Today we heard two very different stories about preparing for guests. In Genesis, three strangers appear, and it is not made clear who they are. Abraham we are told, sat in the shade of a giant oak. These trees were seen as sacred places where one might expect a meeting with the Divine, what we might call a thin space. Abraham’s response to these three show us the hospitality in that society. He hurried to have Sarah bake cakes and a servant prepare the calf. It seems an extraordinary amount of food for three visitors. Abraham shares of his abundance with his visitors.
I love icons and probably my favorite is Andrei Rublev’s of these three strangers around the table with a chalice in the middle. A copy of the icon is on the front cover of today’s bulletin. We see this action each week at our altar.
In Luke’s Gospel we heard last week the story of the Good Samaritan and this week about Martha and Mary. Both have lessons for us about being a disciple. Luke’s focus last week was on how a disciple must see what’s going on around and then act to better the situation. Today Mary teaches us how to listen.
Jesus is coming to visit. Jesus is not a stranger and Martha invited Jesus to share a meal. Martha hurried around doing all the work to ready that meal for their guests. The busyness of both Abraham and Martha is much the same. One of the differences in the two stories is that Abraham stays with his guests to visit while they eat. They engage with one another. Martha is so busy she fails to relax and enjoy the company.
Not only is Martha not relaxed, but she also wonders why Mary is taking a man’s place by sitting at the feet of Jesus. Women simply didn’t do what Mary is doing. Women were marginalized and strict protocol dictated that only men would share this meal and conversation. Jesus throws protocol out the window; last week naming the Samaritan as the good neighbor and now Mary showing love for God and the willingness to become a disciple. Mary’s action of sitting at the feet of the teacher breaks all the social and religious customs. Women were not disciples! Disciples were not simply followers, not just learning from the master they were training to do the work of preaching and teaching. Only disciples would sit at the feet of the master and certainly not a woman. In that culture and, in some places in the world still today women are not allowed to teach or preach. There was an absolute distinction between male and female roles. Mary crossed that boundary.
Jesus approves and says Mary has chosen the better part. Jesus shows us time and time again that the boundaries in God’s kingdom have nothing to do with the boundaries we place on each other. There are no boundaries or social status in God’s Kingdom. Women and men alike have the same ability to love God and learn to be disciples. There is only Love God and your neighbor as yourself.
We see these two gospel stories as nice, heartwarming stories. Let’s take a closer look. Jesus shakes up the norms, does the unexpected. Jews and Samaritans hated each other and never would a Samaritan be seen in a context of being a neighbor. Mary, sitting and listening rather than performing her expected duties upends the mores of the day. These stories are meant to challenge.
We all have carefully constructed who we are in our society. Who are we in context to others? Who is our neighbor and who is on the outside? How is it that in Jesus’ world, God’s kingdom, the barriers are lifted, open and filled with love and compassion? God doesn’t leave anyone on the outside. There’s no such thing as ‘others’.
The next piece to look at is Jesus’s rebuke to Martha. After all, Martha was doing exactly what custom dictated. She had every right to be upset with Mary for not helping. It was not Mary’s place to be at the feet of Jesus. It was her place to be in the kitchen helping prepare the meal. Yet, when Martha complains Jesus tells her she’s distracted, and that Mary has the better part. Martha, in her resentment of Mary had missed the most important thing which is taking the time to be still in the presence of God. Martha missed the invitation she’d been given. Jesus would have been grateful for the job Martha was doing in getting the meal ready and his rebuke had to do with her attitude. In her attitude she was cutting herself off from love of God and neighbor. She didn’t appreciate the unique relationship Mary had and her way of expression.
Jesus wasn’t upset that she was preparing the meal only that she didn’t understand the importance of Jesus’ visit.
With all that we do each day in our busy lives how do we focus on the most important thing? How are we making time for God?
Today’s gospel sheds a light on the balance we all need in our lives.
Martha ran around doing ‘hospitality’ while Mary sat at Jesus feet. To be like Mary is not inherently better than to be like Martha. We all need balance between doing things, even those things that are important, and being open to hear God. I’m not sure how a church would operate without many Martha’s. No matter the organization Martha’s are needed. I’m certain that your family has at least one Martha.
Although I’ve always felt I’m more like Martha than Mary I recognize the need for silence, meditation, prayer time and retreats. Without taking time to connect with God I know I’m less balanced. It’s like a sandwich. The bread is the doing, the busyness, and the filling is the time we set aside to listen to that still, small voice of God. Jesus always took the time between his actions of preaching and healing to be with God. Jesus teaches us to do the same.
In that town of Bethany Jesus called both Martha, who eventually hears with her heart and Mary to become disciples just as he’d called the 12. As he sent the 12 out so he sends us. Jesus gives everyone the ability to glimpse a new world and have abundant life. Have you heard Jesus’ call yourself and what are going to do about it? Are you going to keep distracted and busy with your to-do list or hear the voice that calls in your heart? Are you ready to be turned upside down and break from some of our now too common ways of interacting with people unlike us? Are you ready to recognize, respect and celebrate our differences? Just like the differences with Martha and Mary, the injured man and the Samaritan so we too can celebrate each other.