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July 17, 2016

Today’s reading from the gospel of Luke illustrates the important role women played in Jesus’ ministry, as well as Luke’s recognition of this importance.  Biblical scholars note that Luke’s gospel contains more material about women than any other New Testament writing.   In today’s gospel we meet Martha and Mary, sisters who share a home in Bethany.  Bethany was a small town only about 2 miles east of Jerusalem at the foot of the Mount of Olives.  The gospel record indicates that Jesus counted this family as close friends, and he frequently visited their home.  Martha and Mary had a brother Lazarus.  Later in Luke’s gospel we have the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, a deed which hastened the plot to kill Jesus. 

In today’s reading Jesus and his disciples have been travelling south from the Galilee towards Jerusalem, and just outside the city they have stopped in Bethany.  Scripture says that Martha welcomed the group into her house.  Because the text calls it Martha’s house, we can deduce that Martha was either unmarried or a widow.  In either case, she would have been independent, not attached to a man for her livelihood.  She would have inherited the house from her father or husband.  In either case, she was not destitute but had some degree of means to invite 13 people for an impromptu meal.  Martha had a sister Mary who was probably a younger sister, for it was Martha’s house.  Lazarus does not appear in this first story about Martha and Mary.

We often refer to today’s gospel as the story of Mary and Martha.  This is an interesting reversal of the order of the names of the two sisters and reflects what is often taught as the moral of the story.  Mary is held up as the contemplative sister who is to be emulated over her more active sister Martha. We are often told that we should be more like Mary and less like Martha.   This morning I would like to look at the scriptural text a little more closely, and see what else we can draw out to apply to ourselves.  More specifically, I would like to focus on Martha.  What do we know about her?  How did Jesus interact with her, and what can we learn for our own lives today?

To begin, I invite you to close your eyes and picture the house in Bethany.  Now place Jesus, his 12 disciples, Martha and Mary in the picture.  In your picture is Martha running around getting the meal ready while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to what he is saying?   Now open your eyes and we will look at the details in the actual text to see what we can learn about Martha.

At the beginning of the story in the King James translation it says “a woman named Martha received him into her home”.   The NRSV which we use now because it is the most accurate translation, uses the term “welcomed”.  The author of Luke’s gospel did not use the word “invited” but chose the Greek word for welcome, which carries a stronger emotional component of being happy to do this, of looking forward to the visit. From this we know that Martha was a hospitable and generous person.  She was putting aside what she would normally be doing and instead was making dinner for 13 more people.  Her welcome was full of love and devotion to Jesus.  She was looking forward to doing something nice for Jesus by making dinner for him and his disciples, and to enjoying his company.

It is no easy feat to add 13 people to your dinner table when you usually cook for 2 or 3.  For Martha to have welcomed this opportunity we can surmise that she was a very competent and organized woman.  She is used to getting things done in a timely manner.  Her means allowed her to provide the food and may also have permitted her to have a servant.  At any rate she would have had Mary to help under her direction.

But something was going wrong.  Instead of having the help she expected from her sister Mary so that the preparations for the meal would go smoothly, Mary sat at Jesus feet listening to every word he said.  This lack of help sent Martha into a whirlwind of activity, trying to get things done so that she too could listen to Jesus.  Martha became so frustrated about the preparations for the meal not going as she had anticipated, that she became distracted by all that she had to do.  She went to Jesus and asked him “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself.  Tell her to help me.”  We are left to wonder why Martha did not ask Mary for help directly.  Perhaps she went in to where Jesus was speaking to snatch a listen to the conversation, and then realized she had to get back to the kitchen, and in her frustration about doing it all herself she spoke out to Jesus. 

What do we learn about Martha from this exchange? Two things come to mind.  First, we learn that she didn’t want to be stuck in the kitchen but really wanted to be in the room listening to Jesus .  Martha addressed Jesus as Kyrie, Lord, a term well beyond rabbi  or teacher.  Martha had a deep theological sense of who Jesus was.   We will look at that in more detail in a minute.  Secondly, Martha was a person who believed in fairness…..if Mary helped with the food preparation, then they both would be able to listen to Jesus later.

Jesus’ response to Martha is interesting when analyzed in detail.  First he calls Martha by her name, twice.  “Martha, Martha”.  We can hear the tone of affection and concern in Jesus’ voice.  Jesus continues “You are anxious and disturbed about many things”.  The Greek then adds literally that there is a need for few things or one, and that Mary has chosen the good part and it will not be taken away from her”.  What is the good that Mary has chosen?  It is listening.  More specifically, it is listening to what Jesus had to say to them at that particular point in time.  “Jesus was not condemning Martha’s hospitality.  He was reminding her of the bigger picture---even if Martha did not manage to adorn the table perfectly for Jesus, the most important thing was that she did not forget to enjoy the person of Jesus in the process.”(Hannah Roberts, Women in the Bible, p.93)

That is the end of the story recorded in Luke.  What do you imagine happened next?  Did Martha turn in a huff and go back to the kitchen, or did she hear Jesus’ gentle rebuke as an invitation to forget the dinner preparations for the moment, and to join the others in listening to what Jesus had to say to them all.  I believe she did the latter, and the reason for this belief is because of what John tells us happened when Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary died.

When Lazarus became very ill, the sisters sent a message to Jesus informing him of this.  Instead of coming immediately, Jesus delayed his visit until Lazarus had been dead for 4 days.  When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him. Once again she addressed him as Lord rather than teacher, saying ” Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him”.  Here Martha expresses her deep faith in Jesus as God’s agent who can heal the sick.  Jesus said to her in response “Your brother will rise again”. They engage in a conversation about the resurrection which culminates in Martha saying “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”.  This is one of the most magnificent confessions of faith in the New Testament.  Some commentators have called Martha the first theologian because of her lengthy discussion with Jesus about the resurrection and this confession of faith in Jesus as the longed for Messiah.  She has learned much from listening to Jesus, and what she has heard has taken deep root in her.  Martha has become one of the most faith- filled followers of Jesus.   She has moved well beyond kitchen duties in the life of Jesus and the disciples.  Yes, I do believe that Martha who called Jesus “Lord” at this dinner, did put dinner preparations on hold, and stayed to listen intently to more of his teachings.

What can we take away from this gospel story for our own lives?  First, we do not need to label or pigeon-hole ourselves or other people into 1 of 2 categories, contemplative or active. Theologian Raymond Panikkar speaks of doing active Martha service with a contemplative Mary heart.  The late Jesuit psychologist/theologian Ron Barnes taught a course titled “Mysticism and Social Justice”.  If we look at the life of major mystics like St. Theresa of Avila or St. Ignatius Loyola, we discover that they were very active people who founded hospitals and schools as well as religious orders.   My spiritual director Howard Anderson often stressed that followers of Jesus are called to be both/and  people rather than either/or people.

A  2nd lesson is to not loose sight of what is important by getting too stressed out by the details of the immediate.  Having time to enjoy people and to build relationships is more important than having an immaculate house or workshop, or a perfectly manicured lawn and weedless garden.  Jesus gave his undivided attention and unconditional love to all manner of people around him, and as his faith-filled followers he calls us to do the same.

We should not loose the opportunity to share the good news of the gospel with someone who needs Jesus’ helping hand, because we want to get our lawn cut or our clothes off the line before the rain starts. 

Finally, having looked closely at the scriptural texts that involve Martha we can envision her anew, not as a trivial housewife who is overly busy with unimportant things, but as a model and mentor for our own lives.  When the 3 siblings are mentioned in scripture, it is always Martha who is listed first.  Scholars conclude from this that Martha had become most prominent in the Christian communities into which the Gospels were written.  John writes that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:15). 

“By the time John’s gospel was written around 90 CE, Martha was clearly a leader in the church.  In John 12:2, she is said to ‘diakonein’ or serve at table.  This word, translated “to serve” had become, by the time John wrote his gospel, a technical term for someone who presided at the Eucharistic agape feast; to fulfill the office of diakonos, a person was ordained through the laying on of hands, which made the church’s stamp of approval official.  Martha was not the only woman who did this, but she was certainly one who was ordained in this way.”  (Mary Ellen Ashcroft, Spirited Women)  Yes, Martha was an important leader in the early church. She understood that Jesus was the longed for Messiah even before his death and resurrection.  She was valued by new believers as one who had walked with Jesus as his friend.   Because Jesus spent so much time at her house she was an invaluable source of Jesus’ sayings and stories.  Martha was much more than someone who provided physical food for Jesus and the earliest disciples.  She provided spiritual food and support for the emerging church.  We would do well to take her as a model for our own Christian lives.

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