by Deirdre Good
Text: Luke 10: 38-42
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Think about the last meal with friends you really enjoyed. Was it at your house or theirs? Or maybe you were at a restaurant. In which case you were able to enjoy the company and the food without having to prepare, cook, or clear away afterwards. If the meal was at your house, then you know what was involved.
Before I arrived in Maine this summer, I was able to share a memorable meal at home with friends. It all came together at the last minute. I wanted to extend hospitality to our new President at the seminary where I live and work since he had just arrived and was temporarily without family. Fortunately, I was able to invite two other couples to join us. And thanks to Whole Foods, I was able to assemble the dinner at the last minute rather than cook it. So I was able to enjoy the company rather than worry about whether they liked the food I’d cooked. Why was it so enjoyable? Because all the couples (including us) knew and liked each other. Three of us work together, and six of us went to the same church at one time. We have the same sense of humour, values and interests. We respect each other’s viewpoints.
The meal Jesus shares with Martha and Mary presupposed in today’s gospel is quite similar in that the three of them are friends—they eat together in Bethany; they probably worship together and they love each other. How do we think about it? Does the story describe types of people, and continue by commending contemplative types over active types, as Luke’s Jesus apparently does? I know the story can be read this way but there’s a price to pay. It’s a moralistic reading, seeing figures as exemplars. It favors one character over another. Are all of the characters in Jesus’ stories intended to advise readers? Are they meant to evoke empathy and strengthen our proclivity for doing good? Or might we see the whole story in a broader context of Luke and thus as a meditation on deeper issues in the surrounding material. I want to suggest that the passage is a meditation on what it means to be blessed to see and hear what is at hand since others longed to see and hear it but did not (Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Luke 10: 23-4)
A few words about context. Today’s gospel lies close to the start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (9:51) that is a journey of many functions besides travel. One of them is shaping of a community around Jesus (followers, disciples, crowds) alongside the shaping of opposition outside that community. Travel and following Jesus to Jerusalem to death and beyond is also about discerning the meaning of presence and absence and how to be in the presence and absence of Jesus.
So here’s a suggestion: If you are on a journey and Jesus joins the journey, stop whatever you are doing. Look and listen. If there’s time for a meal, order a take-out and food to go. This is a meal to remember: tastes, sights, sound. Savor the meaning of Real Presence.
Now what Martha is doing in our gospel is the important task of service (from which we get the word “deacon”) that can be applied to church leadership with connotations of administration and organization. And the verb in Luke’s description, “Martha welcomed him into her home” shows Martha as head of a household, which leads us to think more broadly about Martha in the rest of the New Testament and beyond.
In John’s Gospel, for example, the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus are described as loved by Jesus, a term that scholars understand to describe relationship of disciple to teacher Jesus. In the episode reporting that Lazarus has died, it is Martha who engages Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” “But,” she continues, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again and when he declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-6) Martha professes: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27). Her confession is a high point of the Johannine communities’ profession of belief in Jesus. Martha is every bit a thinking person.
And, when we look at the rest of the New Testament, it turns out that Mary of Bethany is every bit a doer. At a meal in Bethany where she functions as host and her sister Martha serves, Mary anoints Jesus as a prefiguring of self-giving in the service of footwashing he is about to enact and his death and burial. She does what friends are taught to do by Jesus says Johannine scholar Cynthia Kittredge.
If we take all the evidence of the New Testament, we see that both Mary and Martha have been with Jesus in ways that indicate they both listen, think, and act out a deep understanding of Jesus’ ministry.
I think the lesson for us from the gospel is how to be in the presence of Jesus.
Anthony Bloom, an archbishop in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, recounts in his book Beginning to Pray an experience with a Russian woman whom he visited in a nursing home before she died at the age of 102. It was shortly after his ordination and she sought his advice. “All these years I have been asking people who are reputed to know about prayer, and they have never given me a sensible reply, so I thought that as you probably know nothing, you may by chance blunder out the right thing.” She explained further that for 14 years she had been praying the Jesus prayer almost continually and had never perceived God’s presence.
Bloom blurted out in response: “If you speak all the time, you don’t give God a chance to place a word in.” “What shall I do?” she said. Then he suggested:
“Go to your room after breakfast, put it right, place your armchair in a strategic position that will leave behind your back all the dark corners . . . into which things are pushed so as not to be seen. Light your little lamp before the icon . . . [Orthodox homes traditionally have an icon altar, often with an image of the face of Christ.] and sit, look around, and try to see where you live. Then take your knitting and for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.”
At first, Bloom writes, the woman was suspicious that this advice was superficial. But when she returned to see him some time later, she announced, “It works!” Bloom was eager to hear her elaboration, so she told him how she had followed his instructions to neaten her room and then settle herself peacefully before her icon. She continued:
I settled into my armchair and thought, “Oh how nice, I have 15 minutes during which I can do nothing without being guilty! I looked around the room and thought how nice it was. After a while I remembered that I must knit before the face of God, and so I began to knit. And I became more and more aware of the silence. The needles hit the armrest of my chair, . . . there was nothing to bother about, . . . and then I perceived that this silence was not simply an absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. It was not absence of something but presence of something. . . . the silence had a density, a richness, and it began to pervade me. The silence around began to come and meet the silence in me. . . . All of a sudden I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was the One who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.”
So if Jesus appears on our doorstep, close the laptop, turn off the ipad, and sit down at his feet. This is a time to savor. And if Jesus doesn’t appear – do what ever it is that you naturally do; and in that very action; in that deep silence, look and listen for the Divine Presence.
**Preached on Sunday July 21st 2013 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Castine, Maine.
Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.