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One Oar or Two?

This is the sermon I preached Sunday, 7/21/19 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Luke 10:38-42.
We are presented today with a radical story. Jesus upends the cultural norms of the day, which is what usually happens when Jesus is on the scene.

The first person Jesus encounters is Martha who welcomed Jesus into her house. This in itself is radical.  First of all, it was unusual that a woman owned the home. She’s in charge and the responsibilities of the household fell on her. If this is the Mary and Martha John wrote of in his gospel, where is their brother Lazarus? We may assume he had died if the house was Martha’s.

Martha is distracted. Wouldn’t you be? For one thing, it wasn’t just Jesus who arrived, but his disciples as well. Now, was it just the 12 or did this include the 70? That makes a lot of difference. Her complaint to Jesus about Mary not helping is certainly reasonable. After all, how many of the disciples or even Jesus ever had to prepare a meal for so many guests?

While living in Bethlehem at Christmas time we had an annual Christmas Feast for Muslims. We prepared a simple meal of rice, chicken and salad, which is what the college students were used to. That’s not bad until it becomes enough for more than 100 meals over 3 days! Thankfully, there were enough of us working on the meal that we could also spend time with our guests. What was the point of all the celebration if our guests were left on their own because we were so busy in the kitchen? In addition to the busyness of those 3 days, we spent weeks in advance making hundreds and hundreds of Christmas cookies.

Martha was having a hard time, not because of the amount of work or type of work she was doing but because she was distracted. In the Greek, this word literally means "to be pulled from all directions" (Stoffregen). Have you ever felt like that? Then you can understand Martha’s distress. We miss the point of this story if we caricature Martha as an obsessive type who gets angry because she wants to be sure that everyone works as hard as she does.

Martha asks for Jesus’ intervention. The Greek literally means that she stands over Jesus. She is looking down at him.

Jesus says Martha is worried and distracted. The root meaning of the word “worry” is “strangle” or “seize by the throat and tear” and “distraction” is “a separation or a dragging apart of something that should be whole.” Jesus found Martha in just such a state of fragmentation. All she could do was question his love, “Lord, do you not care?” and fixate on herself, “My sister has left me to do all the work by myself.” When Jesus tells Martha that she’s worrying too much, he implies that all of the issues causing her anxiety are not all that important. Hospitality that is anxious and troubled loses its focus, which is Jesus, who is Lord and guest. This is a story that we, with our increasingly hectic lives, need to hear again—maybe every day.

Martha’s work is important and commendable. However, her anxiety and compulsion about it are not.

Now let’s turn to Mary and notice what her posture was. Mary sat focused on Jesus. This too is radical. Rabbis didn’t allow women to “sit at their feet,” to be disciples. Hearing what Jesus says means Mary has received Jesus as a prophet. She is doing what loyal disciples should do—listening.

By taking such a posture, Mary was indicating she wanted to be a rabbi. She was settled down comfortably among the men. Scandalous!  Luke, however, has no problem with women being disciples of Jesus.

Mary recognized that Jesus’ presence in her house meant a radical shift. Jesus was no ordinary guest. He was the Guest who would be the Host. The Host who would provide the bread of life, the living water and the wine that was his own blood, to anyone who would sit at this feet and receive his hospitality, just as we will be doing in just a few minutes.  

The word of God and not food is the one thing that is needful. As scripture tells us elsewhere, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deut. 8:3; Luke 4:4; John 6:27).

Mary chose the better part. The word of the Lord is the portion or dish that Mary has chosen. She listened to Jesus continually according to the Greek. It is one thing for Jesus to say that Mary has chosen the better part, but quite another to affirm that it won’t be taken away from her. It is proper for a woman to leave the stereotypical role of society for that of a full and faithful disciple.

Did you ever notice that Jesus never focuses on household chores in his various sayings? He is not the source of the saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Rather, Jesus spends much of his ministry reminding people that social expectations can keep us from what is most important: our relationships with God and others. Jesus calls on us to care for the poor and the dispossessed, not for the dusty objects that clutter our homes.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly teaches us of the marvelous things that can happen when we pay attention to God, instead of to the thousands of distractions that society offers us. Jesus breaks the cultural constraints, setting people free for the kingdom of God.

If Jesus censured Martha too much, she may abandon serving altogether. If Jesus commended Mary too much, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do and there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which to do and when to do it is a matter of spiritual discernment. If we were to ask Jesus which example applied to us, he would probably answer, “Yes.” (Craddock).

Does this mean God is calling us to sit and read and pray continually? No. There may be times when Jesus calls us away for a quiet retreat. I have friends who have gone on silent retreats for several days, which I would find nearly impossible as an extrovert.

If we compare today’s gospel with last week’s we will find some applications to ourselves. In last week’s gospel, Jesus emphasized that the lawyer should DO what he knew to do. We see the Samaritan DOING what the priest and Levite refused to do. Today’s gospel affirms Mary’s place because discipleship has to do not only with love of neighbor but also with love of God, not only with active service but also with a silent and patient waiting upon Jesus. Both the Samaritan and Mary represent marginalized persons and are unlikely heroes. Put together, they’re model disciples, “who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21).

Today’s emphasis is more on being than doing. It’s not just a matter of there being doing Marthas and being Marys, although some of us likely by nature are more one than the other. It’s that we choose daily what we need to be according to the circumstances that present themselves. However, everything we do must flow from our relationship with our Lord, meaning we have to be still, sit and listen to what he would say to us and how he would direct us individually and corporately. Doing without listening can degenerate into purposeless busyness. Listening without doing soon becomes no more than a mockery of the words.

Mary and Martha together represent a holistic spirituality. Faith and works go together. I remember the first time I was in a rowboat. I had to remember to use both oars. If I over-used one, I would go in circles. So, it is with our lives in Christ. We need to use both our Mary and Martha oars to be all that God would have us be, to move forward, being used by God for the sake of this world God loves so much.

What does this mean for us as individuals? Today we have more distractions to deal with than Martha did. We have phones that seem smarter than we are designed to make sure we check them constantly. We’re so afraid we may miss something on Facebook, Twitter or a text, that we are checking our phones constantly. We are so concerned about our online lives that we are in danger of missing out completely in our offline relationships. More often than not, we are not making connections with other humans when we engage with our phones. Have you noticed if you’ve been in a waiting room lately that rather than read a book or magazine, nearly everyone, children included, have their faces in a phone?

What does this mean for us as a church? A community of faith that is hospitable to Christ is marked by the attention the community gives to God’s word. A church that has been “worried and distracted by many things” (v. 41) will become one that dwells in the shallows of frantic potlucks, anxious stewardship campaigns and events designed to simply perpetuate the institution. Decisions will be made in meetings without a hint of God’s reign. Food and drink will appear without Christ being recognized in the breaking of bread. Social issues may be addressed, but the gospel is missed as people partake of politics as usual (Jarvis)

On the other hand, when we are led to a position at Christ’s feet—reading and studying scripture together, wrestling like Jacob for God’s blessing, studying and nurturing a faith that seeks understanding—then even the common details of life begin to resound with good news.

The church too needs to be set free for faithful listening and discipled violation of cultural assumptions so that we can love the strangers and sojourners among us: our Muslim, Hindu and atheist neighbors, so that we can sit at Jesus’s feet and hear what he has to say to us. Amen.

Resources Consulted
Kristen Berkeley-Abbott,
Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C
Fred B. Craddock, Luke
Bruce Epperly,
Cynthia A. Jarvis, Matthew L. Skinner, Feasting On the Word: Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1
Rob Myallis,
Brian Peterson,
Brian Stoffregen,
Debie Thomas,


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