9th Sunday after Pentecost, year C, 2016
first reading: Genesis 18:1-10a
second reading: Colossians 1:15-28
gospel reading: Luke 10:38-42
The story of Mary and Martha is one of my favorite stories from Jesus’ life, but at the same time it is also one of the least favorite. It’s a favorite because of what it DOES say, and least favorite for what people have done to it at times.
Let me talk about the least favorite part first and put it away quickly.
There are times when folks have turned this into a “win-lose” story – pitting these two sisters against each other. Doing this, Mary is clearly the winner, and poor Martha is left in the kitchen with all the dishes. NOT FAIR. And completely not the point of the story.
There are others who have used this story as a blueprint for a “woman’s place” – that place either serving the men or being a passive listener. Also, NOT THE POINT. There are some who say it’s a story about how “best” to follow Jesus, lifting up a more contemplative model of faith; that a life devoted completely to the Church is more prized by Jesus than a life that is lived “in the world” including work and family obligations. NOT THE POINT.
It is not a “win-lose” story, or a “woman’s place” story, or a “contemplative model” story. Period.
The point of the story as many more see it, and as I see it, is found in the words “distracted,” “worried,” and “better.”
Jesus says, “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 away from her.”
Martha is not a bad guy. She’s not doing a bad thing. She’s like many of us – worried and distracted. I’ve felt that way myself, especially lately, with good reason. I think all of us have good reasons to be worried and distracted.
An attempted coup in Turkey. A deadly terrorist act in France. Starvation and desperation in Venezuela. It’s only been a month since the deadliest terror attack since 9/11 and mass shooting in Orlando. Police shootings and the shooting OF police. Racial tensions.
Add to that our own personal concerns – worries about our kids or grandkids, money worries, health worries, concerns for loved ones, even the weather! Sometimes I just don’t want to get out of bed, or turn on the tv, or look at my phone!
I think it’s quite easy for us to sympathize with Martha, both in her concern for the tasks she is trying to accomplish AND at her annoyance with Mary. And Jesus isn’t much help. He doesn’t show her the sympathy we feel, although perhaps in the way he responded to her he might have shown a little.
The printed word unfortunately cannot really show us tone. “Martha, Martha…” (spoken quietly and gently) and “Martha, Martha…” (spoken with exasperation) are VERY different. I’d like to think Jesus was more pastoral than frustrated. But like I said, the key words here are “worried,” “distracted” and “better.”
Jesus never says that Mary has done the “best” thing. Given the context, Mary has done what is “better.”
But what does that mean?
How often did people have the opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen? Jesus was often surrounded by crowds clamoring to get his attention. But here he is welcomed into Mary and Martha’s home. I’m sure Martha wants to be a good servant – after all, Jesus has JUST finished telling the story of the Good Samaritan, where service was held up by Jesus.
But Martha is so distracted and worried about her service that she has lost sight of the one she is serving.
She is in the presence of JESUS. To put it in our context, if I were Martha, instead of cooking and presenting a multi-course dinner to impress the Lord, “I” would pop in some microwave dinners and sit with Mary and listen and ask and listen some more.
This story is about discernment and perspective, asking ourselves, “What is the ‘better’ thing to be doing?”
When the disciples became angry at the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive ointment because it could have been sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”***
Jesus did NOT mean we aren’t to care for the poor – what he DID mean was at THAT moment, the woman’s act of love was the “better part.”
Mary was able to discern the Lord in her midst, to have the perspective to know that at THAT time and THAT place, her opportunity to sit with Jesus was “better” than cooking dinner or doing the dishes.
Some opportunities are important and never come around again. A chance to sit with the Lord in front of us would be one of those opportunities. And it’s almost impossible for us to have perspective and discern the Lord in our midst if we’re distracted and worried by many things.
So, I have a question for each of us here to answer. I’ve done a little already, but I ask, “What has YOU worried? What has YOU distracted?”
Because these distractions and worries keep US from seeing the “better part” right before OUR eyes – seeing the Lord in OUR midst, hearing and listening to what the Lord is trying to tell us, how the Lord wants us to serve.
These worries and distractions even keep us from hearing the gospel itself. It’s hard to hear “Jesus loves you,” when we’re surrounded by noise from without and within. The “better part” is Jesus, recognizing God amid all the chaos and craziness that surrounds us.
It’s a little unusual to end a sermon with homework, but I think it’s really important that we try to discover our worries and distractions, so that we can bring them TO God, instead of, like Martha, have them keep us FROM God.
***The anointing of Jesus is one of the few stories found in all 4 gospels, Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8. In John it is even the Mary of today’s reading who anoints Jesus!