Pentecost 9 C: An Invitation to More

Luke 10:38-42

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I have been, as I expect you have as well, heart sick over the events of the last week. Two more black men – Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge and St. Paul. The brutal slaughter of police in Dallas. These feel like troubled days indeed, and I very much want our preaching to offer relevant and realistic words of hope. At the same time, I will confess to having a hard time relating the story of Mary and Martha to these events. I think I’ve found a way in, but am still working on it, so I’ll share my thoughts thus far below and will be grateful for you to share your insights as well.

Let me begin with two admissions. The first is that I’ve never liked this story all that much. The second is that I suspect much of that reaction stems from my own misreading of this scene. As to the first, here’s the deal: For most of my life, I’ve assumed that the moral of the story is that Mary’s attention to Jesus’ teaching is better and more important than Martha’s work to be hospitable. And that’s always bugged me. Not only have I known lots of folks – women and men – who feel this story greatly undervalues their own efforts at hospitality and service but, quite frankly, I identify far more easily with Martha than Mary. Give me a choice between quiet contemplation and active work or service, and nine times out of ten I’ll choose the latter.

Lately, however, I’ve been persuaded that despite the language of “the better part,” this story isn’t about favoring contemplation over action or learning over service or devotion over hospitality at all. Rather, it’s about seeing what is possible. Martha’s work, you see, was what was expected of her. Guests were coming and so Martha gets busy making sure everyone has what they need. This was – and more often then we’d like to admit, sometimes still is – what was and is expected of women. And that work not only was expected but valued. Indeed, there are few things that Luke lifts up as more important than hospitality in his gospel.

What was not expected was that Mary would take the position of a disciple, one seated at the feet of Jesus listening to him teach. If hospitality was most often considered women’s work, discipleship – and particularly discipleship as learning from the teacher – was most often considered men’s work. Luke’s Gospel has been recognized for years as having what we might describe as a more “progressive” view of women, as he regularly cites women as important to the mission and ministry of Jesus. But more often than not, the roles these women play are still supportive, providing resources and hospitality to the men who followed and listened to Jesus. (Think, for instance, of the women who followed Jesus and their role to support him [Luke 8:1-3] and, eventually, tend to his crucified body [Luke 23:49, 55-56]).

Mary, however, takes her place as one worthy to sit at Jesus’ feet to listen and learn, right along side the men. So perhaps Jesus’ admonition to Martha about “the better part” is not about the roles each plays – both have tremendous value in the gospels – but rather that Mary has seen the possibility of doing something different, actually of being someone different – a disciple of Jesus – in a way few would have expected or allowed a woman to consider. Perhaps, that is, it’s Mary’s assumption that she is worthy to sit as Jesus’ feet that he commends. She imagines and lives into a possibility that stretches the cultural norm because she is in the presence of the one through whom God promises that all things are possible.

Not only that, but based on rhetorical patterns in the Gospels, I suspect that when Jesus repeats Martha’s name, he is not expressing exasperation but deep affection: Martha, Martha, precisely because I love you I want you neither to be distracted nor trapped by your work and role but instead imagine all that is possible for you, as Mary has done.

Like I said, I’m still working on this, and maybe that rendition of Jesus’ words may seem like it stretches things a bit, but I still think this story is less about lifting up one kind of service – the contemplative life over the active one, for instance – than it is to stretch our imagination to what we see as viable options for our lives. What do we see? Whom do we see as worthy? How do we see ourselves? How do we see others? At times, even, do we see others at all? (These questions and themes resonate with our discussion of the parable of the Good Samaritan last week as well, as seeing someone as worthy and imagining a different way of regarding an outsider is also at the heart of that passage.)

And all of this is where I find a way through this story to the tragic events of the past weeks. At its heart, I believe, the Black Lives Matter movement is a plea, request, and demand to be seen. To be treated with equality. As I’ve said at another place on this website, it’s not that the activists of this movement don’t think all lives matter, it’s that they are critiquing a culture that acts as if some lives matter less than others.

And it doesn’t stop there. The massacre in Orlando, the resistance to admitting refugees to our country and sanctuary, the fear-mongering that has plagued this election, all of these are a result, in part, from our penchant to hold so steadfastly to our own cultural norms and expectations that we refuse to see others as God does and cannot see the new possibilities God is still unfolding before us. Even the despicable violence unleashed in anger and, I suspect, profound mental illness in Dallas is part and parcel of a world and culture that constantly draws lines between who’s in and who’s out, who counts and who doesn’t, who is worthy of respect and who is not. But here’s the thing: it’s clear from not only Luke’s Gospel but the whole of the New Testament that whenever you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you will inevitably find Jesus on the other side.

So perhaps this week, Dear Partner, we can help our people experience this story and hear Jesus words to Martha not as rebuke but as invitation – the invitation to see more in herself than she thought possible and, in turn, to see the same possibilities in others. And perhaps we can then be more prepared to hear God inviting us to see more in ourselves than we’ve seen previously and, in turn, to see others – all others – also as God’s beloved children. I suspect that Jesus’ early listeners were surprised by the expansiveness of Jesus’ vision and message, and I have a hunch our listeners will be, too.

Well, that’s what I’ve got this week, Dear Partner. I look forward to you sharing your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks very much for sharing this word of empowerment, as it needs to be sounded again and again, especially when our vision feels so limited. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,