Rev. Martha Jacobs
Needing to Both Serve and Listen
Genesis 18:1-10a, Luke 10:38-42
July 17, 2022
This story follows immediately after last weeks’ story about the Good Samaritan. Often, in our Gospels, story builds upon story. For example, as I pointed out last week, Jesus may have chosen to use a Samaritan as the hero of his parable because just a day or so before, his own disciples wanted to have fire brought down on a Samaritan innkeeper for not having room for them. Jesus’ reaction to those disciples is to rebuked them. So, last Sunday I wondered if that was one of the main reasons Jesus chose to have a Samaritan, a group despised by many of the people who were gathered, be the main focus and hero.
In this week’s reading, Martha seems to get a negative rap from this exchange with Jesus. Well, as I worked on this homily, I wondered if Martha was distracted from what she was doing. Perhaps she too wanted to sit at Jesus’s feet but, being the elder sister, she knew the importance of hospitality. Perhaps she hoped that if Mary helped her, she could finish the meal preparations more quickly and then she too could sit at Jesus’s feet to learn.
Jesus does not tell Martha to stop doing what she was doing. After all, she was preparing a meal for all of them. Perhaps, instead, Jesus was suggesting that she needed to look differently at how she was preparing to provide hospitality. Maybe Jesus is suggesting that she not do so with a negative heart. Here’s why I think there is another way to look at this story.
Jesus does not tell Martha that what she is doing is wrong. He says that Mary has chosen the better part by sitting and listening to him. He doesn’t tell Martha to stop what she is doing and sit down. She is doing what is the appropriate thing for the female head of the household. She is providing hospitality for the guests who are in her house. Remember, in the prior story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus showed just how important hospitality is. The Samaritan not only stops and cares for the man who is injured, but he takes him to an inn, sees to his wounds and the next morning, gives the innkeeper a lot of money to continue to care for this injured stranger. He asks the innkeeper to provide hospitality and take care of him.
In the reading from Genesis, we can see the importance of attitude as Mary and Martha’s ancestor, Abraham, shows the epitome of hospitality. He doesn’t grumble about running about in the heat of the day or giving to strangers the best goods from his household. By his sharing his tenderest calf, the choicest flour for cakes, and the curds and milk he had, and giving them to complete strangers, his hospitality was meant as a gesture of generosity. His attitude made all the difference. He wanted to ensure their comfort.
Isn’t that what Martha is doing as well? Taking care of those who have shown up at her house? Perhaps the lesson for Martha and for us is to be willing to go beyond the norm to prepare a meal for those who come to our doorstep. Providing radical hospitality shows that we open our hearts and add God’s love to what we prepare. I wonder: if Martha had a different mindset while she was preparing for her guests, maybe she would not have resented Mary’s choosing to sit at Jesus’s feet instead of helping her.
As I thought about the radical hospitality that Abraham showed, as he went about preparing for these strangers with joy in his heart, I remembered when our young people came and cooked for our homeless guests a few years ago. They were surprised to find joy in doing that. Some of their parents commented that they were amazed at their child’s willingness to cook. Some had never cooked before and yet, here they were, in our kitchen, cooking for our homeless guests. When we went to Boston, they also helped prepare a meal for those who were homeless who were coming to lunch. Peeling carrots, snipping string beans, cutting up veggies were not usual chores for these young people, but, they found themselves smiling as they worked.
It is the intention with which we do things that can make a difference. This is what putting our feet on our faith means. Yes, it is important to sit and learn, and be open to God’s movement and teachings in our lives. But, if we just sit in the pews, or chairs, and then don’t do anything with those teachings, then it doesn’t matter what we have learned from Jesus.
What both Mary and Martha do are important. We need to do both. Why we do what we do, is an important part of our faith. Today’s reading can’t dismiss what Martha does, nor can it side with Mary. Study, devotion and service are all important parts of Jesus’s preaching about the kingdom of God. We can help bring that kingdom to earth when we choose to open ourselves to radically care for others. Jesus was about doing and teaching and showing how to care for others. And, Jesus wants us to go and do likewise.
Jesus broke a rule of hospitality by rebuking his host. Mary too breaks the rules by not helping her sister, and by sitting at the feet of the rabbi, a position traditionally allowed only for males. And, Martha breaks the rules by standing up to Jesus and asking that her sister help her. So, perhaps in looking at both the Good Samaritan story and this story we can see that maintaining our expected roles, is not what is important. We are to look at those roles differently, just as we are to look at how we treat each other differently.
Luke’s Gospel constantly reminds us that the Kingdom of God demands that we not remain in the boxes that have been traditionally set up for us by those who have power. But, rather, we are to respond to the needs of those around us, disregarding the norms of society, going out of our way to both serve and to learn; to both care for those who have needs and remember who taught us to do so. Mary and Martha show us that we need to take the time to learn. But, we also need to take the time to serve others.