Martha and Mary . . . sigh. Trinity 5 Year C, 2019

Sermon for Trinity 5 – Year C 2019

Colossians 1:15-23
Luke 10: 38-42

Are we good listeners?

Many years ago, I was asked a rather left field question at an interview. ‘What would you say if Jesus walked into the room?’ I must admit I was not however taken aback – the question had been asked of every candidate and my interview was after lunch – I had the advantage of the incredulity of my fellow interviewees at the question to prepare an answer. Ironically, I didn’t want the job. Even more ironically, I got it and in some respects it prepared me for my life as a priest.

What do we do in the presence of Jesus?

Today’s gospel recounts the familiar tale of Martha welcoming Jesus into her home in Bethany, yet ending up on the end of a gentle rebuke. I must admit ever since I preached on this text three years ago – I have wondered about this encounter.
For last time it became clear to me that every time I had preached on it, which might be as many as 8 times over the years, someone pushed back at what I said. Occasionally I do get a ‘I’m not sure’ type of response to what I’ve said, but with this gospel reading it is every time

A few nights ago – I was having trouble sleeping – I listened to a podcast which turned out to be focussed on these words of Scripture. Not for the first time I heard it told as a tussle as it were between the life of Action, embodied by Martha, and that of Contemplation, as embodied by Mary. It’s fair to say that rather like last weekends cricket it was a close call with neither side deserving to lose, but the podcaster received pushback, exactly the same as I receive every time I preach on this.
This response is summed up in the words of one of my former church wardens, a dear soul who would shake her head each time and say ‘we can’t all be Marys, Eric’

Three years ago I was actually sent a lengthy paper on why Martha gets a raw deal . . . but . . . but . . . what if the incident has nothing to do with that . . . nothing to do with ‘the active vs the contemplative life’? Being vs doing?

I must admit than in suggesting this, I am going against pretty much all of the commentary on this text through 2000 years! But . . .
Certainly I could argue that we could do with lots more Marys. Is the world collapsing around us because no one is working? Because there are far too many people sat around contemplating? Is the problem with Donald Trump that he’s sat quietly in the Oval office meditating? Is the problem with his opponents that they’re doing the same? Is Brexit the result of too much contemplation? Are the shops and airwaves empty and the economy collapsing because we have all been overtaken by a tsunami of mindfulness? I think not. So I could make a very good argument for contemplation over action . . . but what if this incident has little if anything to do with that?

What seemed to get missed on the podcast, which worked the Action vs Contemplation angle as well as I’ve heard it worked; what gets missed in every response I’ve ever had, are the words of Jesus . . . which is more than ironic, it’s genuinely tragic. And I can’t help but wonder why we don’t listen to what Jesus says, and what are the consequences

Let’s consider the story again.

Martha is of course the one who welcomes Jesus into the house. Martha had a sister called Mary who, seated at the feet of Jesus [by the way note that this is how the healed demoniac is found, in the position of the disciple] – Mary ‘listened to what Jesus was saying’.

Note that as it happens Jesus has no issue with Martha. Martha has chosen her work. Mary has chosen hers. Yet, this won’t do for Martha.
‘Martha who was distracted by all her serving,’ comes and try to use Jesus for her own ends. Jesus is speaking, but she’s uninterested in Jesus except as one who will serve her will – She rebukes him “Lord, does it not matter to you that my sister left me all alone to serve?’ Apparently not. Indeed as we shall see again in a few weeks Jesus seems remarkably uninterested in all the things we can get very worked up about – our notions of justice and fairness. A man comes to him and says ‘tell my brother to share the inheritance with me’ – and we’re all with him, and Jesus isn’t interested in deed he tells the man not to be greedy, even though all he wants is what we would call his fair share. Is Jesus bothered because Mary is not helping Martha? Apparently not.

‘Tell her therefore that she should help me’.’Speak Jesus! put the world right the way I think it should be! Sort those people out! Again another theme which will come up – those who think they have a hold over others calling on God to send them to help. It was the Rich man in Hades calls to Abraham to send Lazarus to come and serve him . . .

I can’t help also thinking of the parable of the Prodigal here. We are not told, but I suspect that Mary is the younger of the two. Only because as an elder sibling I recognise myself in Martha 🙂 Thinking she’s in charge of her little sister.
She certainly acts in such a way towards her, albeit trying to manipulate Jesus. Her complaint has more than a faint echo of the complaint of the elder brother ‘All these years I have slaved away for you . . .’ ‘Lord, does it not matter to you that my sister has left me all alone to serve?’

It is at this point that we as it were get to the nub of it all – Jesus’ words. And perhaps there is something here which we so need to hear, that it is not at all a bad thing that we come back to it every third year in the lectionary cycle – for perhaps we haven’t heard it – or better, we haven’t heard the words of Jesus . . .

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.’

What is The One Thing Necessary? What is the One thing which Mary has chosen?

Again let us pause and step back.

We miss what is going on so often. As I have said there are echoes of this story throughout Luke’s gospel, and if we have paid attention to the gospel so far, we should see threads coming together here.

What is the occasion? We are assuming that Martha is dealing with food here. I’ve never heard it suggested otherwise – yet just recently Jesus has fed 5000 people! Does Martha not know? Jesus will says ‘do not concern yourself with what you will eat . . . your father knows you need all these things . . .’ Those are his words
Jesus is in the house and he is speaking. Martha – do you remember the feeding of the 5000??? Why are you so stressed about the food???

Well that might help us be a bit more relaxed about getting a meal ready. [again an echo of when Jesus is teaching the disciples about the yeast of the pharisees and they take it as a rebuke for forgetting the bread. Jesus asks them to remember how he fed them in the wilderness . . .]

Then having fed the 5000 Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter and James and John and a voice from heaven says ‘This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him’

This is the very command of God – Listen to Jesus. One thing is necessary. What is Mary doing?

Mary has chosen the better part . . . She is listening to Jesus.

Man does not live by bread alone, Martha, but by every word that proceeds for the mouth of God. Here are words coming from the mouth of God! Jesus is speaking.
How ironic that we miss what he says. ‘Oh it’s all about the active vs the contemplative life!’ Jesus says nothing about that. What is the One thing necessary – what is the better part that Mary has chosen? – she is doing the will of God – listening to Jesus!’
When we start a conversation about the active Martha vs the contemplative Mary – not words that come into scripture at all (!!) we ignore the words of Jesus.

Jesus says ‘My words are Spirit and they are Life – the flesh avails nothing!’ But do we take him at his word? Do you know the deep sustaining life that comes from the words of jesus? Have you had your heart and soul and mind and strength set on fire by the words of Jesus? When Jesus rebukes . . . the devil! . . . he says ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds fro the mouth of God!’ D owe know the deep satisfaction and Life that comes to us through the Word of Jesus?

Jesus is our Life – His Words are Spirit and Life. Unless we think we have moved beyond this, above all, we need to listen to Jesus – not least because as Jesus says ‘there is only one thing necessary.’

As Jesus says in exasperation at one point – ‘why do you call me Lord Lord and do not do what I say? Did you not hear? this deafness to the words of jesus, exhibited in a failure to understand this incident is at the heart of our fallen condition

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “when I will send a famine through the land– not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.
Amos 8:11 . . . Jesus is speaking – do we hear? Do we even want to hear?

Jesus ask yourself, what would the world look like if everyone heard Jesus?
What would your life look like? What would this church look like?

Do we recognise the Life flowing from His mouth?

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