This is an adaptation of a sermon I preached this past summer on Luke 10:38-42 (Mary and Martha), when it came up in the Sunday lectionary. I thought I would post it in written form here since it also came up in the Daily Office lectionary today.
Receiving the Disruptive Word
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”Luke 10:38-42
Often this brief story is preached as a contrast between prayer and housework, between the contemplative life and the activist life, between the equally good practices of listening and service. Some of us are Marys and some of of us are Marthas, the sermons go, but God’s church needs both.
But it would seem that what’s going on in this passage is much more disruptive than that. Jesus is upending all of Martha’s assumptions about what God wants, and how to truly welcome God’s kingdom. Jesus is surprising and offending common sensibilities and preconceived notions about how to be faithful, about what is proper and what is inappropriate.
The good news we proclaim today is that Jesus the Incarnate Word of God is present among us right and here and now, proclaiming a fresh word from God. This word is reshaping the world in the goodness of God, but as it does, it disrupts our anxious clinging to preconceived notions about God wants and how to be faithful. There is space for us today to sit at the feet of Jesus and receive this disruptive, renewing word, and allow it to reshape our lives. This is the one thing needed. Will you choose the better part today?
First of all, it’s important to note that in welcoming Jesus into her home, Martha is being faithful to a tradition of hospitality begun long ago when Abraham welcomed three guests into his tent, and asked Sarah to help with preparations (Gen 18:1-10a). Martha expected her sister Mary to do the same. This is the received (biblical!) wisdom about how to welcome a messenger from God.
But the two sisters respond to Jesus’s presence in different ways. Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to what he is saying. Martha, on the other hand, is “distracted by her many tasks,” preoccupied by all the preparations that had to be made.
Don’t you care?
This contrast is obviously bothering Martha, because she boils over in a somewhat funny contrast: calling Jesus “Lord” and then telling him what to do. “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 is justifiably upset because she is doing the time-honored biblical thing, seeking to be faithful to the tradition of hospitality in order to honor Jesus, and Mary won’t cooperate! What’s even worse is that Jesus doesn’t seem to be bothered by it, and won’t do anything about it.
Disrupting the social order
And it’s even worse that that! It’s not just that Mary isn’t helping, it’s that Mary is taking the position of a disciple (sitting at Jesus’s feet), which is traditionally only open to men in this culture. Sitting at someone’s feet is a bold statement of intent to learn from a teacher how to become what the teacher is. Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet is radically inappropriate because she is assuming the posture of one who will become a teacher herself, just like Jesus!
Mary is transgressing the social order here in an alarmingly inappropriate way. The wrong kind of person, a woman with low status, is brazenly assuming she can be a disciple of Jesus. All of Martha’s assumptions about how to be faithful here are being challenged by this situation, and because she trusts her assumptions are correct (they’re biblical, after all!), she lashes out at Jesus and her sister Mary.
But Mary has sensed something in Jesus’ presence and message that led her beyond the boundaries of social convention, to believe that she was no longer defined by her low status in that culture, and thus could sit at the feet of this teacher and receive this disruptive, disorienting word that was reshaping her world and embracing her among the company of disciples.
Jesus the Incarnate Word of God is present among us right and here and now, proclaiming a fresh word from God. This word is reshaping the world in the goodness of God, but as it does, it disrupts our anxious clinging to preconceived notions about God wants and how to be faithful. There is space for us today to sit at the feet of Jesus and receive this disorienting, renewing word, and allow it to reshape our lives. This is the one thing needed. Will you choose the better part today?
It will not be taken away from her
This is the reality Jesus reveals in his response to Martha’s complaint: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus speaks to Martha’s anxiety, stating that the hospitality he’s interested in isn’t just a clean house and a good meal, but an open receptivity to the fresh Word he is and brings from God that is reshaping the world and disrupting the oppressive social order.
Jesus honors Mary’s choice to practice this kind of hospitality by sitting at his feet and listening to his disruptive Word, and defends her place among the disciples: those who allow the Word to disorient them and reshape their lives. This is the “one thing necessary” and it won’t be taken away from her.
Implicit here is an invitation to Martha, too: you can come and sit at my feet and receive this good news! Drop your anxious clinging to preconceived notions of faithfulness (good as they are), and open yourself to the newness of the kingdom that is being revealed here and now.
Receptivity vs. irritation
So again, this passage is not a contrast between prayer and housework. It’s not saying the “contemplative” life is better than the “activist” life, or even that the church needs both contemplatives and activists.
The contrast is between Martha’s anxious agitation that stems from her assumptions about how to show hospitality to God’s messenger, and Mary’s open receptivity to the disruptive, all-embracing, world-reshaping words of Jesus.
Martha’s problem is not that she’s busy, but that she’s anxious and agitated, because her preconceived notions are being challenged and disturbed. And instead of trusting her anxiety and agitation, Jesus is inviting her to become curious about it.
Martha’s frustration is all of ours: we want to have a solid set of expectations and rules to live by and rely on, to know that we are doing what God wants… but as the Incarnate Word, Jesus is speaking a new, fresh word every moment that disrupts and upends our desire for comfort and control.
This is actually a pattern in the Gospels: Jesus often leads his disciples into situations of intense disorientation, actions that feel like literal disobedience to God (eating with tax collectors and sinners, “working” on the Sabbath), but in fact are a kind of upside-down kingdom faithfulness, and a gateway into life.
Trusting the fresh Word
Hans Urs von Baltahasar, in his wonderful book on contemplative prayer, says:
If we want to live in God’s light, we must listen to God’s Word, which always addresses us personally, which is always new, since it is always free. It is impossible to deduce this word from some prior word that we have already understood and put into stone: clear and fresh, it pours forth from the wellspring of absolute, sovereign freedom. The word of God can require something of me today that it did not require yesterday; this means that, if I am to hear this challenge, I must be fundamentally open and listening.
God’s Word, of course, is Jesus himself who is radically present to the church through the Holy Spirit, constantly speaking a fresh word of life to us each and every moment.
So Jesus’s invitation to Martha is also his invitation to us: Let us become hospitable to God’s Word in our midst, knowing that, although it always comes to us through Scripture and the practices of the church, it is always fresh and new, surprising and disorienting, and perhaps require something of us today that it did not yesterday.
Jesus the Incarnate Word of God is present among us right and here and now, proclaiming a fresh word from God. This word is reshaping the world in the goodness of God, but as it does, it disrupts our anxious clinging to preconceived notions about God wants and how to be faithful. There is space for us today to sit at the feet of Jesus and receive this disruptive, renewing word, and allow it to reshape our lives. This is the one thing needed.
Responding to the disruptive Word
What are you worried and distracted by today? Where are you trusting your agitation? Can you hear Jesus inviting you to be curious about it instead, and to discern what preconceived notions about God and faithfulness need to be upended today?
What is my agitation and anxiety showing me about the assumptions I’m making about God, and how to be faithful to God? Could something that seems inappropriate and offensive to me in fact be a gift from God to me instead? What do I need relearn about how to welcome God’s Word into my life?
Let’s respond to this good news today by sitting at the feet of Jesus together, confessing our anxieties, and asking God to help us release our preconceived notions about what God wants and how to be faithful, about what’s proper and what’s inappropriate, and open ourselves up to the world-reshaping word of good news that Jesus is speaking to us today.
Let us open ourselves to God’s Spirit working in new, surprising ways in our midst, receiving God’s kingdom in all its disruptive glory, in all its hilarious welcome, knowing that it is truly a word of good news because it comes from Jesus, who is leading us into the life that is truly life. Let’s choose the better part today.
A prayer of response
Lord Jesus Christ, I confess that today I am worried and distracted by _______. Help me let go of my preconceived notions and open myself to your word reshaping my life. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.