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The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
July 21, 2013
The Gospel: Luke 10:38-42
Sermon: "Mary or Martha? Choose Both"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus 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."
Mary or Martha? Choose Both
The eyes of the Tennis world, this summer, have been squarely on Wimbledon. Even if youíre not a tennis fan, you may still have heard that the Menís singles title has been won by Andy Murry; the first Brit to win it in 77 years.
What you probably havenít heard is that some of the eyes of World have been watching another event this summer as well. Contestants from as far away as Pakistan and Denmark, Argentina and Zimbabwe have convened in an arena in New York Mills, Minnesota.
They're not there to play Tennis or Monopoly, or arm wrestle, or play chess or bridge, or poker. They're there to think. The Great American Think-Off was held last month in New York Mills, Minnesota - population 972 - in the heart of Otter Tail County. Four finalists were chosen from hundreds of contestants across the country and around the World, all vying for the right to be called "America's Greatest Thinker."
This battle royale calls upon everyday folks - a turkey farmer from North Carolina, a baton twirling instructor from Oklahoma, a Little League coach from Missouri - to wrestle with the heavyweight questions of life, and, if possible, to come to a convincing conclusion.
Armchair philosophers each answer the same Big Question in 750 words or less. The four most "thoughtful" of the contestants are then selected to debate the issue on national television at the New York Mills Center. In past years The Today Show, C-SPAN, The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor have, at one time or another, covered the annual debate.
The Big Question? Last year it was: "Is the Nature of Humankind Inherently Good or Inherently Evil?" The Gold medal went to ďEvilĒ, while the Silver went to ďGood.ĒOther questions have included: "Money or Morality - Which Does Society Value More?", "Does God exist?", "Which is More Dangerous - Science or Religion?", "Is the Death Penalty Ethical in a Civilized Society?" and "Is Honesty the Best Policy?"
To the chagrin of many, it took an uneducated fisherman in 1993 to assure us, in answer to the question "Does Life have Meaning?", that indeed it does. But then again, it was Biblically fitting for a fisherman to do that job.
The fact is the Bible poses many Great Questions. Many are clearly answered. Often the questions are direct: "What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?" and "Who is My Neighbor?" Other times, they are implied, like the question raised by today's Gospel lesson.
We are challenged by a remark that Jesus made to his friend Martha during a visit to her home. During Jesus' visit, Martha is working hard in the kitchen, while her sister is conversing with Jesus at ease on the floor. Martha complains to Jesus, asking him to send Mary into the kitchen to help. Jesus then says to Martha that Mary "has chosen the better part."
Our "think-off" question is: Is it Better to be a Mary or a Martha? Of course, that's the simple form of the question. If Martha is understood as a type of the active Christian, the Christian at work in the world, and if Mary is seen as a type of the contemplative Christian, withdrawing from the world in the quest for prayer and study, the question moves to the relative merits of active service verses quiet devotion. The Martha Christians sweat and slave in the metaphorical kitchens of the world; while the Mary Christians devote themselves to study, pray, and reflection.
Most sermons on this text tend to answer this question by concluding: Mary's got it right; Martha's got it wrong. Well, Jesusí words are a strong reminder that sometimes we get too busy doing, instead of being. We can get preoccupied with serving God, and forget to take time to know God. We can get so busy that we assume that stillness is just idleness.
But is this really the full answer to the question? Perhaps it is a false dilemma. If we consider this event as a real-life metaphor for discipleship, as Jesus probably intends for Mary and Martha and us to do, then we should put it in its context of hospitality. Middle-Eastern hospitality tells us that both roles are necessary: entertaining oneís guest is as important to hosting as is readying the meal or cleaning the house. They go together; itís not either/or.
So, is Jesus really telling us to choose Mary over Martha? Consider, during the past three Sundays the Gospel has focused on the various demands of discipleship. Almost all of the focus has been on calls to action. As this is also a discipleship story, this dispute between these two sisters shows us the diverse, bifocal nature of Christian discipleship.
Jesus is welcomed to Martha's home. Martha becomes upset that her sister Mary is listening to Jesus rather than helping Martha with her "many tasks." I don't think we should accuse Martha of being an obsessive-compulsive. This text is not meant to be taken as some sort of scathing criticism of Jesus' best friends. Nor should we accuse Mary of shirking her responsibilities. Mary is doing what dedicated followers of Jesus are expected to do. She is sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teaching, aligning herself with his truth. But what does Jesus mean when he says that Mary has chosen "the better part" (10:42)?
Itís doubtful that Jesus means that sitting and listening is better than action, that quiet contemplation is better than active service. After all, this is Luke's Gospel in which a Samaritan is commended for his action in behalf of the needs of another (10:29-37). Martha is simply going and doing likewise, as the Samaritan was commended.
Weíre not being called upon to take sides in this family dispute, choosing one sister over the other. Jesus engages both sisters, though he engages them differently, and he gives them both the benefit of his teaching and his presence.
What this story of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha tells us is that Jesus blesses both sides of Discipleship. The Christian life often involves times of frenetic activity. But the Christian life also involves times of quiet meditation. In fact, I think many of you could testify that the harder you work at being a Christian, the more tough assignments you take on, the more desperately you need times of quiet and reflection, times like this service of worship. You are not here working at being a Christian right now; you are listening for the voice of Christ in silences, through the Scriptures, the prayers, and even through the reflections of this sermon. You are reflecting upon your life and the demands of the Gospel. You are at rest. Some of you may even be half asleep!
But, when Jesus says that Mary has "chosen the better part," Itís a mistake to stress that word "better." The word to stress is the word "part." In the New Testament Greek, this little phrase is literally translated that Mary has chosen a "good part." It is not that Martha's part is a bad part. Martha is just playing her part, busy doing good things, getting ready to show Jesus warm hospitality. And her part is good too. Itís just that she is not to disparage Maryís part as somehow unworthy or lazy. And Mary, reflecting upon the significance of what Jesus is saying, listening to his every word, is also playing her part. It's a role that is different from that of Martha, but it's a good role to play. It's a necessary part of the whole picture of discipleship.
Frankly, given the action orientation of the Gospels, it is a bit of a surprise to see Jesus bless Mary, who simply sits there and listens to Jesus. For so much of the Gospels, especially this one, Jesus is always calling people to get up and to follow him, to walk with him, to give a cup of cold water in his name, reach out to those in need, go, do, work, and act. But here, Jesus also blesses Mary, that part of us that simply wants to be with Jesus, to enjoy his presence, to sit at his feet and to drink in his every word, to adore him and to praise him.
Following Jesus is a demanding task. It takes energy, resourcefulness, and lots of bold, hard work. And it means simply being with him, listening to him, enjoying him, and hanging on his every word.
Jesus blessed both Mary and Martha. And so he blesses you and me. The answer to this great Biblical think-off is this: Mary or Martha: in our discipleship, choose both!