[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during worship yesterday morning.]
You know the incident recounted in today’s gospel lesson, Luke 10:38-42, well.
Last week I suggested that this passage serves as the exclamation point to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which was part of last Sunday's gospel lesson.
The two passages, taken together, dismantle the idea that there’s anything that you and I can do to earn eternity with God.
Eternity with God, along with the forgiveness of our sins and the Holy Spirit’s reconstruction of our personalities and priorities, is the work of God the Holy Spirit in people who daily turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ as their God and Savior!
All of this happens by God’s grace through faith in Christ Jesus alone. Period. End of Sentence. Full stop!
But the incident involving Martha and Mary is more than an exclamation to Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan.
These five verses tell us something about the revolutionary kingdom of God that Jesus has brought to all who believe in Him.
How can I say that? Letting Scripture interpret Scripture, which is what we Lutherans try to do, let’s take a look at the gospel lesson and consider other passages of Scripture that might help us more deeply understand what’s going on here.
Verse 38: “As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.”
It’s unimaginable that any other first-century rabbi would have abided Martha’s invitation to her house or said yes to the invitation!
Although Jesus constantly was complicit with women who violated this taboo, it was strictly forbidden for a woman, who was not a wife, mother, or sister, to speak to a man in public, let alone invite the man to her house. Yet Jesus is not scandalized and there's not a hint to scandal in Martha's invitation.
Martha also seems not to have gotten the permission of her brother, in that culture, the head of the house, if she could issue her invitation to Jesus.
Whatever negative conclusions we may draw about her from the rest of this incident, Martha understood that the kingdom that Jesus came to bring was and is different from the kingdoms of this world.
The apostle Paul would describe this difference well. He said that for those who are in Christ, who believe in Christ and are part of His Church: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
But even Martha, who rejoices in the salvation and direct access that God graciously gives us through Jesus, because Jesus is truly God and truly human, doesn’t understand the implications of this very well. Verses 39-40: “She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’”
Now, we often view this just as Martha being resentful of her sister not doing the work that Martha is doing. But there’s more to it than that.
You see, for most women in first-century Judea, welcoming Jesus and His other disciples with extravagant hospitality was more than a social duty, it brought them dignity and appreciation.
Do you remember when Jesus visited the home of the apostle Peter and found Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever? Luke 4:39 says that Jesus “...bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.”
I used to think it terribly unfair that as soon Jesus healed the woman from her fever, she had to start serving the guests. But for Peter’s mother-in-law, as perhaps for Martha from today’s gospel lesson, exhibiting radical hospitality was her holy calling, her area of spiritual giftedness.
Martha’s problem was that she thought that all of Jesus’ female disciples had the same calling that she had. They were, she thought, all to act as hostesses while the men listened to Jesus.
As conservative and Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright notes in his commentary on this passage: “to sit at the feet of a teacher was a decidedly male role.”
And to sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him intently, as Mary was doing, was not just an act of worshipful adoration. You see, rabbis--teachers--gathered students to prepare them to become rabbis or teachers to others.
The Church needs hostesses and hosts, just as the Church needs accountants, handypeople, Sunday School teachers, worship leaders, musicians, small group leaders, Scripture lesson readers, cooks and bottle washers, folks who take care of the altar, ushers, youth and children’s leaders, and others. It also needs preachers and teachers of the Gospel Word. And that is what Mary’ was saying her call was when she sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to Him.
Martha thought Mary was being uppity. Martha is really telling Jesus, “Lord, tell Mary to go back to the kitchen where she belongs.” Some women and some men do belong in kitchens. It’s where they’re gifted. But other people--women and men--belong in the pulpit.
This is essentially what Jesus is telling Martha in the last few verses of our gospel lesson. “‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered [the double use of Martha’s name denoting Jesus’ sadness for her], ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”
To, through faith, experience Christ living in us and to see the Holy Spirit using our own unique gifts and callings to bring God glory and to tell the world about Jesus is a calling that cannot be taken away from the Christian.
“Martha,” Jesus is telling her, “just because Mary’s discipleship doesn’t look like yours, doesn’t mean she’s less faithful than you. Just because only men have been preachers and teachers in the past doesn’t mean that’s how it’s going to be or got to be in my Church. Her discipleship, though rooted in the same truth, the same will of God, the same Word of God, and the same Gospel, won’t look exactly the same as yours.”
In The Horse and the Boy, a book in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, a young girl asks Aslan, the Christ figure of those books, about what will become of her old nurse back in her home country. “Child,” Aslan answers, “I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”
This is Jesus’ message to Martha and to us as well. Yes, as members of Christ’s body, we are accountable to the Word of God and to one another, but we dare not presume to take the place of God by telling others what the story Christ has written for them must be.
Martha was to employ her gifts within the body of Christ, just as Jesus was calling Mary to use her particular gifts in that same body. We need each other and each other’s gifts as Christians and it would be wrong--not to mention boring--to expect every other believer in Jesus to be exactly like us.
Martha seems to have gotten what Jesus taught her. The Gospel of John tells us that just before Jesus was crucified, He was back at the home of Martha, Lazarus, and Mary for yet another dinner. John says that, “Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.” (John 12:2-3)
Martha serves without bellyaching and Mary once more becomes a lightning rod for criticism by doing another controversial thing. (That’s an occupational hazard for preachers.) This time, it isn’t Martha who attacks Mary. Martha seems by now to appreciate her sister’s calling and giftedness. This time the attacker is Judas, the one who will betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. “‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages,’ [he bellows]. He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” (John 12:5-6) Maybe somebody should have told Judas to focus on following Christ himself. Maybe that message would have fallen on deaf ears. Maybe it was too late for Judas to hear it.
But it’s not too late for us! Jesus has called each of us to follow Jesus with our own unique gifts and personalities.
The differences between us as disciples of Jesus aren’t something to be lamented, not something to be complained about, not something that should cause us to try making others conform to our image. Our call as Christ’s body is to encourage one another to follow Christ so that He can reconstruct us in His image, so that Christ, His lordship, and His love will be manifest in each of us in the unique ways He has in mind for us.
We need lots of Marthas, Marys, Lazaruses, and others to fulfill the mission Christ has given us to pursue together: to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
May we always honor God by respecting one another’s uniqueness as children of God. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]