- The Rev. Frank St. Amour, III
Sermon - 6 Pentecost
In the Name...
Some years ago, I read that hospitality is the art of making your guests feel at home – especially if you wish they were.
Why is it that the name "Martha" seems associated in my mind with the word "Living"? Can anyone help me with that one? Hmmm. But the connection seems apropos to today's Gospel.
Martha Stewart has become proverbial in our time as the model hostess. And one can imagine that Martha of Bethany would have had a subscription to “Living” magazine. But Martha of Bethany has become proverbial in her own right and not in a complimentary way. Thanks to the episode recorded in today’s Gospel, she has become forever associated with the image of a compulsive workaholic. Indeed, there is even a book out called "The Martha Syndrome", and the author says it is what drives our society. We are a people obsessed with activity and have to be doing, accomplishing, and performing 24/7. We measure who we are by what we produce.
This is illustrated in the case of a young attorney who wrote in the NY Times that she knew her career was demanding, but she didn't realize how narrow her life had become until one day, after a few years living in the cultural capital of America, she realized that she had never gone to a Broadway show, or visited one of the fine museums just a few blocks from her apartment. And, even more than that, she realized that she didn't know anybody with whom she could go to these things. All her relationships were business acquaintances and there was no profit to be made from having friends. She was too busy to socialize and so, ended up missing out on so much of what gives life its quality.
And, we often say that Martha of Bethany is caught in that trap. She's too busy to have friends. You can picture the situation described today, I'm sure. While she's scurrying around, seeing to this detail and that, her sister Mary is just sitting back enjoying the company. You can sense the increasing tension and then – kaboom - the explosion. But let's stop right there for a moment and consider a couple of things.
First and foremost, Martha and Mary were real people. That may sound obvious, but they've suffered over the years by being used as stereotypes or symbols. They've been interpreted to represent the struggle of service vs worship, faith vs works, social activism vs personal piety, traditional female roles vs. liberated female roles, and so forth and so on. But they weren't any of these things. They were just two women, sisters, who actually had a lot in common.
When it says that Martha welcomed Jesus and his disciples the word that is used is "upedexato" which means she was their host. This is significant. Single women, even widows, did not host strange men. We know her brother Lazarus was a good friend of Jesus, but this hospitality isn't taking place under his aegis. Martha is doing something which defies convention, something people might even consider scandalous, and she could care less. That ought to tell us something about her.
And as Greek words often have secondary meanings, the secondary meaning of "upedexato" is to welcome by giving ear, or listening to. It's not just the teacher that Martha is welcoming, it's the teaching. The words of Jesus are just as important to Martha as the man. "Upedexato", by the way, is the same word used when Zacchaeus the tax collector welcomes Jesus into his house. Martha and Zacchaeus both cared about what Jesus had to say. That should shatter a stereotype or two.
And what about sister Mary? Well, it seems that Mary cares as much as her sister and goes so far as to also do something incredibly scandalous which defies convention. She, as the phrase goes, "sits at his feet", and that's not a stage direction. That idiom means she joins in with the male disciples in being taught. Now, Hebrew women could often read and write, but they were never, never, religious students. So, Mary's action also tells us something about her.
These two women, then, aren't just caricatures, contrived symbols of opposite values which we can interpret to suit the changing fancies of society or theology. They were very much alike, strong-willed and willing to take risks to be around Jesus.
By the way, if you have any doubts about Martha as one who paid attention to what Jesus said, there's proof positive later on in the Gospel. After Lazarus died, when Jesus arrived at their home, it was Martha who confronted him and shouted at him for taking his time. It's almost comical, but in her anger she asserts her belief that if Jesus had come sooner, Lazarus would not have died. In fact, there's no better way to describe the exchange than to read it.
"Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha answered, "I know he will rise again - in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" "Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."
So, don't tell me, then, that Martha didn't have a deep spirituality. She knew who Jesus was and what he could do. Not even the Twelve could figure that out. So why, then, if Martha was so switched-on, did Jesus today say that Mary had "chosen the better part"?
Well, the Greek word "agathos", translated as "better", has about it the implication of wealth or richness. Jesus is saying that Mary has chosen richness, and what could be richer than God’s Word. But the really important word here is "distracted", "thorubos", meaning a confused noise like a crowd. Martha is distracted; her attention is all over the place. Jesus knows she wants to hear him, but she can't. And that’s what this scene is all about for us.
Our attention, our undivided attention, is what Jesus asks of us in a world that holds more distractions than Martha could ever have imagined. He's not saying that work and family and hospitality have no place. Rather, he's saying that if we focus on, and listen to, him, then all those things take their proper place and our lives become richer, better. Only one thing is needful, Jesus said. One thing. And that one thing is him.
The point of today's Gospel, then, is not to make us choose between being a work-er or a pray-er; a practical person or a spiritual person. The point is to remind us that we can, and should, be both. But if Martha could find herself distracted with Jesus actually under her roof, sitting in the front room, how hard is it for us and how important is it for us to constantly challenge our priorities and our actions, so that spending time with Jesus, being with the Lord, always precedes the work we do for the Lord.
Martha and Mary both welcomed him. They opened the doors of their home and their hearts, and when we do this, when we choose to partake of his richness, another door opens - a door to his kingdom. And, it leads to what I would call Living. The fullest and best kind.
In the Name...