Monday, 15 July 2013

Martha: one big strength and three areas of growth -- a sermon (Luke 10:38-42)

Over the years, in various congregations, after I’ve preached on today’s gospel passage about Mary and Martha, I’ve often received a reaction from some of the women in the congregation – particularly women who’ve followed more traditionally domestic lifestyles - about how they feel Jesus may have treated Martha a bit too harshly. 

I disagree with this view. 

First of all, Luke’s description of this incident was described in the briefest possible terms, like most of Jesus’ encounters in the gospels.  We only hear Martha’s complaint and Jesus’ immediate response.  We don’t get any of the rest of the conversation, which Luke decided (or whoever edited the gospel decided) may not have been relevant to his readers.  And Luke’s initial readers, please remember, were generally assumed by most New Testament scholars to have been Graeco-Roman gentiles:
  • people who were not used to feisty Jewish women talking back to their menfolk,
  • people who were used to men speaking harshly and dismissively toward women. 
Perhaps Luke, either wittingly or unwittingly, either by what he included in his text or by what he didn’t include in his text, turned Jesus into a bit of a Graeco-Roman sexist in this passage (unlike the view of Jesus we find elsewhere in Luke's gospel). 
  • For example, we don’t know if Jesus’ response to Martha may have been followed by the words “Sit down for a while, Martha, and join in the conversation.  Dessert can wait.”
  • Or else, we don’t know if Jesus response to Martha may have been followed by him volunteering to do the washing-up, and enlisting a few disciples to help.  (“Thomas, … Andrew, ... and Matthew, ... I think it’s your turn ….”)
Secondly, even if we take the passage on face value, this passage about Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha shows Martha having one major area of strength, and three areas of real potential growth.  In her areas of potential growth, she seems to have needs very similar to many people - of either gender - in our own day.  In her area of strength, she shows a quality which I believe is desperately needed in our society today - by people of both genders.  I’ll start with her area of strength.

Martha’s big area of strength was hospitality.

Hospitality is, in many ways, becoming a lost art in our society.  The very fact that restaurants, hotels, pubs, and similar commercial establishments are now called the “hospitality industry” indicates that proper, non-commercial hospitality is becoming increasingly rare.

We are becoming an increasingly private, increasingly individualised society.  More and more individuals and families are retreating behind their fences, walls, doors, and locks.  We live in a time when people are less and less willing to open the doors of their homes to friends, neighbours, and acquaintances.  This is due to a number of reasons, one of which is an increased fear of crime; itself more the result of an irresponsible media than of the actual levels of crime.  (Fact:  An Australian today is much less likely to die as the result of a violent crime today than was an Australian 100 years ago.)

In addition to the increased fear of crime, there is also just a decreased interest on the part of many people in the community in getting involved with other people.  The tendency is to draw the wagons into a circle and retreat into the comfortable fortress of the family.  For those people, then, who live alone, this can be an agonisingly lonely time in which to live.

But, in our lesson, Luke speaks of Martha welcoming Jesus into her house.  She didn’t merely accept his presence.  She actively welcomed him.  While such hospitality was a significant part of the culture in that day, it is a sorely needed corrective to the over-individualism of our culture today.

And the Greek word Luke used to speak of Martha serving her guests was the word diakonia, from which we get our English word deacon.  In describing Martha’s service to her guests, the word Luke used at least potentially had the implication that her hospitality was a ministry, that her hospitality was something sacred.

Martha’s big strength was hospitality, and let us not forget that.  

Martha’s first area of growth was her attitude to work.

Luke tells us that Martha “was distracted by her many tasks”.  Perhaps, we’d say that Martha was a “workaholic”- like many people are today. 

Workaholics are people who, like Martha, are often “distracted by ... many tasks”. 
  • They often see their personal worth as people only in the things that they do, not in their being able to just ... be. 
  • They are often unable to encourage - or even to let - someone else take over one of their tasks.
  • Workaholics are unable to stand back from the task at hand and say, “Well, tomorrow’s another day.  It’s time to relax.”  
And, when it’s crunch time, many workaholics will blow up about those who have a healthier attitude toward their work and leisure, saying things like Martha said:  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Like many workaholics today, Martha needed to learn to relax.  In part, I think Jesus was encouraging Martha to take a much-needed rest, just as Jesus keeps encouraging us to do the same.

Martha’s first area of growth was her attitude to work.

Martha’s second area of growth was spirituality.

Like many busy people today, and like most workaholics today, Martha seemed to neglect her spirituality.  She seemed to resent the fact that her sister was able to make her own spiritual development a priority, asking Jesus the deep questions about life’s meaning.  Perhaps she was a bit jealous.  Perhaps in complaining, she was trying to stake her own claim on Jesus’ time.

And we, today, live in a time in which many people are seeking to rediscover and recover a sense of spirituality. 
  • For many, the focus is on indigenous spiritualities, or a spirituality based on environmental concerns. 
  • For others there is a real attraction to the classic spiritualities of Asia, of Hinduism and Buddhism.
  • For many others, there is a fresh appreciation of the possibilities of Christianity as a source of a renewed spirituality.  For example, every year thousands of people, particularly young people, from around the world descend on a small village in France - a village called TaizĂ© - to share in the life, the prayer, and the music of the ecumenical community of monks in that place.  And there are similar revivals of interest in Celtic Christian spirituality, and in many of the classic aids to Christian devotion that many of us who grew up in Protestant churches were unfortunately taught to dismiss as “Catholic stuff” or “Orthodox stuff”.
As part of this reappreciation of the possibilities of Christianity, there are many Christians today who are seeking to learn more about their faith.  Some participate in organised study programmes such as “Living the Questions” or “Alpha” (at very different ends of the theological spectrum).  Some are involved in courses in theological colleges.  Many are seeking to explore the points of contact between the three related faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  All of this is very important.  A Sunday School faith, a Confirmation Class faith, or a youth group faith is not an adequate faith for an adult Christian. 

For many people, in our very busy world, there is an increased interest in cultivating their spirituality and their knowledge of their faith.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

In Jesus’ words to Martha, there was an invitation to her to explore and cultivate her own spirituality, just as Jesus keeps inviting us to do the same.

Martha’s second area of growth was spirituality.

Martha’s third area of growth was crossing the boundaries.

Jesus gave great emphasis to crossing the artificial boundaries between people that society set up: 
  • boundaries between the rich and the poor,
  • boundaries between Jews and Samaritans,
  • boundaries between lepers and healthy people,
  • boundaries between men and women. 
Jesus would have appreciated this quality in others.

Mary crossed the boundaries as well.  In her day,
  • rushing around serving a visitor was definitely “women’s business”, while
  • sitting and talking with a visiting rabbi was definitely “men’s business”.
Martha may have been a bit less adventurous, socially and culturally, than her sister.  According to the standards of their day, Martha “knew her place”, while Mary didn’t.  Both then and now, Jesus has a great appreciation for people who don’t “know their place”.  However, perhaps Martha thought Jesus would have been shocked by Mary’s behaviour, and so she complained about her sister ... she complained to save the family’s honour.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Perhaps Jesus responded from his own commitment to crossing the artificial boundaries that society sets up.  Perhaps Jesus wanted to encourage Martha to cross a few boundaries of her own, as Jesus keeps encouraging us to do the same, to cross the artificial social boundaries our culture sets up.

Martha’s third area of growth was crossing the boundaries.

Despite the occasional bit of sermon feedback over the years, I believe Jesus responded to Martha with great gentleness and sensitivity.  Recognising Martha’s great gift of hospitality, Jesus encouraged her to grow in those areas where she needed to grow:
  • in her attitude to work,
  • in her own spiritual development, and
  • in crossing society’s artificial boundaries.
Perhaps for us all – whatever our gender - these are areas of growth for the Martha inside each of us as well.

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