Mary and Martha – July 21, 2019

  Posted on   by   No comments

Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Track 2)

In the name of our God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.

If you read between the lines of the sermon blurb, you surmised that this is not a favorite passage of mine, in spite of the fact that women are featured front and center; it’s mostly for the way it has been used through the centuries.

I have often heard it preached as women need to do “women’s work,” that is serving, feeding, taking care of “the men,” the ones who had more important work to do, i.e. Jesus the teacher.  And of course, there’s Martha’s resentment at being stuck in the kitchen, which results in her outburst. PS – I’d be resentful too. And you know I bring my own baggage to this story. You also need to know that Jesus probably didn’t come by himself to his friends’ house; he probably brought of few of his disciples as well.

This is a difficult text, not just by my assessment, but by other preachers’.  Hard because it’s not clear what Jesus means by the “better part” that Mary has chosen, it’s hard because of the baggage it carries, it’s hard for me particularly because it pits sisters against each other, and because some persons hear this text and feel comforted, while others are outraged.  Jesus isn’t nearly as clear here as he was last week in the story of the Good Samaritan.  He told the lawyer who questioned him, “go and do likewise.”

David Lose, President of Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, says, “Because they are two women, and because they seem – at least momentarily – at odds with each other, and because Jesus appears to take a side, we have for centuries tried to read this story as about discipleship and yet somehow regularly made it about women’s roles.

“Women’s roles in the church, in leadership, in society, and beyond. Goodness, but the pull of this interpretation is so strong that it has escaped Scripture and entered popular culture. (Consider, he says, as just one example, that the women assigned to be household servants in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale are called “Marthas.”)[1] And he suggests that if their names were Matt and Marty, we’d react differently.

So let’s look at this another way.  First of all, Martha’s hospitality and Mary’s listening to Jesus are not mutually exclusive.  When I entertain, I often try to keep an ear to the conversation in the living room; I’ve been known to put my two cents’ worth in from the kitchen.

We also need to know that this text is about hospitality, following immediately on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who showed compassion and hospitality. Remember that hospitality is a fundamental Biblical principle. The Genesis lesson is all about the hospitality shown by Sarah and Abraham.

Secondly, Mary couldn’t have sat at Jesus’ feet and studied with him, just like a male disciple would do, if Martha hadn’t fixed dinner for them all.  Fixing dinner is pretty mundane and very necessary work, and somebody’s got to do it. Luke 8 tells us that there were a number of women who were disciples of Jesus, who not only bank-rolled his ministry but probably fixed meals and provided other support for him and his rag-tag team. Who did the laundry? I don’t think we can say Jesus is criticizing Martha for the wrong activity.

And third, it’s really important to note that what both Martha and Mary were doing was radically counter-cultural.  Martha was entertaining a man, or men, in her home with no chaperone and Mary is taking a male role as a disciple by sitting at Jesus’ feet.

No one really knows why Jesus criticized Martha.  It’s been the traditional understanding that he was suggesting that the contemplative life is better than the active life, that sitting and listening in prayer/study is better discipleship than being active and engaged. But Jesus did not say that and his life itself didn’t give witness to it.

Spiritual writer and priest Richard Rohr reminds us that neither works without the other.  We need to be both “pray-ers”/learners, and servants/activists. Our prayer life needs to motivate our action; our action needs to be grounded in prayer.

Jesus lived a very active life — moving from town to town, being a thorn in the side to Pharisees, eating with anyone who invited him and often saying provocative things while at table. Matthew, Mark and Luke also portray him escaping to pray alone.[2]  In other words, he too was both/and, both contemplative and active.

So, why is Jesus chiding Martha? Perhaps it’s because she’s harried, anxious and doing too many things at once. The original Greek word (αγαθήν – agathin) does not really mean “better” but “good” and the entire phrase is best translated “Mary is playing the good part,” emphasis on “part.” It’s not that what Martha is doing is bad, just that each is playing her part and that each role is different but is a necessary part of discipleship.[3]

It really would have been better had Jesus said something different, like “You’re right Martha.  What was I thinking? Why don’t we all come into the kitchen and help with the dishes and talk while we work?”[4]  But he didn’t.  And all these centuries later we’re still struggling with his words.

Discipleship takes many forms.  There are many ways to follow Jesus, both in the Gospels and in the 21st century.  Jesus addresses these two women as individuals. They are not portrayed as Lazarus’ – or anyone else’s – sisters in Luke’s story. They stand on their own.

Mary chooses to listen to the words of the teacher, in the company of all those men, and is not scolded but commended. Martha is invited to put aside the tasks of running a household to do likewise. Both women deserve and receive Jesus’ attention. Both are invited into full discipleship. Both have things to contribute no less valuable or significant than any other disciple.

Jesus teaches Mary and invites Martha to join her because his words are for all, his call is to all, his invitation is for all, and he lives, works, dies, and is raised again so that we know there is room for all. All, all.

[1]in the Meantime, Pentecost 6C, July 18, 2019.

[2] Mary McGlone, Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 21, 2019

[3] Nicholas Lang, sermon, July 17, 2016.

[4] Joyce Douglas Strome, The Christian Century, July 10, 2007 issue.

Categories: Sermons