Proper 11C1 Luke 10: 38-42
So the pilgrims from Galilee are getting closer to Jerusalem: here in Luke 10 arriving at the home of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, in the village of Bethany--the suburbs of the Holy City. But Jesus isn’t ready to make his dramatic Palm Sunday entrance yet. That won’t happen until Luke 19! Instead for a while he is going to move around the outskirts, the nearby towns and villages of Judea. This had been ground zero for John the Baptist and his movement, and now folks seem to be coming from all over to hear John’s cousin Jesus, the famous rabbi from Nazareth in Galilee, remembering things John before he was arrested and killed had said about him. Jesus, the one everybody’s been talking about—stirring up the common people and making the religious and secular authorities increasingly nervous--sermons and teaching, healings, exorcisms, amazing miracles. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are apparently old friends, in the wider circle of disciples--and of course we read more about them, and especially the story of the raising of Lazarus, in St. John’s gospel.
This is a brief vignette in Luke 10 with Mary and Martha. Familiar to us in part because from the story we get the idea that “a Martha” is someone who fusses a lot with the distractions of the day while “a Mary” is a more intellectual or contemplative or spiritual type. We know from the way Mary and Martha interact with Jesus in St. John’s gospel that this is an oversimplification of their characters and their relationship with Jesus—but nonetheless the contrasting behaviors in this story in Luke have become a part of our common vocabulary.
It’s interesting I think that we’re told in verse 38 that Martha “received” Jesus “into her house.” Not into “their house,” Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. And actually Lazarus doesn’t get mentioned at all in this story. It’s Martha’s house, and her younger sister and brother have apparently come to live with her. Which would explain perhaps why Martha seems to feel with greater emphasis an ownership of the responsibilities of hospitality. Explains also her additional annoyance with Mary. Her sister is acting like a guest when she should be supporting her efforts of hospitality--helping her to set the table and get the roast out of the oven, and so on. “Do I have to do all the work around here?”
In any event, the contrast of the two sisters does seem to be the point of this story, what we’re supposed to notice. Martha, “distracted with much serving . . . anxious and troubled about many things.” Mary, sitting with the disciples at the feet of the Lord and listening to his teaching. And Jesus giving the obvious moral of the story, “one thing is needful.” Mary has “chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” Two ways to think about our personal relationship to Christ, the nature of Christian discipleship, the life and mission of the Church.
On the eve of Holy Week, a little ways down the road, just before Palm Sunday, when Jesus and his disciples will be back in this house, as we read in John’s gospel, it will be Mary who will anoint the feet of Jesus with aromatic oil and then dry them with her hair. This tender act of devotion, which perhaps we see foreshadowed in the story this morning. For Mary it’s always, always, all about Jesus. To drink in his words, his teaching, to bask in his presence. Open eyes, ears, mind, and heart: and to offer worship without restraint or calculation, giving everything to express the tenderness of her love.
We’ve just come as we read this chapter of Luke from the scene of Jesus and his street-corner debate with the Teacher of the Law and the Parable of the Good Samaritan—which left us with the question: who will be our savior when we are beaten and bruised and left by the side of the road? Not the institution, it turns out—rabbis and lawyers, chief priests, popes and bishops, councils and conventions, rectors, vestries, committees and projects, not ceremonies and sacrifice—but God himself, appearing as one despised and rejected, yet offering himself to pay the full cost of our healing, to bring blessing and peace and life. That wounded traveler certainly could have sung about his Samaritan savior, “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
And now in the very next scene, Martha, who welcomes Jesus with formality into her home, but she is so taken up with the externalities of setting the table and preparing the meal that she is just about entirely disconnected from the one she has invited in. So busy that she misses the moment. And in contrast: Mary sitting at the feet of the Lord. An icon. A picture, a reflection of what it looks like, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength. The first and great commandment. An icon of the faithful church, of each individual Christian. At his feet, listening to his teaching. Drinking it in. The whole rest of the world fades away, and he is all in all. Jesus is everything. Mary opens her eyes and her ears and her mind and her heart, to receive, embrace, breathing-in his every word. Remember what the heavenly voice said to the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration just a short time ago in the 9th chapter, as this journey to Jerusalem began: “This is my beloved Son: Listen to him!” Mary has chosen the good portion, Jesus says. The good portion.
Hard not to think of phrases of Psalm 119 as they might well up in the heart of Mary of Bethany. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not stray from your commandments. My delight is in your statutes; I will not forget your word. This is my comfort in my trouble, that your promise gives me hope. Your statues have been like songs to me wherever I have lived as a stranger. The law of your mouth is dearer to me than thousands in gold and silver. Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path. Early in the morning I cry out to you, for in your word is my trust. I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight.
Watching Mary this morning, sitting at the feet of Jesus, I think about our summer book this year, Mark Ashton’s “Christ and His People.” Mary as an icon of the individual Christian and of the faithful church. Ashton begins his book by unpacking this complex sentence: “the word of God does the work of God through the Spirit of God in the people of God.” A good English Evangelical like Ashton doesn’t talk much about having a “patron saint,” but certainly in spirit Mary of Bethany would be just right for him and for his congregation. Perhaps for all of us. St. Paul in Romans talks about faith in Christ as being something that lies asleep in us, until it is awakened by the Word. Which is why teaching and preaching and Bible Study and spiritual conversation are all so important. In the words of Archbishop Cranmer’s Collect for the Second Advent Sunday, on Holy Scripture: “ Grant that we may in such wise hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.” It is when we take in the word, each one of us—each one of us like Mary at the feet of Jesus—that the church comes to life, that the mission of Jesus begins in us.
We all have a bit of sympathy for Martha. I mean, it is certainly true that sooner or later somebody is going to need to get to the dishes! But it is so easy for us too, and almost tempting sometimes I think, to be like her, “distracted,” caught up so much in the things that matter less, that we end up missing what matters most. To forget about the main thing being to keep the main thing the main thing. We remember the saying, “no man on his deathbed ever said that he wished he had spent more time at the office.” Perhaps to say, “no one of us in our relationship with Christ, as he has come near to us and into our homes and our lives, will ever say with Martha that we wished we had spent more time in the kitchen.”
The point isn’t to be judgmental for the Martha in us, or for our involvement in programs and activities and the general busyness of our lives. We all would strive to do the best we can in a complex world. It’s just a tap on the shoulder about perspective, about remembering why it is we’re doing what we’re doing. About finding our “inner Mary.” Each one of us. “This is my beloved Son: listen to him!” That’s the invitation this morning, and as we have heard his word in Holy Scripture, as we approach the Holy Table. Taking a breath, opening our eyes and ears, our minds and our hearts, leaving the dishes in the sink for a little while, whatever that image may stand for in our lives--and instead going on in to the inner room, to sit at his feet: to be with Jesus.