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First Impressions: Luke 38-42

July 13, 2010

This week’s sermon may end up as a smorgasbord.  I will probably lay out a little Buddhist thought, a bit of psychology and a helping of contemporary culture, and hope the people walk away with something that will be helpful in their lives.

Speaking of potluck suppers, the text for the week is one that drives most of the United Methodist Women bonkers.  Our UMW circles are known for their Martha-like activity, helping the church with everything from bake sales to spring cleaning.  The person who sets up communion at your church is probably a United Methodist Woman (or equivalent for you who are not Methodist).  And, as I mentioned, they generally hate this text.

The story does seem rather unfair, but I find those are usually the most fun to preach.  I get to use my best snarky writing in service to the Gospel.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

10:38 “Now as they went on their way” may be the most significant verse in the pericope because it reminds us that Jesus is on his way to suffer and die.  The “way” is the road to Jerusalem mentioned in Luke 9:51, just a chapter earlier.  Jesus’ words between then and now focus on what is truly urgent and urge us to cut out all the nonessentials such as taking care of your family and surviving until tomorrow (9:57-62).  That idea can help us to interpret the story of Mary and Martha.

The village is unnamed, but the home seems to be owned by Martha.  She is the boss of the house, and she provides hospitality and welcome for Jesus.  Those facts seem to tell us Martha is a strong woman, and she was doing a good thing for Jesus.  Though Jesus’ words seem a little harsh, I would like to think that he appreciated Martha’s help.

10:39 That’s it; that’s all we know about Mary.  She “sat at [Jesus’] feet” and learned from him, the mark of one who seeks to be a disciple.  That in itself is probably remarkable for a First Century woman.  (Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke [Louisville: John Knox, 1990], 152.).  But was Mary sponging off her sister?  Probably not.  Was Mary generally an unhelpful slug.  Probably not.

10:40 This is another key verse, specifically the note that Martha was “distracted.”  I read it that Martha had so many things going at once, that she couldn’t keep her focus, perhaps not on her welcome and hospitality, and not on Jesus’ teaching.  I’m sure you have been somewhere that the host or hostess is so busy and frazzled that you feel like you are just in the way, that the purpose of the gathering is the setting of the table and the preparation of the food, and not the presence of the guests.  In fact, now that I reflect on it, I have been such a host a time or two.  I wonder if our churches are ever like that.

This is where I may insert the Buddhist idea of mindfulness.  This concept helps the practitioner to be aware of the self, of breathing and other bodily functions and feelings.  The person also becomes aware of her own thoughts, “aware of all movements of mind” (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 2nd ed. [New York: Grove, 1974], 47-49.).  While this is not the call of Jesus, the point is that it is impossible to be self aware if you are harried and distracted.  Martha was distracted.

I will probably move on in the sermon with the idea of focusing our awareness and energy in the present moment and in the present place.  Thomas Steagald wrote a nice piece in The Christian Century (“Pay attention,” June 15, 2010; 12-13.) about this.  He brought up one of my personal pet peeves, that of someone interrupting a conversation with me in order to answer their cell phone or respond to a text.  Bugs the hell out of me.  In this way, Steagald speaks of a Christian sort of mindfulness.  I’m sure there are other authors who have developed this idea further.  If you know of any, please pass on the reference to me.

10:41-42 Jesus used the word “distracted” here, a repeat of Luke’s description of Martha in verse 40.  Not only that, but she is “worried.”  Martha was not fully present with Jesus or the guests.  Tasks and things had more importance to her in that moment.

That Jesus called Mary’s part “the better part” is a surprise to me.  Though he may have quietly honored and appreciated Martha’s work, his words did not give their choices equal status.  He did not say, “Mary made the right choice for her, and you made the right choice for you.  Be at peace.”  My guess is that given the fact that Jesus is headed to Jerusalem means that that moment was the time for Martha to be fanatically focused on Jesus and discipleship, and not hospitality.

Another potential line is to compare and contrast this text with the story of the Good Samaritan immediately preceding.  It is possible Luke put these two together for a reason.  They are examples of faith in action and faith in listening (or paying attention?).  My hunch is that Luke intended this pairing.

And, by the way, when you offend all the Marthas in your church so that they renounce their membership, please send them my way.  We have a lot of tasks to be done here.

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