A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Based on Luke 10:38-42

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY


      In the church in which I grew up as a child, there was really only one parish organization that always had money, even if all the other organizations were broke.  Everyone knew that the only organization that had an active bank account was the “Mary-Martha Society.”  (That’s the equivalent of today’s ECW – Episcopal Church Women.)  Of course, our old church had a Men’s Club too, but the men, as boys will do, always had fun things going:  horseshoe throwing contests, slow-pitch softball games, golf leagues, and fishing derbies.  But the Mary-Martha Society was serious business.  Sure, the men would host those pancake breakfasts and they’d charge 50 cents per person – but somehow the Men’s Club would always be broke.  By contrast, the Mary-Martha Society would prepare those excellent dinners for the congregational meetings, and they wouldn’t charge a cent for them, and yet their coffers would always be running full.  The women of the Mary-Martha Society would make blankets for missions and organize visits to inner city soup kitchens, and they would have these “mite-boxes,” little cardboard houses that they would take home and periodically throw their loose change into, and they would take special trips to downtown mission churches and learn, yes, they would learn, about the work of the churches in economically challenged areas and they would figure out ways of supporting the mission of Christ there.  The Mary-Martha Society was the most active and effective organization in the church -- and no one, for fear of speaking blasphemy, would ever utter a negative word against it.  It was called the “Mary-Martha Society”:  one for Mary and one for Martha -- no matter what Jesus said – and those sermons they heard on that story had better give credit to where credit was due, namely let's hear it for both of them!     

     Can’t you just imagine the voice from the kitchen:  “Hey, you two, someone has to cook the dinner if you want to eat.  Someone has to do the work; not everyone can just lounge around and shoot the breeze.  And Jesus, could your just tell my sister to get in here and give me a hand?” And what does Jesus say?  “You're distracted, Martha, and Mary's not.  She's chosen the better part, the main course – and that won’t be taken away from her.”  And there this nice story ends, and it leaves us wondering what Martha was thinking next.  If you had to add a final sentence to the story – let’s say speak for Martha – what would you say?  … One commentator, a poet, did that – he ends the story with Martha’s comment:  “So says you, Jesus (-- typical man!).  But if I just sat around on my salvation the way she does, who’d keep this house together?”

     At first this story looks like nice little family story – a story about Jesus' visit to the home of his friends, Mary and Martha, a story about how Martha is doing the dutiful thing, the socially acceptable thing, and how Mary is not.  But this tranquil domestic scene is another example of how the mission of Jesus means tables turned upside down.  What was socially acceptable is now challenged in view of a more important pursuit, one that is called the better part (or, as our older translations put it, the “one thing needful”), that will not be taken away.      

      If we look at this story in its own social context, we’ll notice that a real confrontation is going on.  The social convention addressed here in particular is the place and role of women within the movement initiated by Jesus.  The contrast is clear:  Martha in the kitchen, Mary listening at the feet of the rabbi.  This phrase "sitting at the feet" of a rabbi is a formal description of what students literally did -- and we often use it today when we refer back to our learning from our own teachers.  When the book of Acts describes St. Paul's educational background, we are told that he had his theological training while "sitting at the feet" of the famous Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).  At the time of Jesus such formal theological education was not available to women.  But here in this story it is:  Mary is learning, "sitting at the Lord's feet and listening to his teaching."  When Martha complains that Mary is not where she should be, that she should be back in the kitchen helping her with dinner, Jesus describes Martha as distracted, that she is anxious and worried about many things, implying that she herself is not paying attention to the main course.  "Mary has chosen it," he said, "and it won't be taken away from her."

     Are we able to understand what a revolutionary story this is?  At the time of Jesus strict conventions regulated the place and role of women in society.  In Judaism men were instructed to give thanks every day that they were not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.  In the Talmud there are sayings such as "Happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females" (bQid 82b).  Open conversation should not be held with a woman (cf. John 4:9,27), and no woman was to be instructed in theology, in the tradition of the Torah.  Again the Talmud says:  "If the words of the Torah be burned, they should not be handed over to women" (Sota 10a,8).  The wife was neither to bear witness, to instruct children, nor to pray at table, and in the synagogues women were assigned special places behind a screen.

     With that background in mind it is no wonder that Martha is disturbed that Jesus is allowing Mary to be instructed in his teaching.  Martha is engaged in doing the socially correct thing, to prepare the meal, but now Jesus calls her naturally-assumed duties "distractions," distractions from the main thing.  For Jesus no social restrictions are unexamined in the face of the new age he has brought into the present.  The Kingdom of God has drawn near; the good news of God's activity is not held captive by social customs:  it breaks apart long-held human values and asks its hearers to think about where they are:  troubled, anxious, and distracted -- or liberated and ready to learn from their Lord, ready for what is needful?

     Now we no longer need to wonder why women played such a strong role in the early Christian movement.  It is not because they had some sort of romantic attachment to Jesus, as modern writers from Kazantzakis (The Last Temptation of Christ) to Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) like to fantasize.  Nor is it because they were the ones who had the money to finance the movement.  It is simply because in Jesus' teaching people were not divided into categories:  women were not counted as women, but as persons, of God's own creating.  Samaritans were not labeled as Samaritans but as human beings, and could be spoken of as human beings whom God will use to get his work done.  In Jesus' ministry, slaves who were sick were healed, not just left to die; not only Jewish men, but Roman centurions and Canaanite women could be the object of Jesus' attention and could be described as people of faith.  All these people played a role in Jesus' ministry, and consequently in the movement that carried on in his name, not because they simply liked Jesus, but because in the message of Jesus the old traditional tables were being turned upside down.  The dawn of God's kingdom had occurred, the old had passed away, the new had come.  And as St. Paul put it later, after he himself had finally caught on:  "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free; there is not male and female -- you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are all Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" (Gal 3:38-39).  

     No wonder women followed Jesus, and engaged in learning at his feet; no wonder they were there again and again in extended conversations that freed them from life-deadening restrictions.  No wonder they had conversations directly with Jesus in which they learned more than they ever knew about themselves, like the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4), which is the longest conversation Jesus had with any one person in the entire four Gospels.  No wonder they were there at the foot of his cross, when all the men had scrammed, and no wonder they, and only women, were the first to discover the empty tomb -- and no wonder they were the first to speak to others the most needful message of all, the real main course, that the Crucified Jesus was alive, that God had raised him from the dead.  No wonder they were there among the first company of Christians that assembled for that first Christian Pentecost.  No wonder they were there in the earliest history of the church, to learn and to teach -- and now, thank God, to preach, and to baptize, and to celebrate Eucharist, and to be God's instruments for the forgiveness of sins, and yes to be deacons and pastors and bishops -- the grace of God given through them, given even in some places today, from the least expected source.

     When we hear the story of Mary and Martha there is yet something more that challenges every Christian who hears it, and it is this:  just being active in the presence of Jesus is no major virtue.  Being active in the church means nothing in and of itself.   Activity, even of the highest order of social convention, can be a distraction, and such distractions say something about us:  they tell us where our real interests are.  The goal of this story is to get us to ask where our distractions are, because they say a lot about us.  What are the distractions, the excuses, that sound so reasonable, that prevent us from taking the needed time to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him again?

     It was dinner time, Martha said, and suddenly the day’s schedule took over.  Think of the pressures of schedule that we face.  We’d love to come to church but soccer for the kids is now scheduled on Sunday mornings – and you know how important that is for the family.  I’d love to attend Bible study, but it cuts into my time at home fixing that leak in the sink or that broken curtain rod.  Let’s skip Bible Study in our Advisory Board meetings because it just makes the meeting longer.  OK, so our schedules keep us active, very active.  But when they compete with sitting at the Lord’s feet and feeding on him at his table, then they become distractions from the main course, when Christ offers himself to us.       

     So Martha came to St. John’s in the Wilderness one Sunday and said, “Somebody has to get the coffee hour going.”  Jesus' reply is:  “That’s good, but where are you when the better part is going on?”  Are you listening and learning?   Remember, what you’re doing is the result of the good news of God's liberating word.  So is your activity grounded in the love of Christ, and does your life reflect the good news of that main course?   When it is spoken, are you there to hear it?  Or are you distracted and anxious and troubled about many other things?  Are you absent when the people of God gather for worship, but still have all kinds of expectations and demands about where the church should be going?  Remember, your distractions are very articulate:  they speak volumes about what you think the main course should be, the better part, the one thing needful.

     We all are pressured by the relentlessness of our schedules.  I must admit to you that I get very nervous when our worship service goes over one hour.  That’s the social convention with which we are distracted, and I get worried – don’t think I don’t.  But then I ask:  what, or who, are we here for?  We’re here for the main course, and to savor it may take some time.  After all, Jesus has come to visit us, and it’s not our place to tell him when we’re done with him and when he can leave.  

     In the long run, he will never leave us.  That is his promise too, and that is the better part that will not be taken away. And if he offers himself to us always, we can probably give him an extra few minutes of our precious time.  What this story tells us is that learning from him is more important than doing for him.  But like the sisters, both learning and doing are related:  learning from him is not the only course, just the main one, and that should never be taken away from us.  That way our learning becomes more articulate, and says more about us than our distractions.  We learn first, and then we will know what to do.       

            -- Richard L. Jeske