, the thing we most need to consider, is what Jesus means by “the better part,” the “only one thing”. That’s the big question. If we know the answer to that, we can begin to seek it and live.
What is clear from Scripture, and even from the immediate context of this event in Luke, is that both the sisters are doing “needful” things.
The mandate to be hospitable was not only cultural, it was biblical, and Martha is doing exactly what needed to be done. She has a guest; it is her home, Luke says, so she’s likely the eldest. It’s her job as host to serve her guests. Not because she’s a woman; because she’s the householder, the host. Remember when Jesus, a few chapters ago in Luke, was guest at the home of Simon the Pharisee, and the so-called “sinful” woman came and washed his feet with her tears? Not only did Jesus bless her activity, he chided Simon for not doing the requisite hospitality when Jesus arrived for the meal. It was Simon’s responsibility, as householder, and he failed it. And earlier in this same tenth chapter of Luke from which we read today, Jesus sent out the 70, telling them to accept hospitality and food when offered, and bless those who give it. Martha’s doing what she must do, as host, to say nothing of her love of Jesus.
Look at Abraham and Sarah in Genesis today. They rush around getting a meal ready because they have visitors. It’s not clear at first that they know it is the LORD God. They just see three men, and Abraham and Sarah jump into action. Meat is prepared, bread is made, feet are washed, and a place in the shade to rest is offered. This is what you do.
But Mary also is doing the needful thing: she is listening to her Lord. How many times have we heard Jesus invite people to listen, to hear? How often does he teach, hoping some will listen, and then do, act on his words? Mary knows what to do when the Lord is present: she sits at his feet and hears all she can hear, as eagerly as she can. She is where she must be.
And so we see with Abraham and Sarah. They also listen, as well as serve. God speaks, and Abraham knows now who his guests are. And some of the most powerful conversation between humanity and God that we know of happens because Abraham listens. He is told that he will have a son in nine months’ time. Sarah also hears this. A promise made decades ago is now given immediacy and will be fulfilled, a marvel.
And then Abraham and the LORD go walking and have that awe-inspiring conversation about Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abraham models that in prayer we can argue with God and call the Triune God to account for what we know to be God’s grace and love.
So there is this truth today: when the LORD God is in our midst, there is our focus, our hope, our joy.
When we are in God’s presence, we are called to serve God, and to listen to God. We feed and care for others in many and various ways because our Christ has said he is in the other, the brother, the sister in need. We offer our best in worship because the Triune God has become one of us and now we know in whose presence we gather and are fed with grace. We are called to be Martha and Abraham and Sarah, offering our lives – not just dishwashing – in service to the God who has made us and loves us and who has redeemed the world.
But we also are to listen to God, to the words of the Living Word of God, Christ Jesus, who reveals the heart and will and mind of the Trinity to us. We are struggling with this story this morning because we know we must listen to our Lord and try to understand him. To sit at Christ’s feet and listen is our true calling as well, to be Mary.
What this suggests is that the one thing, the needful thing, is to be in the presence of the Triune God and fully be there with our gifts and our lives. Abraham, Sarah, Martha, Mary, all have the amazing joy of being in God’s presence. All have gifts to offer, all need to listen as well. As do we, which is the great joy to which both these stories point for us: God is also in our midst.
So for us, it becomes not a question of which activity is more pleasing to God, not a question of dismissing those who are most comfortable serving with a dishcloth or a mop and lifting up those who serve by thinking and pondering God’s Word. Rather it becomes a question of using those gifts each of us has and focusing them, and our lives, wholly on our Lord Christ and the relationship with the Triune God he brings in his death and resurrection.
What remains for us to consider is the distractions, the occasion for Jesus’ gentle yet firmly pointed critique.
When we hear the story flipped around, with Mary complaining instead of her sister, it becomes clear to see that the action of the complaining sister – whether listening or preparing – isn’t the problem. It’s the attitude toward the action, and the lack of graciousness and love for the other.
Martha’s distraction with her tasks is the problem, not the tasks themselves. She is not serving the Son of God fully with the gifts she has, she’s serving and wishing that Mary would join her in that serving. Worse, she drags Jesus into her distractions and asks him to side with them.
And do you see what he does? He’s not making some grand, declarative statement that people who work in the kitchen to serve others have to do it without help and others get to sit on their rears and listen to Jesus. And then be praised for it. No, he many times has affirmed and honored the kind of things Martha is doing.
What he’s saying is, whatever you’re doing for me, for God-in-your-midst, do it fully and joyfully, and focus on me, on Christ. When Christ is present, bringing the grace of the Triune God into our very lives, that’s our focus, not any quarrels we might have with each other, or resentments of each other, or wishes for different gifts than the ones we’ve been given, or differing ways of service than the ones we do best.
This leads us to consider what Paul is trying to tell the Colossians. It’s Paul’s statement of what the one thing, the needful thing is. Christ is, Paul says, the image of the invisible God, the creator of all things, ruler of all things, head of all things. If we dare believe that Christ is present with us through the Holy Spirit, as we do claim and believe, Paul says then know this: the eternal, Triune God is present with you as well.
And if that’s so, then all we’ve said about what to do when that happens, all we learned from Abraham, Sarah, Martha and Mary, all that applies. We serve, we listen. Because God is with us.
But then Paul speaks of a deep wonder: in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, who is all those things, the image of the invisible God, ruler of all, all that, in Christ’s death and resurrection God is reconciling all things to himself.
That’s the wonder. When Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, is with us, and when he is our focus, our one thing, our needful thing, we are reconciled with each other, and to the world, and the world itself is reconciled to God. Our forgiveness received from God of necessity opens up forgiveness and restoration between us.
Being distracted by our envy of others, our jealousy of others’ gifts, our concern about whether we’re getting a fair shake, all this is a sign of our not being reconciled.
I think Paul would say that Jesus is saying this to Martha: “When I am with you, you and Mary and I are one, and there is no room for this fighting, this bickering, this distraction. Mary knows this, Martha, and I want you to know it as well.”
There is only one needful thing, and the joy of the Gospel is that we have this: the Triune God is present with us in love and grace and in the world, bringing healing to all.
What Christ would have us do is do what each of us does best. Find our ways of serving that we can offer joyfully and without complaint; find the gifts we’ve been given that we can share; and always, always listen to the Word of God. Serve God, and the people of God in Christ’s name, and listen.
Because when Christ is with us, we are reconciled to each other and the world is healed. When that’s not happening, we know we are distracted, and now we know what to do. Stop, take a breath, and look once more to Christ Jesus and know once again that we are with God and nothing else matters.
In the name of Jesus. Amen