There is one thing I want to clear out of the way before going too far into the gospel text for this morning, which is to say that this story from the life of Jesus does not present us with a false option between “being busy” like Martha or “being still” like Mary. I don’t believe it’s a condemnation of the kinds of behind the scenes work that many of us do in our lives, nor do I think it’s a glorification of Mary’s posture of devotion that many of us also strive for in our devotional lives. Instead, I think it’s an invitation into a question.
What do you need?
When we hear the bible cut up into little chunks and sermonized each week, we can too easily lose track of the context for each passage. This week’s reading follows directly after last week’s gospel where the scribe asks Jesus what is needed in order to inherit eternal life and our Lord answers with the parable of the good Samaritan. The week before that we heard the preceding verses of chapter ten describing how Jesus sent out the seventy to teach and to preach and to heal, with instructions about what to say and do while they are on the road:
“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there and say to them, ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you.’ … Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” [Luke 10:8-9,16]
That’s where the tenth chapter of Luke began, two weeks ago, with words about the kingdom of God, and rejection and listening. And that’s where the tenth chapter of Luke ends today, the kingdom of God having entered the home of Mary and Martha; rejections – by Martha of Mary’s behavior and by Mary of the role she was expected to fill; and a call to listen to God’s Word made flesh.
Though we read them separately, these stories are placed next to each other in the gospel of Luke for a reason. Both feature a character who knows and does what is expected of them, and a character who does not. Both feature characters who, though they occupied a subordinate role in their society, are praised by Christ Jesus. Both emphasize the God’s priority for people over conventions or laws.
Let’s look at these three parallels. First, both the parable of the good Samaritan, with its set up involving the scribe who asks how to inherit eternal life, and the story of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha feature a character who knows and does what is expected of them, and one who does not.
In the parable of the good Samaritan we actually get two characters who follow the law, but miss the point: the priest and the Levite who fulfill the letter of the law by avoiding contact with the dying man on the side of the road, but miss the point of the law – the structuring of human behavior to provide for the common good. Both of these characters from the parable actually reflect back on the scribe who kicks off the conversation with his question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question we generally understand as, “what must I do to earn my place, to be acceptable, to be good enough?”
Likewise, in the story of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha we meet Martha, a woman who knows and does what is expected of her. Like the scribe who confronts Jesus with the question of what to do, Martha is concerned with doing the right thing – the thing expected of her by the law. She is fulfilling the mandate to show hospitality to the stranger, a law as old as Abraham and Sarah who also showed hospitality to the strangers who visited their home, but she has missed the reason for the law – the need for us to open not only our homes but our hearts to the neighbors and strangers who surround us.
By contrast, the parable of the good Samaritan and the story of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha also show us two people acting quite contrary to the expectations others have for them. The Samaritan, a foreigner who received the kind of treatment foreigners often receive, shows unexpected mercy and kindness to a beaten up man he has no ties of obligation to. Mary, a woman with duties and obligations to the household, breaks with convention by sitting at Jesus feet as a disciple would, as a man would, and rejects the role proscribed by the law in order to be near to Jesus to hear what he has to say.
It doesn’t seem coincidental that the two characters who are praised in these stories are also the two characters who are breaking with convention, or even that they are two characters coming from ethnic or gender backgrounds that were devalued in Jesus’ day. In each story Jesus’ direct address is to someone so preoccupied with justifying his or herself that he or she cannot be still and allow Christ, the kingdom of God in their midst, to love them and to heal them. The roles we are assigned to play in our lives – gender roles, ethnic roles, family roles, professional roles – can be so rigid, so proscribed, that we spend our lives trying to live up to them. The scribe, a student of the law, just wants to know which laws to follow. Martha, a woman in charge of the house, just wants to do right by her guest. We know these pressures – to be good parents, good pastors, good employees, good Americans, good people. We know what is expected, and we work hard to live up to expectations.
But Jesus’ priority appears to be people, not conventions. Jesus does not praise the scribe for setting out to be a good student of the law. He doesn’t praise the priest or the Levite for doing what the law required of them. He doesn’t praise Martha for her faithful work on the tasks that were required of her. Instead he praises a Samaritan for showing mercy to a stranger, and Mary for sitting and listening. He praises those who have stepped outside of the laws of what is right and what is expected and have chosen to order their lives around love: love for their neighbor, love of God. And by doing so, God in Christ Jesus puts a question to us, what do you need; and provides an answer, you need love.
Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, is not taking notes on new laws she needs to fulfill in order to be a good woman. She is sitting in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth, the holiness of God come near, who is loving her. Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, who – like the Samaritan – does not ask us how we came to be so beaten up and left for dead on the side of the road, but simply loves us and heals us regardless of our gender or our ethnicity; regardless of whether we’ve been good parents, or pastors, or employees, or Americans, or people. That love, that relationship, cannot be taken away from us.
“Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
What do you need? Do you need another set of rules to follow? Do you need another set of expectations to live up to? Do you need the pressure of one more relationship you fear you may lose for all the reasons you’ve lost them before? Do you need to live under the weight of all the hopes and dreams your parents laid on you when you were young? Do you need another job review? Do you need
a racial or a national or a gender identity that lifts you up by putting another person down?
Or do you need love, unconditional love, love that sees you as you are and calls you precious, beloved, child. Because that is what has come near in Christ Jesus – the assurance that there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God.
What do you need?