The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
Please pray with me. Gracious God, from whom every good gift comes, send your Spirit into our lives, and by the flame of your wisdom, open the horizons of our minds, loosen our tongues to sing your praises in words, and to go beyond speech praising you in the silence deep within our hearts. Amen.
In these troubled and violent times, if you were invited to select a gospel story, a favorite story that speaks hope and peace and courage and strength and faithfulness to you in these times—something that reminds you that you are never alone, we are never alone—what would that gospel story be? My guess is it wouldn’t be the gospel story you just heard, that age-old story of Mary and Martha and Jesus! But one of the blessings of the church is that we do follow the Lectionary Cycle and each week we try to explicate and understand and find the word of hope and inspiration with whatever Scriptures have been appointed for that day. We don’t get to just pick and choose the ones we like.
So this morning I invite you to explore with me the word of hope and grounding that I believe actually is in that age-old story. And, of course, when we approach the story of Martha and Mary and Jesus we have to acknowledge the cultural and societal overlay of the ages that shape our lens on how we view it. You’ll recall that in those days it was the role of a woman to serve, to be open and hospitable to strangers or visitors who came that way. You heard that story with the strangers coming to Abraham and Abraham asking Sarah to help make them welcome. It was their role. Everyone understood that. And, of course, Jesus is a good friend of Mary and Martha and Lazarus; so when he appears in Bethany, the expectation is that Mary and Martha will offer hospitality and serve them. That was the role. That was the societal norm. That was the expectation.
It is in our 21st century lens that we get challenged by that. I can assure you that if a friend showed up on my doorstep with 12 other hungry men, my response, after a split second of horror, would be something akin to “Let’s go out!” And then worry about how we pay for it. Mary and Martha didn’t have that option. And, of course, the story’s made even more complicated by how it’s been interpreted over the centuries.
For those of you who are students of art history, there is this nagging thread of Mary being portrayed as the model Mary kneeling or sitting at Jesus’ feet, being painted or portrayed as maybe just one step shy of the Virgin Mary in terms of her purity, her adoration, and her love. And then there’s Martha who so often is portrayed in a Disneyesque characterization of the wicked stepsister or the wicked stepmother. All these things tend to factor into how we hear and interpret that story.
And then even in more modern times, as more women went into the workforce and the role of women evolved and changed in our lifetimes, we’ve tripped over our understandings of the role of women. Some 30 years ago, William Safire, in an editorial in the New York Times, made the mistake of referring to stay-at-home moms as non-working mothers. You can imagine the pushback. To say that he was pilloried in public is a gross understatement. I think the most gracious come back to him was that he was a non-thinking writer. I can remember as an adolescent, as we struggled with how to fill in the blank on occupation—remember domestic engineer and domestic manager?
These are centuries-old, decades-old overlays that are hard to shake, to look afresh at the story that you just heard of Mary and Martha in Jesus. The key, I believe, is to dig deeply, to understand what’s happening, to put the story in context. This story is part of the arc of a gospel narrative of Jesus teaching the disciples and Mary and Martha and you and me what it actually means to be a follower of Christ, what it means to be a disciple.
In the sixth chapter of Luke, Jesus offers some of his seminal teachings and they are radical. It’s called the Sermon on the Plain and it has echoes with the Sermon on the Mount. Listen afresh and anew, particularly in our day and in our time: do not judge and you will not be judged; forgive and you will be forgiven; do not condemn and you will not be condemned; give and it will be given to you. Why do you see the spec in your neighbor’s eye and miss the log in your own? Jesus is teaching what the Kingdom of God is about. It’s not easy, but it’s transformative, and those of us who would seek to follow Christ have a radical example to follow.
So going back to Bethany and Mary and Martha and Jesus, it’s understandable that Martha got a little bit annoyed. She was busy trying to offer the hospitality that was hers and Mary’s to offer. And I think where we get tripped up on this story is actually in the translation because when Martha goes to Jesus, her friend, and sets up the perfect triangle getting Jesus to tell Mary what she should be doing, Jesus doesn’t take that bait; but responds, “Martha, Martha, you’re getting distracted. You’re getting worried. Mary has chosen one thing and there’s only one thing that is most important.” And here’s the pivotal point. What you heard translated as Mary has chosen the “better part” is I think the issue: the “better” translation. The actual Greek translates “good.”
How differently would you hear the story if it were translated, as it is in the King James version and many other translations of the Bible, Mary has chosen the “good” part and nothing will take that away from her? What Jesus is inviting Martha to do is to set aside the distractions, to pay attention, to be still long enough to be in the Lord’s presence, to listen and learn the good part, the part of God that is our grounding in love, the good part that leads us to our better selves, the good part which no one or nothing can take away from us.
Jesus taught us what it means to be a follower, what it means to be a disciple, to set about the business of the Kingdom of God. It’s all about context and understanding. In the passage that comes just before the gospel lesson you just heard, it’s Jesus teaching what it means to love your neighbor. You remember the story. The lawyer comes to Jesus and says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus returns with, “What does the law say?” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and spirit and love your neighbor as yourself.” The tricky little lawyer comes back, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, teaching that everyone is your neighbor, particularly those in need. No exceptions.
I think in the gospel story you heard this morning Jesus is teaching how we love God, with presence, intention, being still long enough to know that God is God. In these trying times there are those who would seek to divide us, there are those who would seek to separate us by race, by gender, by religion, by every measure imaginable. Jesus shows us a different way. Jesus invites us, like Mary, to choose the good part, knowing that nothing and no one can take that away. Let it be so. Amen.