Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 18, 2010
Sally was driving home from one of her business trips in Northern Arizona when she saw an elderly Navajo woman walking on the side of the road. As the trip was a long and quiet one, she stopped the car and asked the Navajo woman if she would like a ride. With a silent nod of thanks, the woman got into the car.
Resuming the journey, Sally tried in vain to make a bit of small talk with the Navajo woman. The old woman just sat silently, looking intently at everything she saw, studying every little detail, until she noticed a brown bag on the seat next to Sally. What’s in the bag?” asked the old woman. Sally looked down at the brown bag and said, “It’s a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband.” The Navajo woman was silent for another moment or two. Then speaking with the quiet wisdom of an elder, she said, “Good trade.” Good trade. A good deal—maybe the better part? Well, that’s what Jesus tells Mary she has chosen.
This is a very short Gospel but it is one of the more familiar passages and is packed with a lot of food for the preacher and several subtexts that could propel a very lengthy sermon or even several of them—just not during a heat wave. So, fear not!
It’s also a story which easily engages our imaginations and allows us to make assumptions not supported by the Gospel. We might imagine a big dinner party with Martha cooking up a storm and Mary setting the table, yet Luke merely tells us that Martha welcomed Jesus into her home and had many tasks to do. We don’t even know the hour of the day. It could have been early morning.
The temptation this passage presents is to take sides and, indeed, the church has for centuries suggested that these two women are models for the active versus the contemplative life. Very often taking sides is what the Gospel asks us to do because most of the time the temperature of the text is not lukewarm. But this isn’t one of those times. Why pit the ministry of good management against attention to God’s Word? Of course we busy ourselves with too many things—today much more so than in first century Palestine. And, yes, hospitality was among the highest and noblest expressions of faithfulness in the time of Jesus. Hospitality was a core value in the Bible and—at least in this church—still is.
What might help us find the balance here is to see the relationship between this story and the one that precedes it—the story of the Good Samaritan. Does the side-by-side position of these two Gospels teach us that it is hearing AND doing—not hearing OR doing—that matters? The bottom line is that Jesus cares about our relationships—with God and one another. In mundane terms, what is a wonderful meal, served with care and grace, if we have to eat it in solitude, divorced from equally good conversation with friends?
Still, we may stumble over and struggle with this thing about Mary’s “choosing the better part.” What we have here is a translation glitch. The original Greek word does not really mean “better” but “good” and the entire phrase is best translated “Mary is playing the good part, ” accent on the word “part.” It’s not that Martha’s part is bad just that Martha is playing her part and Mary is playing hers. Each role is different but a good one for someone to play and each role is a necessary part of the big picture of discipleship.
So there you have it: a nice, comfortable interpretation of this story. But the gospel isn’t really about being comfortable, is it? Comforted at times, yes, but not comfortable. So now I’ll go outside the comfort zone and suggest another avenue. There are three—not two—characters in this story: Mary, Martha, and Jesus. That’s an important piece of the equation because what we have here is an example of a radically counter-cultural violation: that a woman would sit at the feet of a single man—a rabbi, no less—and be instructed in things religious. First-century Rabbi Eliazer said, “Better to burn the Torah than to teach it to women.” I wonder if Martha’s distraction and worry was focused on the possible ramifications of these single women inviting a man into their home and sitting down to learn from and have conversation with him. This, at the time of Jesus, was extremely taboo.
Could the better part Mary chose have less to do with her desire to hear what Jesus had to say or with Martha’s fussing in the kitchen and more about Mary’s willingness to ignore the norms of a society that treated women and children as second-class citizens? To claim her rightful place as a beloved child of God? Is this reflective of the struggle in the early church, in the church throughout the centuries, and even in the church today over the proper ministerial roles of women?
Fast forward to this century. Some bishops in the Church of England are lobbying the Archbishop of Canterbury not to allow women priests to become bishops and the Pope has just introduced a revision of church law that includes penalties for woman seeking ordination to priesthood equal to those guilty of the crime of pedophilia. Travesties like this make us aware that, while we may have come a long way since the day Mary was bold enough to take her rightful place at the feet of Jesus—and maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to say her rightful place in the church—there is still a long way to go when it comes to equality, justice, and radical inclusion for women and others.
In the end, the “one thing” that is needful is to be open to the great challenge to play whatever part God has given each of us to play—no matter what the risks or the cost—whether we are Martha or Mary. When we do that, we discover that we do live and live abundantly, just like the man said.