a sermon, based on Luke 10.38-42, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2016
A prefatory note: Jewish Midrash is a method of biblical interpretation of the Torah that, in addition to discerning the moral teaching of a text, fills in the gaps about events and persons when details are lacking. Midrash seeks to ask and answer difficult questions that arise when and where scripture is silent. In the style of midrash and, taking the liberty of whimsy, allowing my inner child to come out and play, I approached this morning’s gospel reading.
I feel sorry for Martha. Welcoming Jesus into her home, she prepares a meal; in the kitchen breaking a sweat, bustin’ pots and pans whilst her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. Martha wants, demands Mary’s help (indeed, the Greek makes clear that Martha’s pitching a fit!). Jesus rebukes her, albeit mildly, “Martha, Martha…” for her anxious, fussy hospitality, which he doesn’t require, then makes a point of the courtesy of Mary’s attention, which he does desire.
The morals of this story are bountiful. It’s about the quality of greeting; that it’s more important as host to offer what the guest most wants or needs and that listening to Jesus has priority above everything else, given that his teaching as God’s Messiah, has, literally, eternal life-long value and that the issue symbolized by Martha and Mary is not either-or, but both-and, calling us to be like the active Martha and the contemplative Mary, thus active contemplatives or contemplative actors whose deeds arise from faithful, not fretful discernment and that the larger social, political point is the hospitality not of Martha or Mary, but Jesus, who, counter to the patriarchal culture of his time, invites a woman to be his disciple to learn from him.
Nevertheless, I side with Martha. I am a human being. I know my qualitative self-worth derives from the fact of my creation. Yet I still respond readily to my inner voice, my inner critic that measures my value quantitatively by my human doing. The more, the better!
I side with Martha for another reason. Kindness. It is important for the host to respond to the desires of the guest. And when the host has done the best she can do, it is equally important for the guest, in a spirit of reciprocal generosity, to offer a heartfelt “Thank you” and surely not a reprimand, however mild, well-intended, and instructive.
This episode reminds me of another, more traumatic biblical tale. The story of Cain and Abel. Without apparent reason or stated cause, God rejected Cain’s offering of a portion of the harvest while receiving Abel’s oblation of lambs from his flock (perhaps revealing divine favor for shepherds over farmers!), which led to the Bible’s first murder; a dispirited Cain taking out his anger on his brother.
While Martha had the good sense not to strangle Mary, at least not in front of Jesus, he, in his role of authority, is less callous, but, I think, no less discriminatory than the God of Genesis. And as the authority, just as he, in a counter-cultural act, welcomes Mary, a woman, as a disciple, he dismisses Martha, stifling her, putting her in her place, a decidedly culturally commonplace practice in the first century and still where’er, whene’er sexism is alive and unwell!
Again, I feel sorry for Martha.
So, today, I, as a pastor and a preacher, will be Martha’s advocate. Today, after centuries of this story being told with Martha being silenced and with no indication from Luke what she thought and felt, and what, if anything, she wanted to say in her defense, I give her a voice that she may speak for herself…
Martha turned on her heel, storming back into the kitchen, her friend’s rebuke ringing in her ears. She was trying her best. Wasn’t that good enough? What was the learned rabbi trying to teach her?
She had overheard his word to Mary about the definition of “neighbor” being anyone in need and being a good neighbor by offering help whether the one in need was a Jew or a Samaritan. That was provocative and she would give it some thought. After all, Mary wasn’t the only one who liked to listen and learn. But now was not the time for idle hands!
Besides, being helpful was precisely what she tried to do. And there was a meal to finish and the stew had almost burned. What would Jesus have her do? Throw it out and start over? Or serve nothing at all? And violate every good tenet of hospitality? Never!
Martha took the pot off the fire, spun around and headed out of the kitchen. Standing in the doorway, she gazed for a moment at Jesus, leaning over whispering to Mary reverently looking up into his eyes. Martha cleared her throat.
“Jesus, I’m sorry, but I’m still distracted! I’ve thought about what you said. ‘Martha, come out of the kitchen. Don’t make such a fuss. Mary has chosen the better part.’
“Chosen? Ha! Who wouldn’t choose the ‘one needful thing’ if she had a choice, if only one thing was needful, and if there wasn’t a houseful of people, you, Jesus, and your hungry disciples?
“So, Mary chooses to listen to you. Great! Who then feeds you and, I repeat, all your disciples? You who fed five thousand because they were hungry and you loved them enough not to send them away. You who told a parable about sheep and goats, the sheep being blessed inheritors of God’s kingdom because they, in welcoming and feeding the neediest, welcomed and fed you.
“See, I have been paying attention. And see, that is what I’m trying to do for you! Welcome and feed you!
“And one other, most important, most needful thing. It’s all about love. Food and drink. Pots and pans. Preparing and setting the table, and cleaning up after you. That’s one way I show my love for you. And that, Jesus, is my instruction about what’s going on here.
“Now, you didn’t ask me, but let me give you some advice. I think you need to re-think your teaching so it makes sense out here in the kitchen.
“In fact, Mary, stay right where you are. Jesus, you get up and follow me!”
Illustration: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1654-1655), National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
 In Luke 10.41, the Greek word, thorubozomai, here translated “distracted,” is generally expressed in the active voice, connoting, in this case, being in a state of uproar.
 Genesis 4.1-16
 See the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10.25-37.
 Matthew 14.13-21
 Matthew 25.31-40