Thursday, July 18, 2013

Reflections on the Text – Luke 10:38-42:

Serving and Sitting?
This story of Mary and Martha appears only in the Gospel of Luke, but yet it is one of the most memorable stories in all of the Gospels.  While both Mary and Martha appear in the Gospel of John (along with their brother Lazarus) the John episodes are completely of a different character and intensity (the Raising of Lazarus, Martha’s confession and Mary’s anointing).  In Luke the story appears as a break in the action.  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, he is teaching along the way in parables.  In chapter 10 immediately before this little episode Jesus has told the story of the Good Samaritan.  Following this episode Jesus will teach the disciples to pray, presenting the Lord’s Prayer and continue with more parables.  Here in these few verses at the end of chapter 10 Jesus, his disciples (and we the readers) get to take a break, enjoy some 1st century hospitality and have a meal (and remember in Luke Jesus is always eating a meal, and each meal has overtones of Holy Communion).
First, it is important to make a couple comments about the cultural context. When Jesus and the disciples show up at Martha and Mary’s house there was an expected protocol that would have been followed.  There was an expectation of hospitality and the burden for this fell mostly on the women of the family.  This includes washing feet, providing drink, a comfortable place to rest and preparing a meal.  There is no indication that there are servants to help and in Luke brother Lazarus does not appear, so if the home is that exclusively of Mary and Martha it would have been up to them to provide hospitality.  And Martha is not only doing this, but it appears that she is doing this very, very well.  She knows what she is supposed to do and she is doing it.  One can only imagine that she may have been a terrific cook and that this group of visitors were treated to a wonderfully relaxing afternoon and a delicious meal.
In the 1st century, the position of sitting at the feet of a teacher listening and learning was reserved for men.  What is remarkable about this particular story is that not only that Mary boldly and without reservation takes a place with the men at Jesus feet, but that Jesus approves. It may well be that not all of Jesus’ disciples approved but they were overruled and Jesus actually commends Mary and accepts her discipleship.
What Martha does next, however, is both interesting and surprising within the context of her time and place. She complains! To complain to a guest is a major breach of hospitality. One can only assume that within this group there was perhaps an openness that was unusual for the time.  The Gospel of John tells us in so many words that Jesus was very close to this family, and it must have been the case for Martha to feel like she could openly complain to Jesus.  Jesus response to Martha – often interpreted as a rebuke – focuses not on her work, or how good a job she is doing as a hostess, but it focuses completely on the complaint and on her being stressed out about Mary.
This passage has an interesting history in that at various times it has been used by different groups of Christians to justify, for example, the contemplative life over a life of action.  It has also, ironically, been used to justify excluding women from ministry on the basis that Jesus is condemning a women who are serving.  This of course within the context of the culture makes no sense.  In response to these objections it must be pointed out that, first, in Luke Jesus regularly calls women to be disciples and there are a number of them; and secondly, doing is a part of discipleship and in this passage Jesus does not condemn Martha’s doing or serving.  We might also note that in Acts – Book II of Luke/Acts - Luke spends a fair amount of time describing the establishment of a deaconate which is dedicated to serving, and the first martyr comes from this group – Stephen.  Additionally, in the parable that immediately precedes this story Jesus has finished it by commending his listeners to “go and DO likewise.”  No, doing or serving is not the issue.
I would suggest that we look carefully at Jesus’ words to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the GOOD part, which will not be taken away from her.”  The Greek word translated as “better” is actually the word for “Good.”  It makes a difference.  The word “better” suggest a comparison where one way is better than the other.  Jesus is saying Mary’s way is “good” but he is not saying Martha’s is bad!  So - is this then really a condemnation? Is it a rebuke?  I do not think so.  I think that we should look upon this response as a teaching in which Jesus makes two points: 1. He expresses compassion for Martha’s distraction and worry that raises her stress level.  And by naming an issue that is probably something that Martha, and many others, struggle with on a regular basis – namely the need to be busy and the need to always doing something which then prompts worry and distraction – Jesus is giving her permission to take a break and to lower the intensity.  It is as though Jesus is saying, “Martha, come sit with us for a moment – it’s ok! You deserve a little break, you are doing a wonderful job, but give yourself a moment to be refreshed!”
2nd – most important – Jesus is lifting up the importance of being grounded; of having a foundation.  If we are always doing, doing, doing but never take any time for rest, refreshment, never take any time to study and learn we will burn out!  The general activities that fill our lives, including our Christian service all need to be grounded in rest and refreshment – in prayer, in God’s Word and Sacrament.  We cannot just go, go go! We need to take time to study, to pray and to renew our relationships with Jesus and our family and friends.
We live in a very active society.  In fact, I would say we live in a world that is too active.  How many of us are on the go all of the time?  How many of our children are on the go all of the time? How many of us and our children are over-programed?  How many of us and our children need to be doing and going all the time = this activity to that sporting event to this activity then home to play video games, watch TV, do this, do that.  It is like a whirlpool which just gets faster and faster and sucks us down deeper and deeper.  Can we take time to stop for a moment? To refresh ourselves by sitting and reading the bible, praying, connecting with our family or sharing a meal together?  And not occasionally, but on a regular basis! 
I would again at this point lift up the Faith 5 system as a way to address the very real issues and concerns that Jesus raises in this text about us and our busy life-styles. There is no rebuke here – there is just pastoral concern and there is an invitation to us to look at ourselves honestly, take an inventory of our busyness and the health of our relationships and then to come, sit at the feet of the master – listen, pray and be refreshed!  Hear the Word; come share bread and wine at table and allow for time to reconnect with Jesus and others throughout the week.

The wonderful artwork at the top of the this post is titled "The African Mary & Martha" but I have no artist name; The work above is by HeQi - 
The title of the blog is adapted from a sermon by Luke Bouman - "Service or Sitting"

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