I’m slaving here in this kitchen and my sister isn’t lifting a hand to help. She’s just sitting out there talking to our guest. I wonder what Jesus would say about that?
Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.
This Gospel is assigned by the Lectionary every three years. It’s a chance, once every 1,095 days, for those who are the busiest in our churches to get a little vindication at sermon time, when we take up the poor plight of Martha and her incorrigible sister.
Maybe Jesus was just having a bad day after the long journey to Bethany, and he didn’t really mean for it to come out the way it did. Sure, that’s it. Martha’s choice to spend all her time working away from her guests and from Jesus, was perfectly fine. Yeah, a bad day that’s all.
In my years of reading this Gospel on Sunday mornings, I noticed that all too often, men think they can sit this Gospel out because, after all, the story about Mary and Martha is about women and women’s issues, right? WRONG! This Gospel could have been about Murray and Moshi as easily as it was about Martha and Mary. The message of this Gospel applies to all of us.
I don’t believe Luke included this Gospel to give out merit awards to those who were voted most likely to succeed or to those who were voted most likely to be spiritual in the yearbook of life. There is a much deeper dynamic going on in this Gospel than first meets the eye. This Gospel is about THE THEOLOGY OF INVESTING IN RELATIONSHIPS. It is very similar to the way that the Samaritan invested in the life of the beaten man left for dead in the ditch, in last week’s Gospel, after the priest and the Levite simply walked by the poor man.
Mary sits at Jesus’ feet pretty much in a trance, soaking up his every word of grace. Finally, when Martha has had all she can take of her sister’s infatuation with the impracticalities of doing theology in the living room, I’m afraid she simply loses it, and she loses it in front of everybody. Who hasn’t been in that situation a time or two? You see, as welcoming as Martha wanted to be, she was simply too busy (as the priest and the Levite were too busy in last week’s Gospel) to invest in the passion of another. Investing in relationships for their own sake was not at the top of Martha’s mission list. It did not have priority on her “to do” list. Martha cannot see anything productive in just hanging around with another person when there’s so much work to be done.
Now this next question might really confuse my readers but bear with me. Do you remember Christmas? Sure you do, after all it was only about six months ago. Do you remember the Incarnation of God into our world; when our God took on human flesh and became a part of each of us? Incarnation is at the very heart of our Anglican theology, and it tells us in no uncertain terms that God saves us precisely by hanging out with humanity.
In this story, Jesus is telling all those who engage in salvation by bookkeeping, you know, those folks who must keep the naughty and nice lists up to date, that they need to put up a “going out of business” sign. They need to see the acknowledgment of their own lostness as their ticket to salvation.
One of my favorite authors puts it this way, “The only ticket anybody needs is the one ticket everybody already has, and Mary, like the Samaritan last week, has chosen to use it. Come on. Sit down and let’s get lost together.” (*)
I have to say to you that I don’t think this story is just about sitting in private with Jesus and God, as important and necessary as centering in on Jesus and God in prayer really is. Remember, we are an incarnational people. WE are the Body of Christ now. This Gospel calls us to center in on each other, in worship, in work, in study and around the table at a meal, because incarnational people find Christ in each other.
Martha’s hospitality was not only socially acceptable, but it was culturally mandated, Yet Jesus thought a one-on-one relationship was the better portion. This causes me to wonder. Just how often do I let myself get so busy doing the socially acceptable and culturally mandated things that I forget to be truly and fully present to another in one of those sacred moments in life? Another way of asking the question is just how often does the act of my doing something blot out the act of our being with someone?
Sometimes in this world of single, microwavable disposable dinners, in this world of property boundaries, fences, numbered campsites and personalized license plates, we might just be making individuality an idol, and idolatry is the sin that is condemned the most in the Bible. I believe it is causing us to suffer a crisis in meaningful relationships.
You see, Jesus’ Kingdom is really a “KINDOM,” a family web that entangles us all together in the community of the love of God! It’s a world where we might as well be brothers and sisters; we might as well be related to each other because that’s the way God sees us.
In the service of “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” in The Book of Common Prayer there is a prayer that the priest prays for the couple: “Eternal God, give them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others.” I tell couples whose wedding I am about to witness, that their Marriage is a ministry to the world as much as it is a ministry to each other.
Let us for a moment imagine ourselves locked in a room with no windows or doors. No matter how nice the room is furnished, we will quickly become bored. Inevitably we will begin to probe the walls and floor, looking for a way to escape.
Now let us imagine ourselves in a castle with a thousand and one luxurious rooms, filled with surprises and pleasures. As we tire of one room, we can move to the next, and the next, indefinitely exploring the castle.
So absorbed are we in our search that we might never notice that the castle, like the first room, has neither windows nor doors leading to the outside world. We are equally a prisoner, but it never occurs to us to escape because we are KEPT BUSY.
This is a good metaphor for the pre-occupation that has almost become a way of life for dear Martha.
Sometimes I think we get so imprisoned in the castle of our works-driven theology. We so often move about the castle finding something else to fuss about, all the while failing to realize that we are never looking through the windows into other people’s hearts.
In this Gospel, Jesus calls us to an incarnational theology which means he calls us into relationships. “And the Word dwelt among us.”
There’s a story that has been floating around for a long time about a man who was going about announcing to one and all that he saw no need to attend church services. This man was advancing the familiar argument that he could communicate with God just as easily out in the fields with nature as he could sitting in congregational worship. One winter evening, the pastor called on this reluctant member of his flock for a friendly visit. The two of them sat before the fireplace making small talk, but the Pastor purposely stayed away from the subject of church attendance. After they stared into the hot fire making small talk, the pastor took the tongs from the rack next to the fireplace and pulled a single coal from the fire. He placed the brightly glowing ember on the hearth. As the two watched in silence, the coal quickly ceased burning and turned an ashen gray, while the other coals in the fire continued to burn brightly. The pastor’s silent message was not lost on the man. After a long pause, he turned to the pastor and said, “I’ll be back in the congregation next Sunday.”
Jesus calls us to see all people as embodiments of the living God, and Jesus calls us to enter into significant relationships with them. He invites us to listen to their stories and try to feel their feelings with the excitement of exploring a thousand and one rooms in a magnificent castle. Only the castle Jesus describes is full of never-ending windows that allow us to be transparent to each other and to the beauty of all of creation outside! That is what Mary did with Jesus, and that is what Jesus did with Mary.
My prayer for the church is NOT that it grows until it splits at the seams. Who among us wants our churches to turn into Walmart at prayer? No, my prayer is that we can nurture our relationships in our parishes such that “interdependence” becomes as important to us as “independence.” My prayer is that none of us will ever miss an opportunity to commune with the Christ that’s in all of us!
(*) R.F. Capon, “The Parables of Grace.” Erdman’s Publishing
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Barbara Webster says
As always, your message is meaningful, reasonable & doable. I look forward to each message from you.
Rev. William Joseph Adams says
Thank you, Barbara, your kind words are so appreciated, really. As my health problems keep nagging me, I do find that I can write. So that is a big part of my ministry now. I hope others find it helpful for them. Blessings to you and yours.
Roberta Ross says
There is so much material here I can identify with. First Martha is so steeped in tradition and the expectations of her feminine duties, she can no longer understand what is important. She is valuable only by her servitude and truly believes that is her only truth. She has no time to explore the deeper side of life. Yet inside her private thoughts, she knows there is more. This reminds me of my mother who would periodically say, “she was abdicating her throne” I was quite young at the time and didn’t understand what she meant. She said bitterly, “look it up!” I did and read many pages about British history I didn’t understand. Finely, I began to understand she only ever wanted to fly planes (which she did). She both did and didn’t want to be saddled with six children. Mary, on the other hand is so intensely interested in the world around her the world beyond her that she is totally immersed in the learning conversation. Is Martha jealous? I was the younger child and was totally immersed in bug catching, expanding my chemistry set and pondering stars…it never occurred to me that I might have been taking anything away from my older siblings. Lots of deep thoughts going on, especially with the James Webb Space Telescope sending us new and exciting pictures of what was happening 2000+ years ago. Amazing revelations for me and all of us this week!
Rev. William Joseph Adams says
I really enjoyed reading your insights coming out of your own life. It really makes it come alive. Thank you.