Gospel: Luke 10:38-42
1st Reading: Genesis 18:1-10
Second Reading: Colossians 1:15-28
Since my husband is an independent filmmaker, he pays close attention to the film industry. We don’t always watch the Academy Awards, but we did a couple of years ago when Kathryn Biggelo was up for best director for the film “Hurt Locker.” Female directors don’t get nominated very often and up to that point none had won in that category. She did win that year, but it still doesn’t change the fact that men write the vast majority of screenplays, direct most of the movies, have many of the best film roles, and are the movie executives who decide which films get to be made. In all of Nick’s film classes, it was rare that he even had a woman classmate at all. I know I sometimes find it hard to relate to female characters in films. Could it be because of the lack of female representation in the film industry?
Luke ensures women equal footing with men in his Gospel. He gets that his message is for everyone, and so for every story he tells with a male hero, he tells another with a female heroine. Last week, we heard about the Good Samaritan, who helped a stranger in need and saved his life. There were men all over that story, asking questions, trying to justify themselves, beating people up, falling in ditches, being important, passing by, and coming to the rescue. This morning we get the counterpart story of Mary and Martha—a story for women about women—it is the Lifetime Network of the Gospels.
Remember the question for last week was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” We’ll start with the first question about life.
Mary and Martha are practicing hospitality, like Abraham in the Old Testament story. They are welcoming Jesus into their midst. They clean house. They cook food. They sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him. But only one of them is really living.
I think it is understood that in our church we have a lot of “doers”—people willing to pitch in and help, bring things, come to the rescue of someone in need, welcome visitors, etc. That’s one of the things that makes this church pretty amazing—all the people working together to keep this the welcoming place that it is. I know a lot of people who claim to be a “Martha.” Hard work is really valued in churches, families, communities, and the Kingdom of God. After all, we just heard a hero story of the Good Samaritan who came to help. Aren’t we supposed to be doing? So why is Jesus being so hard on Martha?
The problem is that Martha is making herself so unhappy in her serving. She is worried that the food won’t turn out right. She is angry at her sister for not helping her. She is distracted by all her tasks that she has to do. She is complaining to the very one she is trying to welcome. The only way you can be a Martha is to complain all the time—so sorry, I can’t let any of you claim that, anymore. Martha is serving Jesus. She may prepare the most wonderful meals, but it doesn’t bring her joy. She isn’t really living, as long as she does these tasks out of obligation.
This story is really groundbreaking. In Martha’s time, there would have been very few paths open to her if she wanted to serve Jesus. Her place is the home. Her hospitality comes through food—not by choice, but because her culture decided for her. For Mary to have the chance to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen would have been unheard of. Mary is breaking through all convention, and acting as a man, at Jesus’ feet. Yet, this is what gives her life. This is what brings her joy. Jesus is saying we don’t have to fit the expectations set down for us.
Why are we here? Society would say it is to fit in a certain category and do certain tasks so that everything gets done. But the question from the lawyer last week seems to indicate that we are actually here to inherit eternal life, to inherit unlimited life, to live fully. Mary takes the risk to try something new and she loves it. Martha is unhappy, but she doesn’t change anything about how she behaves. Instead she tries to change her sister—or she tries to get Jesus to change her sister. She tries to put her sister back in that box.
I love that Jesus tells Martha that Mary has taken the better part. He knows if everyone sits at Jesus’ feet, he’s not going to get anything to eat. On the other hand, if he gets hungry enough, he knows how to catch and barbecue some delicious fish. When I was growing up, my grandma woke at 5 am to make breakfast for my grandpa. I’m not even sure he could make a sandwich. He never had to, as far as I know. In my house, my husband and I take turns cooking the meals. We both take care of our child. We both mow the lawn. We both work outside the home. So who has taken the better part—me or my grandma? It is about a balance of listening and doing, rest and action. It is about finding what gives life to ourselves and others. But if we find ourselves in the same old rut, feeling put out by our roles and chores and complaining to our guests, it is probably a good time to consider whether what we’re doing gives us life, or if we need to try something else. Thankfully, different things give different people life at different times, so if we all did what truly gives us life, we would presumably find the balance and the different gifts that make for a healthy society.
We’re getting somewhere with the question about living fully and eternal life. But what about, “Who is my neighbor?” Remember, the lawyer quotes the scripture that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Sometimes we forget that we are commanded to love ourselves. Mary is loving herself. She’s doing what gives her life. It must have made Jesus happy to have someone listen to him with such interest. Martha is not doing the loving thing for herself or her sister or Jesus. She’s just making everyone miserable. Even if her food is delicious, who will be able to enjoy it, with all the tension and complaining going on?
Who is my neighbor? Because of Jesus we get to look for God in places we never expected. In Genesis, these strangers show up and Abraham treats them with such respect. He sees that they represent God. He gives them the best of what he and his wife and servants have to offer, both food and attention. Yahweh, God, appeared to him as three strangers who came for lunch. Yet, Abraham’s hunger, his deepest need, is also being met. A stranger brought news from the outside world. Abraham needed company, he needed connection, he needed community, and that day he found it in those three strangers, he found it in God. His love of God, himself, and his neighbor were all wrapped up into one. In Colossians, Paul writes that one of the biggest mysteries is “Christ in you.” God is not far away, but within the people we know, strangers, foreigners, even within ourselves, and in every creature under heaven. It is Christ who holds all things together, not us. We can let go of our usual roles and it won’t all fall apart. It is in God’s hands. God is the director and the screenwriter and the key player of all the parts. And Mary and Martha experienced Jesus in their own house—one was too upset to enjoy it, and the other loved herself enough to take the chance to sit and listen to him, to hang on his every word. If God is with in you and you and you and in that wide circle I tried to draw last week with my pirouette, how do we respond? Who are we going to feed? Who are we going to listen to? What will be our attitude when we do those things? God’s hope for us is that we would find joy, that we would both listen and serve, and that we would see and honor God in ourselves, the stranger, and our sister at the same time.