“Tell her to help me.”
A Reflection for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 21, 2019
Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole
body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified:
Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before
you for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation
and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through
our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with
you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
It was claimed that the author of The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke was a physician. Historians could easily claim that he (and I suspect that the author was most likely male because of the era in which the work was written) was a historian because the Acts of the Apostles in the second volume of this opus (and the two works together present the history of salvation in three stages: the stage of Israel, the stage of Jesus, and the stage of the Church).
In recent years, I have come to feel that Luke is equally gifted as a psychiatrist. Now I do not use this term in our modern sense of the word any more than those who call Luke a doctor or a scholar would use it. And yet, there is clearly the understanding that the way in which the information is presented to us comes with an insight and perspective which resonates with the talent and skill of one who is experienced—and even gifted with a more than ordinary level of knowledge. I would not have the audacity to suggest that the Gospels were “written by a committee.” However, it does seem likely that each community remembered and celebrated unique stories about Jesus. If there was a redactor who, at the end, wove all of this together, then there might well be strands which he drew from oral traditions told from various perspectives–and then made his own contributions as well.
A theme which interests me is that of persons who believed themselves to be doing the will of God and who were then confused and unhappy when others who, from their understanding, were not doing God’s will, and who appeared to be rewarded. The most obvious case in Luke is the elder brother of the Prodigal Son. Another fascinating example, though, is Martha—who is the protagonist in the unusually brief Gospel passage we hear today.
The context of this passage is an interesting one. The tenth chapter of Luke is a very busy one! The Mission of the 72 “Apostles.” The Parable of the Good Samaritan. And then the story of a domestic scene between Jesus, Martha, and Mary.
In each of these cases, Jesus interacts with people who want him to do something. They are unhappy with someone or something and expect that Jesus is going to agree with them. I suspect that they are all surprised, and perhaps even shocked, to discover that does not happen. Why is that?
Perhaps it is because Jesus chooses to challenge them—and I intentionally avoid words like correct, or scold. Jesus cares about them as deeply as about anyone else. He chooses to dialogue with them and to suggest that there might well be a deeper insight which they have not yet realized. He listens to what they have to say. He often asks probing questions—both to prove to them that they have been heard and understood, as well as to invite them to consider an alternative perspective. In each of these passages it seems to me that one possible common theme is that we really do not know or understand other people, places, or things as clearly as we might imagine that we do. While we might be willing to dismiss or write others off, God wil not! God will not concur with our own prejudices or preconceptions and will invite us to conversion-to see, to love, to value each and every person as God does. Even presented in a caring and loving fashion, this can be a “hard pill to swallow.”
Of all the people whom we encounter in the Gospels, three of the most significant are the residents of the home at Bethany. The three siblings: Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, are perhaps the closest that Jesus ever comes to having a family of choice. Their home is a refuge for him. A place where he can come and get away from the demands of ministry. It is a place where he can truly be en famille, as the French say. It is his home too. As a result, there is an intimacy here, a connection, which is amazingly profound. These four people know each other very well.
Consequently, Luke does not give us any background. He does not need too. We see at various times how close these bonds are. At various times each of the family members expresses deep emotion as does Jesus—who is even moved to tears at the sadness which comes to this family later.
It is interesting that Lazarus is not mentioned in this passage. It could be that he is so accustomed to the bickering between Martha and Mary that it just goes over his head. Or, perhaps, he is just relieved that Jesus is getting dragged into the squabble, rather than him. Perhaps he is smiling on the side, wondering how Jesus is going to “get out of this one.”
Clearly, both Martha and Mary are so comfortable with Jesus that they feel free to say exactly what they think. Clearly, they both have a close relationship with him. Clearly, they both know that they are important to him. The problem is that they are unique persons and show their love in different ways. They do not understand each other! Like siblings who have lived in the same homes all their lives, tensions and-–perhaps unresolved—conflicts lead to “flair ups.” It is fair to say that Martha is probably not just complaining about Mary not helping to cook the meal or set the table. There are most likely deeper issues here. And these issues often come from a failure to really understand each other. I suspect that Martha and Mary are actually quite close. They may well have a deep and loving relationship. And yet, there is a level of mystery in which they do not quite “get” each other. Sadly, we do not hear Mary’s words here, but really we do not need to. Because this story is about Martha more than it is about Mary.
From a patriarchal perspective, Martha is depicted as a whiner and complainer. She is cast as the villain of the story. Mary is the “good girl,” the person with the “higher insight.” And Martha is threatened by her. In a very extreme attempt at exegesis, this story was used to describe the tension between two competing vocational lifestyles. Mary allegedly represented the “contemplative vocation” and Martha the “active” or “apostolic.” Thus it was argued that a religious calling was superior to a lay one. Even within the world of the religious life, there was a clearly defined hierarchy, with the contemplative cloistered “nun” being “superior” and the active “Sister” being “inferior.”
Is that what this passage is really about? Seen from another lens, Martha seems to ask important questions. Isn’t hospitality an essential ministry? If so, how is it to be accomplished? Shouldn’t everyone be expected to contribute of their time, talent, and resources to contribute? The fatted calf is not going to cook itself, after all. Doesn’t Jesus want supper? Isn’t he hungry? If we all kick in and do the work, we will all be able to enjoy the good meal together. Is Mary “hogging” Jesus? And, of course don’t even get me started on that lazy Lazarus who never does anything around the house. Because he was a boy he was always Momma’s favorite and got away with murder. Now he expects to be waited on hand and foot!
Yes, I admit that I am putting words into Martha’s mouth. Perhaps I am projecting? Martha sounds to me a lot like an elder child, Mary like a middle child, and Lazarus must be the baby of the family! As the “baby” myself, and as the younger brother of two older sisters, I have some idea what that is like.
What is the interaction with Martha all about, then? Why is this story recalled? It would be easy to say that it is to set the stage for the later passages which relate the Raising of Lazarus from the Dead and the Anointing of Jesus’ feet in preparation for the passion. There is another possibility.
Jesus could be inviting Martha to let go of her need for perfection. It will not matter what is served, when it is served, or who serves it. The important thing is that the friends are spending time together. If the fatted calf is over-cooked or under-cooked the world will not end. The house does not have to be spotless. Martha does not have white gloves or a vacuum cleaner after all. This is a family gathering, for goodness sake, there is no need for formality—no need to use the good china and silver! Relax. It will all be fine!
Jesus could be inviting Martha to relax. It sounds as if though she is so agitated and frustrated that she is about to have a break-down. Jesus is really concerned about her. His words are not at all dismissive. He recognizes that she is worked up, and his answer is actually intended to calm her down. Time out, Martha, sit down here with us for a few minutes, don’t worry about anything else. I have an idea that I would like for you to take a minute and consider. Can you take the time to do that? Ok, take a deep breath.
Jesus invites Martha to avoid unhelpful comparisons. The danger with comparisons is that someone has to come out on top and someone has to come out at the bottom of the heap. There is always a good and a bad. There is always a better and a worse. There is always a right and a wrong. In order to feel justified, Martha has fallen into the trap of “odious” comparisons. As a result, she has shifted her attention from what she is doing to what someone else is not. I suspect that Martha may well have been the “Martha Stewart” of her day. She probably threw the best party in Bethany. But, she paid a huge personal price for her success. It takes a toll on her. Because she wants this meal to be the best one that Jesus has ever had, she is unhappy that Mary isn’t following her orders! Mary is wasting time and slowing things down. Let Lazarus entertain Jesus for a few minutes until things get under control. When Mary doesn’t meet her expectations, she calls her out.
Jesus is not comparing the responses of Martha and Mary. Could it be that he is asking Martha to stop comparing too? Mary has chosen the part that is better for Mary. Martha has chosen the part that is better for Martha. Both choices should be valued, affirmed and supported. If Martha tried to be Mary, she would be miserable. If Mary tried to be Martha, she would need Prozac. And if Martha continues to try to force Mary to be something other than what she truly is, she will never understand the unique and beautiful things which Mary alone is able to offer. Hospitality and love can be shown in many different ways. Each is essential. Each contribute to the total experience.
We do not know what happens after this conversation. Based on what we read later, it sounds as if though not too much changes. That is sad. But then, we do not know what happened to the lawyer after Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. We do not know what happened to the elder son in the story of the Prodigal son. Perhaps we come up with an ending that makes sense to us.
The lesson to be gained from all this is that God is far more loving, encouraging and inclusive than we are. We are called to grow and change and become more like God. That is conversion—and is an essential part of the Christian vocation. In a balanced life, in a whole and complete life we are all called to be Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. May we be willing to let go of our own way of thinking and trust that God truly knows and wants what is best—for us individually, for our families, for our communities of faith, and for our world.
God’s hospitality makes room at the table for everyone. God’s hospitality needs everyone, in every way, in every place and time in order to be made real, present and effective.
N.B. Because I am not preaching in community today, this is really a reflection more than a sermon. And yes, I am aware of the dangers of psychoanalyzing the people mentioned in the Scriptures.