Scripture: Luke 10:38-42
So one of the things you should probably learn about me is that I like Star Wars. That is probably not stating it strong enough. I really, really love Star Wars. Growing up, I watched the first movie so much that I wore out the VHS tape, so we bought another one. I watched that copy so much that I wore out the VHS tape again. I have read the books, played the games, and I thought that I knew everything there was to know about a galaxy far, far away. So several years ago I was surprised when someone told me about a blooper that was recorded and never taken out of the first Star Wars. I did not believe it at first, but I went and watch the movie. Sure enough there it was. There is a scene where a Stormtrooper smacks his head hard into the top of a door. In fact, if you are listening for it, you can even hear the “bonk” sound. Watch the door in the background and see if you can see it for yourself:
Despite seeing the movie hundreds of times, I somehow always missed that detail. It was right in front of me and I had never seen it before. I mention that because the same thing happens with scripture quite a bit as well. While I cannot speak to everyone’s experience, there are some scriptures that are extremely familiar, and this is one of them. If you have been around in churches for a while, then like me there is a decent chance you have heard a sermon, been part of a Sunday school lesson, or read a devotion that focused on this morning’s scripture. Again in my experience, every time the story of Mary and Martha comes up the point is always the same. Martha was a distracted busybody, Mary put her focus on Jesus. Don’t be like Martha, be like Mary. That is not the worst take I suppose, and the scripture seems to support it. After all Luke writes that Martha was distracted, and Jesus himself states that Mary chose the better way. However, as I have read and studied this scripture in preparation for today, there are two details in the background that stuck out. Much like the clumsy stormtrooper, these are details that have always been present but I overlooked because I assumed I already knew what I needed from this story. I think these details can give us a better understanding of the story, and help us learn how to better abide in Christ.
The first detail to consider has to do with Martha. I feel like this woman has kind of gotten a raw deal. She perpetually gets cast as the “bad sister”, the one we should not be like, but she did not do anything truly wrong. In fact she was working hard to do everything right. She was attempting to honor and love Jesus to the best of her ability. Even to this day, Middle Eastern cultures put a huge value on hospitality. Martha opened her home to Jesus as an expression of love and respect, and the culture of the day demanded that she provide a certain level of hospitality or she would have been actively insulting her guests. Martha likely wanted to show Jesus and the disciples the best hospitality possible, and that takes some effort and preparation. Again, Martha was doing this out of respect, love, and service to Jesus. That is the detail that was hiding in plain sight for me. Mary and Martha are not at odds with one another. One is not showing devotion to Jesus while the other is not. The moral of the story is not an issue of be like one of the sisters over the other. Both Mary and Martha were seeking to be present and show devotion to Jesus. They were just doing it in different ways. Mary was sitting in the presence of Jesus learning from him, while Martha was doing the stuff that needed to be done to show Jesus hospitality and honor him.
Despite that Jesus does say Mary has chosen what is better. Again, this is not because Martha’s choice was wrong. If Martha had chosen to sit right next to Mary, then all of the work would still need to be done. The issue is not with what Martha was doing, the issue was one of timing. In order to serve Jesus, she was missing Jesus right in front of her. Like it says in the book of Ecclesiastes “There is a time for every season.” As followers of Christ there is time to do the work that needs to be done, but there is also a time to abide. To sit in the presence of our Lord and savior and let him speak truth into our lives. Martha, as the scripture states, was too distracted by the work that she completely missed the opportunity to simply abide.
Again, I cannot speak for you but this is something I needed to be reminded about constantly. This is not just hyperbole for me. As part of the preparation for the move, we went through boxes of old papers and items we had been hauling around with us for years. Inside there I found a summer newsletter for a Christian group that I was involved with in college. This newsletter was dated 2002, and I had written an article for it. In that article I described how over the previous semester that I had gotten so caught up in doing stuff to serve God that I had neglected just spending time with God, abiding in God’s holy presence. Seventeen years later, the struggle is real. This is something I still need to be reminded of because I am doer. There is work to do for God’s kingdom, and I want to get things done. Like Martha, I am quick to want to show my love and devotion by my Lord and Savior by the stuff I do. However, like Martha I need to be reminded that there is a better way. Our faith is meant to be a friendship with God, not a boss-employee relationship where we are always working and never spending quality time.
If you face the same temptation I have to be doing instead of taking time to abide, then I think the words of Martin Luther, the great reformer, carry a lot of weight. He said: “I have so much to do, I will spend the first three hours in prayer.” This speaks to the mistake that Martha made. She was so busy making the preparations for Jesus that she did not actually ask Jesus “what shall I do?” In the same way, if we desire to commit ourselves to working for God, for doing good things that make disciples and transform the world, then we first need to seek out our Lord. Like Martha, we need abide at his feet, spend time in prayer, seek God’s will, and then go. Like Martin Luther, I think we will find that makes the difference between being busy and transforming the world.
The second detail that I noticed for the first time in this scripture has to do with Mary. In the scripture she chose what is better and sat at the feet of Jesus. What I realized is just how subversive and scandalous that behavior actually was. The first century Jewish culture was highly patriarchal with strongly defined roles and expectations. To put it bluntly in that culture, at the feet of Jesus is not where Mary belonged. Jesus was regarded as a rabbi. It was tradition at this time for a rabbi to have disciples, close followers, who sought to mimic everything the rabbi did and learn all about the rabbi’s scriptural understanding. It was the custom of the time that when a rabbi taught, the disciples would sit at the feet of the rabbi. It was also the custom of the time that only men were disciples. Yet, Mary was sitting with the twelve. She was learning the way the disciples were supposed to learn. In this culture, that was not Mary’s place. I wonder if that is why Martha said something. Not because she wanted help, but because Mary was breaking with tradition, with the way things were supposed to be, with the way things had always been done.
Mary realized the best way to follow Jesus in the moment was to abide in his presence and learn from him, even if that went against cultural expectations. She sought to faithfully follow how Jesus was leading her in the moment, and it ran completely against how others thought she should act. Whenever followers of Jesus sit at his feet, learn from his examples, and then try to live it out in the world then it will lead to something significant. Whenever we put our faith into action we will be doing something significant and that will always bring opposition. Just like Mary experienced, whenever we are choosing what is better and following Jesus to our most faithful potential there will often be pushback.
This has been shown time and time again. Throughout Christian history, followers of Jesus have often found themselves going against cultural expectations when they seek to faithfully respond to Jesus. One such example of this is Robert Raikes. Raikes, a contemporary of John Wesley, in the 1700s was concerned with the condition of the poor in some of the worst slums in Gloucester. In an attempt to treat the cause and not the symptoms Raikes organized the first Sunday school programs to teach impoverished children. Because these children worked, he held classes on Sunday after church because it was the only time the kids were free. These lessons continued to use religious themes to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Many faithful followers of Jesus saw this innovation as a way to serve and help the least of these, and started Sunday school programs of their own. However, there were also critics. Some criticized Raikes for not honoring the Sabbath by working on Sunday to teach children, others critics stated the church had no place in education, and some critics like Bishop Samuel Horsely were afraid that teaching poor children how to read would give them aspirations to rise “above their station in life.” Fortunately, the naysayers did not win out, Sunday school took off and it made a real difference in the world that can still be felt today.
Mary was breaking new ground by being a woman sitting at the feet of Jesus learning like the rest of the disciples. It had never been done that way before, but Jesus declared that Mary had chosen what is better. Every new and world transforming idea that the Holy Spirit has breathed into existence, is an idea that previously had never been tried before. In this morning’s scripture Mary gives us the example of being faithful to Jesus even it goes against cultural expectations or even if it goes against the way we’ve always done it. In the same way may we not be afraid to try something new to make a real difference in the world today.
For many of us the story of Mary and Martha might be a familiar one, but I believe it is one that can still teach us today in surprising ways. It can encourage us to follow Jesus, even if that goes against the culture of the day and meets resistance. It also shows us though that the key to faithfully following Jesus is to abide. We cannot faithfully follow Jesus if we do not take the time to know the Jesus we seek to follow. Do not be mistaken though, brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus also said the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. There is work to be done. There are hurts tend, hungry to feed, unloved people to love, and souls to save. We have much to do, so like Martin Luther encouraged, may we begin by abiding in the presence of Christ. Then we will be fully equipped for every good work, so that we radically take the message of Jesus into the world. For it is the only thing this broken world truly needs. As followers of Christ, may we abide in Christ, so that Christ can shine through us, and do the work that needs to be done.