“Martha & Mary” Colchester Federated Church, July 17, 2022, (Luke 10:38-42) Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

After Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan that we contemplated last Sunday, he keeps on traveling and enters a village where Martha welcomes Jesus as a guest in her home.  Luke tells us that Martha has a sister named Mary.  There’s debate among New Testament scholars about whether these are the same women we find in John’s Gospel or not.  A footnote in The CEB Study Bible relates, “This episode happens somewhere in Galilee, so these women shouldn’t be confused with Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, who lived in Bethany.”[1]  However, if we turn to The New Oxford Annotated Bible we read, “This enigmatic account affirms the importance of listening to Jesus and at the same time the account shows Jesus’ openness to and acceptance of women among his followers.  According to Jn 11:1, Martha and Mary were the sisters of Lazarus and lived in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem.”[2] 

These are the sorts of biblical discrepancies that send me down rabbit holes when sermon writing because then I had to sit there and think about this for a while.  Because it does matter in the context of this particular story and in the Gospel as a whole whether or not these were the same women Jesus encountered here at their home and then again in John’s Gospel after their brother died.  Why?  Because it seems that Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were Jesus’ followers and also his friends.  In fact, John says that Mary (the sister who is sitting and listening at Jesus’ feet) is the same women who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.[3]  Mary, Martha, and Lazarus seem to be close to Jesus in a way that not all of his followers were, hence we have several stories about Jesus staying with this family.  This companionship is clear to see in how Jesus speaks to Martha and has implications for how Jesus’ words will be received by us.  All of this to say that we are going with the theory that these are the same women in Luke’s Gospel and John’s Gospel—Martha, Mary, and Lazarus of Bethany were siblings and Jesus’ dear friends.

In our Gospel story from Luke Chapter 10 this morning, Mary is depicted as sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen wholeheartedly to his message.  Meanwhile, Martha is preoccupied with getting everything ready for the meal she’s making for their guests.  Martha starts getting upset as she is doing all these tasks and her sister is not helping.  So upset, in fact, that she goes directly to Jesus and says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself?  Tell her to help me.”[4]  We can hear the familiarity in her words, the kind of words you would say to somebody with whom you have a good relationship.  Jesus responds to her understandable frustration in a tender way, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  One thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the better part.  It won’t be taken away from her.”[5]

We sometimes hear Jesus’ words and fear that he has put Martha down.  Or this is just another story showing the hostility that can exist between sisters.  Those of us who identify with Martha (the doers if you will) get huffy that Jesus sides with the Marys of the world—those who just sit around and contemplate while the rest of us have to do all the work to keep things running.  Here’s what is fascinating—just like scholars don’t necessarily agree about whether Mary and Martha were the same people in Luke’s Gospel and John’s Gospel—there are so many different interpretations of this story!  Some say it represents active and contemplative lifestyles or justification by works vs. justification by faith.  Or it’s ultimately about women’s rights to a theological education since Jesus defends Mary’s right to study with him.[6]

So again, this is a mysterious story indeed.  It is a story about the importance of listening to Jesus.  It is a story about how Jesus accepted women among his followers.  And it is a story that we may find particularly poignant (or annoying) for those of us who have sisters.  Because my sister is one of my best friends in the world and nobody can set me off the way that she can.  Both things can be true.  We can identify with this sister spat, whether we have been the frustrated sister or the sister on the receiving end of the other’s frustration.  Perhaps that’s something we can take away from this story—sibling conflicts are old news, and even Jesus had to help these sisters get along better.

A final takeaway is to allow ourselves to be challenged by the either/or nature of this Gospel story.  A Christian theologian I greatly admire is Fr. Richard Rohr—a Franciscan priest, Christian mystic, author, and founder of The Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  He is always trying to challenge our natural go-to dualistic thinking, the ways that we separate people and things into either/or and us vs. them categories.  Fr. Richard and his colleagues help people be compassionate and educated in the Christian tradition while working for positive change in the world.  Working for that positive change is based on the awareness of our ultimate union with God.  Fr. Richard doesn’t view action and contemplation as either/or.  For him, living out one’s Christian faith must be about both action and contemplation.  Which is why Fr. Richard intentionally named his center The Center for Action and Contemplation—with and being the most important word, as he often says.  As was explained in the Center’s Radical Grace publication, “We believed that action and contemplation, once thought of as mutually exclusive, must be brought together or neither one would make sense. We wanted to be radical in both senses of the word, simultaneously rooted in Tradition and boldly experimental. We believed . . . that the power to be truly radical comes from trusting entirely in God’s grace and that such trust is the most radical action possible.”[7]

So many times when we hear the story of Martha and Mary we view it in an either/or manner.  Mary wins.  Clearly Jesus said that she chose the better part, and that part is contemplation.  But what if Martha didn’t prepare a meal for their guests?  What if Martha didn’t act as a host for her guests?  People wouldn’t have been fed or had a place to stay, including Jesus!  And how many times does Jesus emphasize the importance of hospitality throughout the Gospels?

Where might have been Martha’s mistake?  Maybe it was in being so worried and distracted by many things that she couldn’t be fully present as she served her guests.  The service (the action) wasn’t joyful, it resulted in hostility toward her own sister.  I would like to think that this story ended by Mary cheerfully clearing the dishes after supper and cleaning up the kitchen while Martha took some time to just sit and be with their guests.  That part just didn’t make it into the Gospel.  Because in the end, it ends up that we need each other.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 10:38-42 Footnote, The CEB Study Bible with Apocrypha, 133 NT.
[2] Luke 10:38-42 Mary and Martha Footnote in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Fully Revised Fourth Edition, 1851 New Testament.
[3] John 11:2.
[4] Luke 10:40, CEB.
[5] Luke 10:41-42.
[6] Jane D. Schaberg and Sharon H. Ringe, “Gospel of Luke” in Carol A. Newsome, Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Eds., Women’s Bible Commentary: Revised and Updated, Third Edition, pg. 507-508.
[7] “The Politics of Prayer,” December 28, 2020, The Center for Action and Contemplation, https://cac.org/daily-meditations/the-politics-of-prayer-2020-12-28/

Photo by Dan DeAlmeida on Unsplash