Sunday 16 • 17 Jul 2016

Amos 8:1-12
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Rev. Chris Udy

Our Gospel reading from Luke
is one of those stories
with a chequered history.
Almost everyone who reads it,
finds it a little unclear -
and it isn’t only modern readers
who’ve struggled with it.
For as long as this story’s been told
there’ve been some who found it awkward,
and even after 2000 years
of - mainly male - sermonising,
we’re still not entirely sure
what Luke and Jesus are saying.

The story seems quite simple.
It’s one of those domestic moments
that happen in every household -
part of our constant conversation
about the balance of labour.
Martha and Mary are sisters,
and they live in a house - John’s gospel says -
with their brother Lazarus
in Bethany - just outside Jerusalem.
This little family
was precious to Jesus.
It looks like they were his refuge,
and he loved them.
In the last week of his life,
when he was travelling in to Jerusalem
to teach each day in the Temple,
it was to Bethany that he returned
to rest each night.
When Lazarus was seriously ill - and then died -
Jesus wept,
and, John’s gospel tells us again,
he called Lazarus out of the grave
in a personal preview of resurrection.

It’s clear that Mary and Martha
also loved and trusted Jesus deeply.
When Jesus arrived in Bethany
some days after Lazarus had died,
Martha greeted him by saying
“If you’d been here,
my brother would not have died.”
A few days later,
Mary was the woman, in John’s gospel,
who anointed Jesus’ feet
with a costly perfume,
and wiped them with her hair.
There’s something hospitable and warm
about this family.
Jesus is available to and intimate with them
in a deeper way than with anyone else -
even including his own family.

And that makes the passage we read today
even more strange and intriguing.
I’m not sure why,
but almost everyone assumes
that Martha is the older sister.
Martha means ‘lady’ or ‘mistress’,
and she’s the one who welcomes Jesus
when he arrives at their house.
Everyone also assumes
that she was then preparing a meal -
although there’s nothing in the story that says so -
when she sees Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet
and appeals for arbitration.
“Lord, don’t you care
that my sister has left me
to do all the work by myself?”

Don’t you care?
This isn’t a dispute about energy or effort,
it’s about value - appreciation,
and ultimately about influence and power.
We want to live in a world
where what we say and do makes a difference;
where what we think and feel
is taken into account.
We want our voice to be heard
and our desires to be respected -
and when we think we’re being overlooked
we feel jealous and angry.
Martha wants to be respected.
She wants to know that she’s valued and loved -
as much as Mary -
and maybe a little bit more.
After all, she is the older sister,
and she is the mistress of the house.
So - as the older sister,
and as the mistress of the house,
she gives Jesus an order:
“Tell her then to help me”.

I’m not sure that jealous remonstrations
or imperious commands
are ever the way to find love,
but Martha seems to have been
a person who hopes she’ll be loved
by becoming indispensable.
She wants to be respected
for being busy.
Busy-ness and indispensability
bring their own kind of power -
they can make us influential in some ways -
but they don’t always bring us respect,
and they do little to make us loveable.

If we have to ask questions
that start “Don’t you care?”
there’s a part of us that fears - and knows -
that all our efforts and activities
will not be enough
to win the love and respect that we all need.

Jesus certainly appears to be unmoved
by Martha’s un-ticked-off to-do-list,
and he’s no more impressed
by jealous rants or orders -
but that doesn’t mean
he has no affection for Martha.
It was Martha’s trust that moved him to tears,
and even in this story,
the way he responds to Martha’s commands
shows that he loves her -
even while he is refusing
to do what she says.
“Martha, Martha” he replies,
“you’re 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.”

This is where the story starts to get tricky.
It’s obvious that some comparison
is being made -
and Jesus is preferring one thing over another.
He seems to be validating something,
giving something a higher value than another -
but what’s not clear is what he’s choosing,
and what that choice might mean.

For a long time
the traditional interpretation
was that Jesus valued Mary’s choice
of quietly sitting and learning from him
over Martha’s busy and noisy activity.
The moral of the story - it was thought -
was that faithful, prayerful, devoted discipleship
was more attractive to God
than bustling, energetic, multi-tasking,
capable and responsible enterprise.

Generations of sermons
have been written and delivered -
mostly by male preachers -
who apparently quite liked the idea
of submissive women listening with rapt attention
to words of wisdom being delivered
by men who identified themselves with Jesus.
Generations of women
responded to those sermons
either with gracious patience
as they did whatever was needed
to keep themselves and their families going
while also doing most of the work
entailed in the day-to-day running of the Church;
... responded either with patience,
or with quiet disagreement
as they heard their commitment
to work and action and service
apparently being criticised with words by God.

One of my mothers in the faith -
a woman in Canberra
appropriately called Bettie Saint -
gave me a poem called “It’s all very well”
written from Martha’s point of view.
It runs like this:

"It’s all very well
sitting in the shade of the courtyard
talking about your souls.
Someone’s got to see to the cooking,
standing at the oven all morning
with you taking your ease.

It’s all very well
saying he’ll be content with bread and honey.
Perhaps he would -
but I wouldn’t,
coming into our house like this,
not giving him of our best.

Yes, it’s all very well
him trying to excuse you,
saying your recipe’s best,
saying I worry too much,
that I’m always anxious.
Someone’s got to worry -
and double if the others don’t care!

For it’s all very well
talking of faith and belief -
but what would you do
if everyone sat in the cool
not getting their meals?
And he can’t go wandering
and preaching on an empty stomach -
he’d die in the first fortnight.

Then where would you be
with all your discussions and questions
and no-one to answer them!
It’s all very well."

In recent years
this story has also captured the attention
of a new generation of Biblical scholars -
some of them historians and feminists -
who’ve pointed out
that when Luke was writing his gospel
there was an active argument in the early Church
about the role and authority
of women in leadership.
It’s now quite clear that the church began
with the message of resurrection on Easter morning,
proclaimed, not as you’d expect, by men,
but by the women who’d gone to the tomb
to do what women had always done -
what love and responsibility led them to do -
to prepare the body of Jesus for burial.
It was women, not men,
who first preached the Easter gospel.
It’s also quite clear
that Jesus welcomed women
into discipleship -
something that other rabbis
criticised and denounced.
That’s what he was doing with Mary.
To ‘sit at someone’s feet’
means to be someone’s disciple,
so Jesus was teaching Mary -
and in John’s gospel,
Mary is presented as the first true disciple,
the standard for true discipleship,
because she not only learned from him,
she also loved, trusted and followed him
all the way to the cross and to resurrection.

Jesus clearly recognised,
and valued, and respected and honoured
the discipleship and ministry of women -
and that affirmation lies at the heart
of Mary and Martha’s story -
but by the time Luke came to write his gospel
Paul - and others - had planted churches
up north through what is now Turkey,
outside and away from Jerusalem.
When we read Paul’s letters
we see that women were active
and respected in leadership within those churches -
they’re often mentioned in the lists
of those who were active
as teachers and preachers and pastors
in those congregations -
but in some of Paul’s letters,
and in other historical records
we see that their authority came to be questioned,
and by the time - 300 years later -
when Christianity was adopted
by the Roman Empire,
the ministry of women
had been devalued and denied.
Today we’re slowly seeing
the vision of Jesus being restored.
Around the world,
and in all Christian traditions,
the respect and authority Jesus gave to women
is being recognised and renewed.
Sometimes the progress is painfully slow,
but it needs to be encouraged and affirmed.

Today we might also suggest
another dimension to the story.
We’d say that peoples’ spirituality differs:
that some faithful people -
both men and women -
are Marys and others are Marthas,
and that both quiet contemplation
and active, practical, capable service
are needed in the Church and in the world.
We’d also point out
that Jesus never puts a higher value
on one person over another -
and that everyone - Martha, Mary, female, male,
contemplative, socially active - everyone -
has a ministry to offer in God’s purpose.
We might also say
that perhaps it’s our jealousy and fear,
our insecurities and anxieties
about whether we’re more or less important,
whether we’re loved or valued
more or less than someone else -
it’s that envy and disquiet
Jesus asks us to forego and leave behind.

One thing is necessary.
It will be a different thing for each one of us,
and different for each community we’re part of
but that one thing
needs to be pursued with courage and focus -
and whatever it is,
whatever our gift or our service
or our ministry might be,
we need to take it up with hope and joy,
and with patience and love -
not worrying about what others
are called to do,
but following the call
Jesus gives each one of us,
on the way of the cross
that leads to resurrection.