Is today's Gospel bad news for Martha of Bethany, this year's Lent Madness Golden Halo winner? Deacon Courtney offers some reasons for why we might miss the point if we too quickly make this Gospel passage an "either/or" choice between Martha and Mary. The two women, she suggests, model the two parts of the great commandment, and offer us a model of discipleship. The trick, of course, is for us to keep a balance between love and service.
32 saints enter, and one emerges victorious, wearing the coveted "Golden Halo."
How many people here tonight know what I'm talking about when I refer to "Lent Madness?"
Okay, so for those of you who haven't experienced this phenomenon of Episcopal culture, let me explain
Each year during Lent, the team at Forward Movement publishing creates a game called Lent Madness, similar to March Madness. Except for in March Madness the 32 best NCAA basketball teams play each other in a single-elimination basketball tournament, and in Lent Madness*, well. Nothing athletic is happening at all.
32 saints face off two by two. For each day of the "competition" followers of Lent Madness, log on and read about two saints, then vote for the saint that they want to see advance to the next round. Favored saints advance to the "saintly sixteen" then the "elate eight" and then the "faithful four" before the ultimate match-up occurs, and one saint is crowed with "The Golden Halo."
But why am I mentioning something that happens during Lent when it's summer and it's been like 10,000 degrees outside all week?
I'm glad you asked. Because St. Martha of Bethany, key player in today's Gospel, resonates so much with Episcopalians, that she survived five tough rounds to become this year's Golden Halo winner. What's particularly interesting is she was pitted against her sister Mary in the first round, and won with 60% of the vote.*
I think Martha is pretty relatable:
Like, if you've ever done more than your share of a school project, You can relate to Martha.
If you've ever been the manager of literally anything, you can relate to Martha.
I also think Martha got 60% of the vote and Mary only got 40%, because the people voting were Episcopalians, and The Episcopal Church, is kind of a "church of Marthas."
The Episcopal church is a "total ministry" church -- what that means is we believe that all members of the church are ministers. We all have a place at the table and we all have a job to do -- something vital to contribute to the body of Christ.
Think about how often we say the phrase "if it is your ministry" when inviting people to DO something. To take ACTION.
Let's face it: We wouldn't even be having this service tonight without a dedicated group of "Marthas." A couple of Martha's to set up chairs, some Marthas back there grilling our dinner, some Martha's bringing beverages. A literal Martha that printed the bulletin in your hand. Martha's make church happen. Week in, week out.
But see, Martha isn't *exactly* the hero of our Gospel story today. Is that bad news for us?
I've heard this story preached in ways that aren't exactly good news for Martha:
And while I'm sure that some kind of simple, EITHER / OR reading of this Gospel could be comforting or even instructive,
I think if we make this story an either / or story, we may be missing the bigger plot.
So let's dive in to this section of Luke's gospel a little deeper:
In this text, Martha welcomes Jesus and the disciples into her home. This is probably quite an entourage of people, and, really, it's probably a lot to take on.
While Martha is preparing for all of these guests, the text says that her sister Mary is "[sitting] at the Lord's feet, and [listening] to what he was saying."
Martha is distracted -- the Greek uses a world that means "drawn away" -- by her many tasks, so she comes to Jesus and says. "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."
And Jesus answers Martha,
"Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need only of one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
So, what is Martha doing in this text?
She's welcoming the disciples. She's showing them hospitality.
Even though it's likely an overwhelming group, she is providing for them.
She's playing the role of hostess. Benefactor. This is what the woman of the house is supposed to do.
She's even attempting to publicly correct her younger sister's embarrassing behavior. And get her back into the kitchen where she belongs.
What I think we can't see in this story with 21st century eyes, is Mary is in the men's room.* In first century Jewish society, men and women do not socially mix. When there are guests, houses are divided into male space and female space. The men get the public room, the women get the kitchen and other interior quarters. Mary is in the men's room.
Even more scandalously, she is sitting at rabbi Jesus' feet! She is not passively sitting at Jesus' feet adoring him either, as we are sometimes led to believe. This is actually a radical act. "To sit at the feet of" a rabbi is to imply that you are a disciple of that rabbi. It implies that you are studying to be a rabbi -- you are studying to become a teacher and preacher of God's kingdom. This is a role that is not open to women in Mary's time.
Martha likely interrupts Jesus when she comes in to ask Jesus to tell Mary to get back in her place.
Instead, Jesus gently rebukes MARTHA, telling her that she is distracted by many things, and telling her that her sister has "chosen the better part."
This is significant. This isn't as simple as Jesus telling Martha, "your sister is doing something more important than you are doing" OR "hospitality isn't as important as being present with me." This is Jesus AFFIRMING Mary's right to be HIS DISCIPLE.
And Jesus calls Martha by name. Twice. Men at this time didn't talk to women, much less use their names. Jesus is also publicly CONFIRMING Martha's worth to him as his friend and benefactor. Even while telling her to back off and re-prioritize he is showing her that he respects her.
Jesus treats both women as if what they are doing is important. And he's not going to let the rules or conventions of the time get in the way of either woman's discipleship.
Luke is the only gospel writer to include this story.
I don't think Luke includes it to draw an either / or between Martha and Mary and make them foils for each other.
I think that Luke intentionally includes this story right after the parable of the Good Samaritan. Because in that story, a young lawyer rightly summarizes the totality of Hebrew law by saying: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, with all you mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself."
We call this the Great Commandment. And it is a dual commandment. Love God. Love Neighbor. Jesus then tells the story of the Good Samaritan, wherein the guys who ostensibly love God (the priest and the Levite) fail to show love for their neighbor.
The story of the Good Samaritan might seem to say: Action for the win. Showing hospitality for the win.
Today's Gospel might seem to say the opposite: Contemplation for the win. Sitting at Jesus' feet for the win.
I think Luke puts these two stories together to say:
If you just worship and study and contemplate without action, that's not quite it.
If you just act without contemplation, and prayer, and sitting at Jesus' feet, that's not quite it either.
Discipleship isn't "Are you a Mary or are you a Martha?" I'd propose that these two ladies are actually modeling BOTH sides of the great commandment.
Following Jesus is a BOTH, AND . . . . proposition.
BOTH, AND is good news for Martha. Jesus' rebuke reminds her that the world won't fall apart if the meal is late or the rules are broken. She too, has permission to sit at Jesus' feet.
Discipleship, following Jesus is about keeping a balance between these things. In our individual lives, and in our communal life together. Both are part of a healthy way of being:
Loving God and Loving Neighbor.
Prayer AND practicality.
Contemplation AND action.
Being ministered TO AND ministering.
Loving AND serving.
Part of what we are doing in studying together is trying to figure out WHEN each is "the better part."
BOTH, AND can be good news for us too. In a "church of Marthas", Jesus' rebuke stings a little . . .
If you know you are doing too much,
if you feel drawn away,
if your ministries to others have become joyless burdens to you -- GOOD NEWS!
Take Jesus's rebuke of Martha today as permission to let go some of the distractions that are drawing you away from fellowship with Jesus and this community.
Take is as permission to slow down.
Take it as an invitation to try a new contemplative practice that doesn't rely on doing -- centering prayer, maybe.
Take it as permission to be still in God's presence.
Take it as permission to let this community carry you for a while.
Sometimes is holy for us to reevaluate our priorities. Reflection can be holy. Balance is holy.
Ministry will become stagnant if it's not rooted in love
and love becomes stagnant if it's not expressed in ministry.
My Christian siblings, better balance is possible.
In fact, better balance is critical to tasting the abundant life that we can have in loving and serving Jesus.
BOTH, AND . . .
Prayer and practicality.
Contemplation and action.
Being ministered to, and ministering.
Loving and serving.
I pray we will all have the wisdom to know from moment to moment, what is "the better part."
"Martha of Bethany Wins the Golden Halo" https://www.lentmadness.org/2019/04/martha-of-bethany-wins-2019-golden-halo/
"Martha of Bethany vs. Mary of Bethany." https://www.lentmadness.org/2019/03/mary-of-bethany-vs-martha-of-bethany/
Feasting on the Gospels - Luke Vol 1 - Luke 10: 38-42 - "Exegetical Perspective."
Feasting on the Word - Proper 11C - "Exegetical Perspective."
Feasting on the Word - Proper 11C - "Homiletical Perspective."
* Ideas in this paragraph inspired by a sermon titled "Mary in the Men's room or Where We Sit Matters" -- I could not find the author's name to properly credit her/him/them.
Unsolicited "fun fact" for those of you who are reading this online: I voted for St. Mary of Bethany in the first round of Lent Madness this year. Sorry, Martha!