Please Be Seated
We just read a familiar story from Luke’s gospel – but we read it by itself, out of context. Reading this story out of context has produced a history of sloppy thinking which we do not want to repeat again. Luke probably never imagined that people would read a paragraph or two of his Gospel, then wait a week, then read the next paragraph – who would ever do that to a story? Well, in church, we do.
Have you ever sat down with your bible and read one of the gospels straight through without stopping? I want to encourage you to do that – do it with all four of them on different occasions. You will be amazed; you will see things you never saw, they will make sense to you. I offer you this challenge: this week, read Luke straight through, beginning to end. You will need about two hours.
Luke’s context: Journey to Jerusalem.
The story of Mary and Martha needs to be set in context. Jesus has begun his long journey from Galilee southwards to Jerusalem. On his way he meets three different groups of people, his opponents, the crowds, and his disciples, responding to each in the way they need: to his opponents, who do not accept him as the prophet proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God he offers parables of rejection. To the crowds he offers warnings and calls them to conversion. To his disciples, he give his word: teaching on following Jesus, which we call discipleship.
Last week we watched Jesus confront an opponent who was trying to trick him into making a fatal mistake; we heard Jesus respond with the parable we call the Good Samaritan, a parable of rejection. It’s a story of people who missed the whole point of the law of Moses, or Torah, because they failed to see God’s priority of the needs of people above purity. The priest and the Levite who left the wounded man on the side of the road to die did not become defiled by touching him or his blood – and neither did they fulfill the main point of the Law: loving God and loving neighbor, both, without limits.
The Good Samaritan parable is all about how urgently important it is to offer service to people, to work hard, to be willing to get your hands dirty and expend your energy in service. Whatever we learn from the Mary and Martha story we learn with the parable of the Good Samaritan and its powerful call to service ringing in our ears.
So, we said that Jesus meets three different kinds of people and responds differently; now we see Jesus meeting disciples – so his response is to teach them about discipleship. How do we follow Jesus? If the kingdom of God has come, how should we live? What is important?
Another biblical “contrasted relatives” story
This is a story of relatives in contrast, of course: two sisters do different things, one gets it right, the other wrong. The Bible loves stories like this – Cain and Able, Abraham and Lot, Jacob and Esau, most of the time the two contrasting relatives are men. This is a story about women. In fact, there are no men besides Jesus in this story. (Some of you may be correlating these characters with the Mary and Martha in the gospel of John who live in Bethany and have a brother named Lazarus – but Luke is silent, and Lazarus is absent). This leads us to ask the question, what is the role of women in the Kingdom of God?
The two women each do one characteristic action that gets the story going.
38 he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.
Jesus arrives at their village: Martha welcomes him, Mary sits at his feet listening to “his word” (not just “to what he was saying” but specifically, “to his word”). How do we look at these different actions?
First, the welcome that Martha gives is exactly right. It means that she is a person of faith in the prophet who is proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. The act of welcoming a guest fulfills the ancient requirements of hospitality; she honors the guest and does the honorable thing – just as Abraham and Sarah did when those three mysterious guests came to visit them. Abraham and Sarah immediately set to work preparing a substantial dinner for their guests; and so, as a daughter of Abraham, Martha does the same.
But Mary stays out of the kitchen where the women are meant to be, and puts herself in male quarters. This is not a small fact that anyone hearing this story in Jesus’ day would miss. It would be like a man showing up at a baby shower or a woman found in the men’s locker room (yes I know there are exceptions – things have changed so much it was really hard to think of a modern analogy, sorry). Think of how women are segregated today in places like Afghanistan and you get the general idea.
“Sitting at the feet” is a specific posture: it means being a student in the presence of the teacher. Mary was not just sitting there at Jesus’ feet because the chairs were taken, Luke specifically tells us why she was there in a place previously reserved for men:
“to listen to what he was saying” (literally “to hear his word”)
She was there to learn, which is exactly what disciples do: sit at the feet of the master-teacher, and absorb the lessons.
Martha has cause
Mary has just broken all kinds of taboos and customs. She is asserting that women’s place is not just in the kitchen. She is right, but Martha has no idea how much the rules have changed for men and women in the Kingdom of God. Of course she is upset: it’s scandalous. It’s not just about getting all the work done, I don’t think; the whole nature of relationships and the roles of men and women are being challenged. Martha believes Jesus needs to help her return things to the old status quo – but of course he won’t.
41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
What did we learn?
1) Women’s roles in the Kingdom of God
So what do we learn from this story? Clearly it cannot be that kitchen work is unimportant: the importance of service to people, remember, was just the subject of the Good Samaritan. But what we learned was that service is not the only thing women can do in the Kingdom of God. Women can come in and sit at the feet of the master and be full-fledged disciples, on equal footing with the men.
We affirm this in our church structure: we have women elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and now we even have a woman Moderator of the General Assembly. We are enriched and deepened by the ministry of women among us who have sat at the feet of the Master and listened to his words.
The second thing we learn from this story is what we learn from Martha. It says:
40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks;
It’s not just that she had a lot to do: clearly she did. It’s that her tasks where distracting her from sitting at Jesus feet, listening to his words. Her tasks were not wrong nor superfluous, they were simply getting between her and listening to Jesus.
Most of us are in the same condition. It’s not just our work-load for us; it’s everything that we do that uses up our time. Most of us fill up our waking hours with every conceivable distraction, and spend little time sitting at Jesus’ feet, hearing his words.
This text is a sharp call to repentance and a call to action. How could we possibly think we are following the voice of the Spirit as we confront the issues of our day which are so complex and demanding, if we do not take the time to sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words? We must say a collective and an individual “enough!” to endless hours of TV and learn the discipline of the “off” button.
3) Sitting at Jesus’ feet today:
There are two ways we need to be sitting at Jesus feet as his disciples in this age of the Kingdom of God: personally, and as a community. Personally we sit at Jesus’ feet as we engage spiritual disciplines on a daily basis. This means at the minimum two things: prayer and scripture reading. Yes, I mean sitting and reading the scriptures. Not just a devotional booklet (a good place to start, but it’s the hors d’oeuvre, not the main course). Everyone laments the abysmal level of biblical illiteracy in our churches today; well guess who is to blame? Sorry, but yes, only ourselves.
The other necessary part of sitting at Jesus’ feet is prayer. The classical four areas of prayer which I go through every day comprise the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication.
Adoration is praise and worship of God for being God, for being good, just, loving, kind, merciful, all-knowing, almighty, eternal, and present.
Confession is reflection on who we are, and what we do, that we know is displeasing to God: admitting it, turning from it, and asking for the strength to live rightly.
Thanksgiving is intentionally naming our blessings; simple, but powerful.
Supplication is simply making our requests known to God. It is last, and should probably be the shortest of the four.
Finally, we take time to simply sit in silence and listen. We may or may not hear God speak to us in those times of silence; you never know. What we can guarantee is that we will never hear him at all unless we carve out a times of silence from our distracted lives and many tasks.
As a Community
Both scripture and prayer are ways we sit at Jesus’ feet today, and we do both personally and individually, daily, and we do both as a worshipping, studying community of faith. We gather for prayer and worship and to sit at Jesus’ feet as we gather in moments like this one, in Sunday School classes, in Bible Study, and in small groups. We seek to hear the Lord speaking to us both as individuals and, by his Spirit, as a community gathered. This is why we begin all of our Session and Ministry Team meetings with prayer. We are disciples; we expect to be led by God as a community, so we sit at his feet and listen.
Our church has embraced this mission statement: we are committed to “Loving God, Growing in Faith, and Sharing Christ’s Love.” We are not just a bunch of programs, meetings and tasks: we are people who know the best part that cannot be taken away is what Mary chose: sitting at Jesus’ feet, listing to his words.
Let this story be a call to repent of our distracted lives, and a time of commitment to the disciplines of disciples: let us be people who are known for having been formed in every area of our lives by having spent significant time at Jesus’ feet, listening to his word.