LUKE 10:38-42 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”


Sermon by Douglas Olds

St. Luke Presbyterian Church, San Rafael, California

Sunday, July 18, 2010

All rights reserved

My sermon concerns the story of Mary and Martha, two sisters who each in their own way try to honor their guest Jesus. This story of being received differently by two sisters is one of the chestnuts of Jesus’ public ministry.

The usual interpretation that preachers bring forth is the superiority of Mary’s simple contemplation of the Word to Martha’s active ministries in support of hospitality to the disciples.

This tired interpretation has been rightly questioned by feminists who note that it is the assertive sister Martha who is silenced by Jesus while the silent sister Mary is approved of.

The story of Mary and Martha thus presents all too easily an approving image of the adoring, “wifely” Mary and a disapproving image of the woman whom many readily identify with: the over-burdened woman who makes possible the philosophical discussions of men over the extensive meal that she has slaved over.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it, that the favored sister gets to sit down in an honored position at the feet of the rabbi to learn of cosmic realities and the meaning of the Kingdom of God, while the other sister is taken to task for trying to wrestle up hospitality for a minimum of 13 guests.

This is not an easy story, and too quick an interpretation that tends to favor contemplative monks who have chosen the “better portion” is at odds with our Protestant sensibilities that active ministry and active hospitality is the way to neighborliness and peace.

I submit it is not at all apparent why Martha is dismissed in this story unless one looks at the more encompassing witness of Israel’s religion in its scriptures.

It is for this reason I included as a reading for today the Prophet Amos, chapter 8. For it is in the prophets that we understand the necessity of following along with God’s Word, not living by a meal alone.

When Jesus says, “Martha, Martha” he is not rebuking her, but petitioning her to come along and discover what he calls the “one need,” which her sister Mary has discovered—

that is, what the church later came to call discipleship, which I define as living into the Word of justice.

What Mary and Amos engage in is not a venture without cost or struggle.

So let me first lay out what’s going on to make Amos’s life a bother, and then proceed to what makes Martha’s life a different kind of bother. Amos is afflicted with visions.

Five of them in his book of prophecy.

The gift of visions is something like the gift of tongues: they mean something, but unless you have an interpreter, you’re not sure what the visions mean and where they come from.

Amos is beset with complex visions, but he is given the beneficial and unusual gift of interpretation of those visions by the voice of God Godself.

Amos in his fourth vision sees of basket of ripe fruit, and God tells him that that fruit ready to be reaped is God’s people, Israel. God tells Amos, “I will not add more to pass it by.” The fruit is ready for reaping and God is indicting the ripe fruit Israel for failure to give a dividend in the nourishment of others. Instead, we learn of the treachery of Israel in failing to nourish, indeed taking the nourishment from the mouths of the poor in deceitful and accursed practices.

First off—and this should sound familiar to all of us here, not just some ancient religionists back in the 8th C BC—Israel prefers commercial endeavors to religious piety and justice:

4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,

5 saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances,

6 buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

The new moon refers to the festivals dedicated to Israel’s national god, and the Sabbath to the foretaste of God’s justice on earth when peace and wholeness shall reign. Yet Israel’s merchant elite cannot wait for the new moon festivals and the Sabbaths to run their course.

No, when there is a celebrating of religious piety and justice that eat into profits, they require to make up for the cost of suspended commerce by means of deceitful weights and measures:

they make money weighty--the shekel large--and the measuring basket, the ephah, small, favoring finance and plundering the consumers of grain who need to eat.

Doesn’t this sound familiar: the creation of monetary measures that shortchange the working class and pay off the financial engineers and arbitrageurs? The ephah basket for grain is inhumanely small while the weight of the shekel is arbitrarily enlarged. Producers and consumers are shortchanged, while the owners of shekels are favored.

I submit that Amos is a prophet in a nutshell for America in the late 20th Century as he discovers God’s indictment of his own unjust society. Not only that, but the injustice of unfair measures is compounded when the poor themselves are purchased for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. Humanity is commodified by corrupt capitalism.

I cannot imagine a more incisive critic of greedy “banksters.” than the God of the prophet Amos.

Can the Nike Corporation live with a text like Amos 8, when that company introduces high finance into peasant economies that are unsophisticated about the workings of global capital, employs its people in sweatshops along the Asian rim, then decamps to other peasant regions when the wage rate begins to climb, leaving behind disrupted social and environmental subsistence?

I suggest that the Nike production model comes close to buying the needy for a pair of sandals, and that globalization of production that moves offshore to exploit the lowest cost of labor--ram the consequences to people--does the same.

If we take scripture seriously, we need to read Amos in the context of commercialized societies of every place and time, even of our own.

Because of these injustices, says the Lord, there will be the time

“when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. 12 They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”

This is the fearsome prospect for Israel in Amos’ eyes, until such time as God’s lost, inaudible word is confronted by the quiet voice which says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (Jn 4:34)

--Until such time as arrives the one who overcomes the world’s distress by working among us as the one who does not live by bread alone, but “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Dtn 8:3; Mt 4:3–4).

So let us turn to the time that the famine of hearing the word of God is ended with the advent of the Messiah. The Messiah bears the nourishment of the word of God and Martha’s sister Mary turns to drink it in, to feast on it like at a banquet, while Martha misinterprets the hospitality necessary and bustles about—in all likelihood to prepare a large meal, or at least a meal for a large contingent. She is anxious and troubled for the many, the Gospel of Luke reads.

Yet there is only one need, according to Jesus, and Mary has chosen it.

Mary has chosen to sit at the honored place at Jesus’ feet, in the posture of rapt learning.

Seeing this, Martha picks herself up and in the manner of the Greek word that means suddenly taking a stand, she uprightly heads over to the seated Jesus and Mary and cries indignantly,

“Doesn’t it matter to you that my sister has abandoned me to serve alone?

Tell her then that she should take a hand in helping you all with me.”

This is the cry of the overburdened one who feels that he or she is doing the work necessary to sustain human relations while others aren’t helping.

There is something fundamentally self-justified in this cry while Jesus does not think that what he is about is the dining relationships he will share in. Yet for Martha in that day and age, it was the sharing of food that cemented normal social relationships.

As I’ll try to make apparent when I come back to preach to you on August 29, it was the culture and codes of table fellowship that defined honor/shame relationships among Pharisees.

But this was not to be in Jesus’ kingdom of God.

What has been lacking in Israel from the time of the prophets was a famine in hearing the word--making a place of hospitality for God’s service--and not the social privileges and niceties of banquets, feasts, and neighborhood potlucks.

Oh, Martha, how can you be concerned with the comforts of our stomachs when the poor are sold for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals?

We’re eating just fine; there is something more at stake for humanity than our next meal.

Jesus is telling us that in the Kingdom of God, ministry and thus self-justifying economic provisioning is subordinated to the immediacies of justice and charity. We know this, but do we really know as in practice this message?

Our Bay Area consciousness is shaped by precious, Epicurean pursuits like the slow food movement or the design and siting of the next modern art museum,

rather than by issues of starving developing world farmers who must pay global technology companies for seed corn where it once was free in the sweepings.

These issues of injustice and inhumanity are not pleasant to consider, and I doubt that what Mary was exposed to in Jesus’ message was anything like a picnic in the park. Mary’s portion was to learn of justice, and probably also to learn of her complicity with injustice--with the necessity of going forth with the message and knowledge of the kingdom of God,

where the financier’s temptation to turn stone into bread by economic demand is exposed as the fallacy of the unjust.

Mary has chosen the better portion, and it will not be revoked or taken away from her.

Somehow, I doubt that that promise was as easy and pleasing as it sounds to us now.

I believe that Mary is being commended to the cause of justice, and that cause is both binding and active.

I believe it is a long way from the picnic of contemplative listening and prayer that later monks made Mary’s lot out to be.

Like all messages Christian, there is the easy interpretation that requires little from us, and there is the interpretation that demands something costly from us. When Jesus enters our life, there is the joy of eternal salvation certainly offered to us, but also the necessity of costly change and confrontation.

As both Mary and Martha likely discovered, Christianity requires cost and struggle in service, in learning, and in discomfort. And it must ever be so in our current world of injustice and deprivation.

May the Lord of forgiveness and transformation come quickly, to bring to a cease these distortions of human decency.

May the Holy Spirit of forgiveness and transformation come quickly to open our hearts to charity, service, and learning.

May the God of Creation act quickly to bring about the intended peace and wholeness for all the world’s people.

May Father, Son, and Holy Spirit act in our lives to work toward these ends in the meantime, strengthening us to bear the cost and struggle of this work.