Galatians 1: 13 – 24
Psalm 139: 1 – 14
Luke 10: 38 – 42
If truth be told, I don’t much like this passage from the Gospel of Luke about Martha and Mary. It makes me uncomfortable. I hear it as the great Martha put down, with Jesus saying, in effect, “Martha, I like your sister Mary better!”And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some people to others, And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some activities, or rather no activity, to others, or rather any activity. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers contemplation to action. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that you can only be in relationship with Jesus when you are sitting at his feet, rather than making him dinner. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that when I get busy, doing any number of things, Jesus likes me less, than when I am quiet, and still. And that makes me really, really uncomfortable, because probably like you, I have a zillion things on my to do list, and even when I am supposed to be, I can’t always be quiet and still.
But is that what is really going on here? Is Jesus really making these invidious distinctions between Martha and Mary? Between busyness and stillness? Between housework and hospitality? Between action and contemplation? That’s what we’ve been told over the years, but is it really the case?
If we want to see what is really going on here, we need to step back, just a little, and see where Luke places this encounter, between Jesus and the two sisters.
The story of Martha and Mary that we heard this evening comes after some pretty, significant events. In the preceding chapters, Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. Later, he appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send our labourers into his harvest.” Immediately before we encounter Martha and Mary, Jesus is asked who is my neighbour, and from that question, he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.
What is going on in these earlier passages is that Jesus is commissioning and sending out the disciples to proclaim, to heal, to teach, and to preach the kingdom of God. And he turns this all inside out, when he dares to suggest that even the despised and dreaded Samaritans might also have a role in his mission. It is in this context of discipleship that Luke places this story of Martha, her sister Mary, and their visitor, Jesus.
In a sense then, the question that arises for us tonight is what is a disciple?
We hear of disciples all through the gospels. But do we actually have a clear picture of what it is that makes a disciple? It’s an important question, because a disciple is much more than simply a follower. A disciple is even more than simply a student. A disciple is someone who is in training to become something, and the posture of a disciple was to sit at the feet of the teacher. We know this from Paul’s address to the crowd in Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts: ‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today.
Tom Wright, the New Testament scholar tells us: ‘Sitting at someone’s feet’ doesn’t mean (as it might sound to us) a devoted, dog-like adoring posture, as though the teacher were a rock star or a sports idol. When Saul of Tarsus ‘sat at the feet of Gamaliel’, he wasn’t gazing up adoringly and thinking how wonderful the great rabbi was; he was listening and learning, focusing on the teaching of his master and putting it together in his mind. To sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be their student. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you did if you wanted to be a rabbi yourself. There is no thought here of learning for learning’s sake.
It is through the lens of discipleship that we can come to understand what is going on with Martha, Mary, and Jesus, and when looked at this way, what Jesus says becomes, not a put down of Martha, but an invitation. And what an invitation!
Again, to quote Tom Wright: The real problem between Martha and Mary wasn’t the workload that Martha had in the kitchen. That, no doubt, was real enough, but it wasn’t the main thing that was upsetting Martha. Nor was it (as some have suggested) that both the sisters were romantically attracted to Jesus and Martha was jealous of Mary’s adoring posture, sitting at Jesus’ feet. If there was any such feeling, Luke neither says nor hints anything about it. No: the real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she were a man. In that culture, as in many parts of the world to this day, houses were divided into male ‘space’ and female ‘space’ and male and female roles were strictly demarcated as well. Mary had crossed an invisible but very important boundary within the house, and another equally important boundary within the social world.
In first century Jewish culture, women could not be disciples, because they could not become teachers or preachers, yet Mary has quietly taken her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the kingdom of God, and Jesus had allowed it to happen.
The scandal of the story is not Martha’s complaint, and nor is it Jesus’ comment about her many distractions, or his admonition to her that Mary has chosen the better part. The scandal is that Jesus repeatedly breaks the social norms of the time. We saw this when first he suggested that a Samaritan might be considered a neighbour, and a good one at that! Now we see him inviting women into discipleship and all that it implies.
But as we saw earlier in the gospel, a disciple does not simply sit at the feet of the master in order to learn. A disciple learns in order to be sent. And a disciple is sent in order to teach. As Paul proclaims in the Letter to the Romans: But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’
Here in Luke, Mary, and ultimately her sister Martha, are being invited by Jesus to become teachers and heralds of the good news! And that is good news indeed!
And what a teacher Martha becomes! The picture that John paints of her is very different from the busy, distracted homemaker, bustling around in the kitchen, complaining that her sister is not helping. The picture that John paints is one confident in her own voice, articulating a faith in Jesus that few of his male disciples possessed until after the Resurrection.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
To be a disciple of Jesus, isn’t simply to be a follower. Even the curious bystander will follow for a time. Martha and Mary were not just curious. To be a disciple of Jesus is not to be simply a student. We’ve all been students at one time or another, but that doesn’t mean we have absorbed the lessons of the teacher into our life. Martha and Mary were not just students. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be called, and taught, and sent by him, in order to proclaim him as Lord, Messiah, Son of God, the one coming into the world. Martha and Mary become disciples in the fullest sense of the word, and for a first century audience that is scandal and good news rolled into one.
This is what was happening that day in Bethany as Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus into their home. This is what happened that day that Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. This is what was happening as Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim the coming kingdom. Wherever Jesus goes, he leaves behind him towns, villages, households and individuals who have glimpsed a new vision of the kingdom, and for whom life will never be the same again. He did this by inviting women to be disciples, and teachers, and heralds of the kingdom. He did this by naming Samaritans as neighbours. He did this by calling you his friend. May all of our lives be so turned upside down that we have the courage of Martha and Mary to be disciples and heralds in his name.
Luke 9: 1 – 2
Luke 10: 1 – 2
Luke 10: 29
Acts 22: 3
Wright, Tom, Luke for Everyone, SPCK, London, 2001, page 131
Ibid., page 130
Ibid., page 131
Luke 10: 42
Romans 10: 14 – 15
John 11: 17 – 27
Wright, Luke, page 132
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