Sermon on Luke 10:38-42 for Pentecost +9, July 17, 2016
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’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; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
The story of Mary and Martha gives us a perfect moment in which to discuss a hugely important issue in our day. That is the natural human tendency to think in binary categories. We tend to think in terms of black and white, good or bad, us or them, friend or foe, all or nothing. We learn to think in these ways because they seem to work; they help explain the world. You are either alive or dead. You are part of my family, a relative, or you are not.
We will have an election this November, and one will be the winner, the other the looser. There are a lot of binaries that explain the world of our everyday experience.
The Gender Binary
Another binary we use is gender: there are men and women. In every culture, including Jesus’ culture and our culture, there are gender-specific roles. Men do some kinds of things, women do others.
What we are going to see is that Jesus frequently rejects binaries. They are simply inadequate. He does this a lot. And he does it in a double sense in this story we read.
Jesus and his followers go to the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha. There is no man mentioned, and no explanation for why not, so we will suspend speculation and just run with the story as it has been given by Luke.
Martha does the culturally-expected thing to do: she provides hospitality to them. With no word about what an enormous burden it must have been to suddenly host a dozen or so guests, she welcomes them in.
In her culture, she expects to do what women should do: the kitchen work. But in this story, we see that Jesus rejects that binary gender-role tradition. When Martha asks Jesus to help him get Mary back into the kitchen where she belongs, Jesus refuses.
He does so gently. He knows that binary categories are deeply entrenched. If it is hard to feel normal about driving on the left when you visit London, it is all the more difficult to feel good about overturning the habit of thousands of years of human social structuring. So Jesus says, with compassion,
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Mary as a Disciple
Notice that there is another level of binary gender-roles that Jesus is rejecting here also. It is not just that Mary does not have to stay in the kitchen, what is more, Mary can take her place with the men as a learner, a disciple, sitting at Jesus’ feet, the way students sat at the feet of their teacher. Mary is being respected, intellectually, on the level of men.
So, not only did Jesus take time for women, not only did he heal sick women, not only did he reach out to excluded women (like the woman at the well), Jesus went further. Jesus invited women into the inner-circle of disciples.
It took us many years, after Jesus, to open the door to women in ordained ministry, but finally we did. The fact that it is still difficult for women to receive a call as pastor shows how pernicious binary thinking is.
There is yet another level of binary thinking that this story dismantles: the binary distinction between the material and spiritual. Jesus had to eat. So did the others. So, someone had to be in the kitchen. But it is also important to feed the spirit. It is important to take time out to fill your soul.
For years this story of Mary and Martha has been read as a story about practical work and the contemplative life, as if Jesus were holding up one above the other. But the fact is, they came to the house for food and shelter. People do not live by bread alone; neither do we live long without it. The binary of physical versus spiritual work is a false dichotomy.
Both sisters were doing good work; but Mary had the priorities right. Nurture the soul by attending to Jesus first. Then you will have the motivation to go out and serve. Then you will know how to direct your efforts according to Jesus’ agenda.
Jesus: Rejecting Binaries
Now let us take a step back from this story and look at the wider question of Jesus and binary thinking. It is clear that Jesus rejected all kinds of binaries, not just gender, male-female binaries.
Jesus also rejected the pure-impure binary. He touched impure lepers and allowed himself to be touched by sick people.
Jesus rejected the good-person, bad-person binary. He ate at table with known “sinners.” He kept company with hookers and notoriously not-good people.
Jesus rejected the binary of blessed or cursed people. He did not believe that blindness or premature death was evidence of God’s punishment. He made the categorial statement that God causes his sun to shine and rain to fall on the fields of the evil and the good, without distinction.
Jesus even rejected the us-them binary of Jew vs. Gentile, which entails a rejection of friend vs. enemy. He even went so far as to tell his followers to love their enemies. He traveled to Gentile places intentionally. He healed Gentiles. Even a Roman soldier’s servant. He fed them. He told parables in which non-Jews were the heroes and Israelites, even priests were the anti-heroes (remember the Good Samaritan). And he demanded that his followers put away their swords instead of taking up arms against their enemies. From the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them.”
The Inadequacy of Binaries
The problem with binary categories is that they simply do not account for real life. Binary categories work great for us when we are children, but we are called as adults to put away childish ways.
Think, for example, about how fuzzy the border is between who is a part of your family and who is not. There are half-brothers and sisters, 2nd, 3rd and 4th cousins, great aunts and uncles, and eventually we stop having names for people in our family tree, but the idea that there is a fixed line between family and not family is clearly a device of convenience, not a concrete reality.
Today, we know that there are many binaries that are simply inadequate to accept for real life. Let us start with the central binary of the Mary and Martha story: male and female.
We now know that between one in 1500 and 2000 babies are born in which gender differentiation at birth is so ambiguous that a specialist is called in. And physical manifestation of gender ambiguity is just the tip of the iceberg. (see http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency)
We know that chromosomal ambiguity, in other words, not XX or YY occurs in one in 1600 births. There are XXY chromosomes in one is 1,000 births, according to a Brown University study.
The list of medically defined non-standard conditions is long. The male-female binary simply does not adequately account for reality. It is a conventional way of looking at the world, but an inadequate one.
I had a philosophy professor in college who pointed out to us that everything in the world is either a chair, or it is not a chair. That is true, but completely unhelpful. That is how binaries work. They are totally inadequate.
Romance: Binaries are Inadequate
We now are aware also that the binary category of romantic attraction is grossly inadequate to account for human experience (I am intentionally using family-friendly language, appropriate for a mixed group). It is not just that the world is comprised of straight or gay people. There is a huge variety of ways people are attracted to each other.
I know this is unsettling for some of us, but if we are to think clearly about gender and orientation issues, we must think like adults; adults who are willing to look at all the data we can find.
Other Inadequate Binaries
We live in difficult and complex times. We live in a world in which so many people think that shooting other persons is allowable that we have a terrible problem in our nation. Think of how profound the binary categories that are at work in our discussions: black and white people, us and them, the right to bear arms in the 2nd amendment vs. human lives.
It is precisely that kind of either-or thinking that has led, on the one hand, to racial discrimination, inner cities of poverty and despair, and on the other hand hair-trigger fear. Binary thinking shuts down conversation and rules out compromise. It makes finding solutions impossible.
On a world scale, we have grown comfortable with religious binaries of Muslim and Christian. Some lump all Muslims into one group, as if that binary thinking could possibly reflect reality. To live as if that binary was adequate is simply to have a child’s level of awareness of the world. We are called to be adults.
Let us go even further, since Jesus himself calls us to go to this next step: as followers of Jesus we are called to reject the binary of friend vs. enemy. This is as hard as it gets. When people blow up other people or drive trucks through crowds of families to inflict death by scores at a time, everything in us wants to react with equivalent violent force against them.
So then, what does it mean for us that Jesus called us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us? We start by rejecting the binary of friend vs. enemy. We pray for the redemption of all who follow the path of hatred and violence. We are aware that the biggest recruiting tool the terrorists have is the propaganda value of deaths by collateral damage that happens as we respond with violence to their violence.
It was not just at Mary and Martha’s house that Jesus rejected binary categories. Jesus practiced what is called “non-dual thinking.” Non-dual thinking means being open to mystery, which often entails being open to paradox.
Mystics from many traditions, not just Jesus in the Jewish tradition, have arrived at the same conclusion: that either-or thinking is inadequate. Mysticism itself, including practices like meditation, contemplative prayer, and other mindfulness practices open the door of our hearts to non-dual ways of thinking.
Perhaps it was those frequent times when Jesus would break away from the crowds and spend time in meditation and silence that opened his heart to women, to the impure, to notorious sinners and to foreigners.
And once his heart was open, he could be a source of healing for them. He could communicate God’s loving embrace of them by his loving embrace.
This is our calling today: to be followers of Jesus. To be people who practice the practices of a Christian, including daily prayer and meditation, and who bear the fruit of the Spirit of love and compassion. The world needs us to be these kinds of people now more than ever!