Mary and Martha
Let me read today’s gospel again, this time from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message. We’ve all heard this passage a lot of times, so we bring a lot with us to it when we hear it. Peterson’s directness might help us to hear something new in it:
As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.”
The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course of the meal, and won’t be taken from her.” (Luke 10:38-42, The Message)
What do you notice? Is God offering anything to you? I’m going to read it again, quite slowly. Listen carefully, noticing whether some part of it stands out to you. This isn’t a test – there isn’t a trick here. Listen to God’s word, and hear what is in it for you. [Read]
Is there a word, or a phrase, or a sentence that leaps out at you? At the risk of straining the friendship, I’ll read it one more time. I’m not doing this just to use up time, by the way. Listen to God’s word, and hear what is in it for you. [Read]
Try to remember what God has offered to you. It may be something that speaks to you in your life now, or it might be something that you need to think about and do, or find out more about, or it might be a challenge, or a rebuke. When I read this passage to prepare for today there was a message for me – a loud and clear one. Only one thing is essential…
Luke’s gospel is concerned with one main question. What does it mean to be a servant of Jesus? As we work through Luke’s gospel this year we can keep that in front of us, and ask it each week, like a lens through which we can examine the passages we share.
Last week, if you remember, the Gospel reading was about service. Serving God through serving our fellow human beings – no matter how inconvenient to us, no matter who they are, no matter what their needs are. Serving them because Jesus is our master, and he is the Servant King. We were challenged us to continually ask, who is our neighbour, and following on from that, how can we serve them? That challenge belongs to us as individuals, but also as a body.
So, Luke moves on from what it means to be a servant of Jesus through serving people, to this new thought. And the thought is this: service is not just doing things. Service is being in relationship with Jesus.
I’ve heard lots of sermons on this story. It’s a simple story, but it is actually quite difficult to get a handle on, because it seems so counter-intuitive. It also seems to run against what we just read. Surely doing things in the service of Jesus, in the service of the Kingdom, is enormously important? Surely?
Well, then, what is being said here? Remember – we’re keeping the question ‘what does it mean to be a servant of Jesus’ in front of us, like a lens.
The context of this story is that Jesus is continuing his mission. He is going through Judea teaching people about the Kingdom of God, and calling them to live in the ways of God. At the same time, he is teaching his disciples about what it means to be servants. We’re his disciples, so he is teaching us too. Luke has selected the story of the Good Samaritan before this story, and he includes Jesus’ teaching about prayer next.
This story is, in some ways, at the heart of Jesus’ teaching about discipleship, and about servanthood. Jesus has come to the home of two people he knows, and they’re showing him hospitality. Martha is doing things to make sure everyone is fed, warm and looked after generally – important things, because hospitality to the visitor was a key thing in the culture. Mary is sitting, and listening to Jesus. Martha, not unreasonably you might think, asks Jesus – she doesn’t use his name, by the way, she acknowledges her relationship with him by using the word ‘master’ – she asks Jesus to tell her sister to help. Jesus not only tells Martha that Mary is doing the thing he wants, the much better thing, but he very concisely gets to the root of her problem: Martha is pulled away from Jesus by all she was doing.
Lots of times preachers decide to use this story as an illustration of the two different ‘lives’ of service in the Kingdom. Martha’s is an active life of service, Mary’s a contemplative life of prayer. The clear implication is that Mary’s is better – indeed Jesus tells us it is. But, for those who can’t lead the contemplative life, that is a bit of a kick in the teeth. You have to live a sort of second-best life, knowing that Jesus isn’t keen on it.
I think what Jesus is getting at, is this. The first step, the most essential step, the one that all the others depend upon and without which all of the others are impossible, is to be in love with God, and to listen keenly. To be in love with God, and to listen keenly for God’s movements in your life. If you’re doing that, service will come, and it will come from the right place – God’s love. It is easy to serve the needy, the dirty, the objectionable when you’re depending on God’s love. It is almost impossible when you’re doing it for some other reason.
But the first thing is to be in love with God, and to be in relationship with God. I said earlier that when I was preparing this I got the tap on the shoulder that I needed to take more care with this. I suspect I’m not alone.
This story isn’t about two different sorts of people, with two different sorts of gift – one better than the other. You know – the priest’s job is to pray, your job is to do. It is a teaching about the priority all of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus need to put on things. For too long the church has taught, either explicitly or implicitly, that it is enough for those who sit in the pews to attend, to give money and service, and to belong to the club. Jesus’ way is much more radical than that, and much more costly. Each of us is called to be in love with God, and to make that the most fundamental part of our lives, and to let that love overflow from us in service and care for the world.
So, in practice what does this mean?
First of all, it means that each of us need to take seriously the need to stop – daily, even many times a day – and listen to Jesus. That means reading the Bible, praying, and being silent and listening to the still small voice of God in your heart. It isn’t enough to rush through this, or to make it peremptory – remember, for the disciple, this is the most important part of your life. Being silent with God, and listening. All of us are called to this, and if we’re to grow into the image of Jesus, as Paul says we are, this is something we must do, have to do. It isn’t optional. Ninety minutes in church on a Sunday won’t do it, I’m afraid – it takes being in relationship with Jesus.
It can be hard to get that sort of stopping and listening happening in your life. There are lots of ways to do it, lots of ways you can get help to do it. You’re never too young, and you’re never too old. If you need help, ask.
Second, it means for those of us who are disciples of Jesus, that we need to be continually aware and vigilant about all of those things that pull us away from Jesus. Yes, things need to be done. Meals need to be cooked, lawns mown, salaries earned and so on. But in our world today there are many things we think need to be done that are really just distractions. I’m sure I don’t need to go through them here. Some of them are obvious, but some not so obvious. Sometimes we get so tied up in the busy-work things of our lives, and we confuse doing them with being disciples. Each of needs to be sure that what we’re doing is what God is calling us to do. What is pulling you away from Jesus?
So, today’s Gospel reading does tell us something incredibly important about being a servant of Jesus. A servant of Jesus knows what is pulling her away from Jesus. And a servant of Jesus knows that the most important thing is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen.
I know that sermons often disappear from the mind quite quickly, but I’d really challenge you to hold those two thoughts in your mind, and as you pray and spend time with God this week, ask God to help you see what is pulling you away from Jesus, and also, what ways God is offering you to sit and Jesus’ feet and listen.
The practice we did at the start, of reading the Gospel several times, so as to hear what God has in it for us, is an ancient practice called lectio divina. It is a very simple and prayerful way of reading scripture that each of us can use each day. If you want to know more about it, and want to learn how to do it, you could see me.
We disciples of Jesus walk on an exciting road. We live lives that are rich and full of possibility. The world needs us, because we are the body of Christ, and this world desperately needs Jesus. As we grow and change into better servants of Jesus we become gifts to the world and to one another.