It all started for me this week with a Facebook post. Now, some of you already know that I am fasting this Lent from social media. But, this post was from Monday in a clergy group discussing this week’s text from Luke 10. It was a new perspective on one of our stories today - the story of Mary and Martha. I’ll share that perspective in just a moment. But, the post led to a long, at times heated, discussion about the traditional interpretation of this story, which seems to pit the acts of service and listening to God’s Word against each other, as well as two sisters.
What’s also interesting though, today, is that our text includes two stories. The story of Mary and Martha, but also the story that immediately precedes it - of the Good Samaritan. The juxtaposition of stories in scripture is important. And when two stories are placed immediately adjacent and these same two stories are only featured in one of the four gospels, well, it’s time to sit up and take notice.
We read in Luke, chapter 10, verse 25, where it all begins with a question.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Notice that the lawyer comes to Jesus not with a good intent, but to test him. The first problem with his question is that he asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. I don’t know about you, but the last time I inherited something, it wasn’t because of anything I’d done. This is the same, isn’t it, with eternal life? We are invited by God into a full life, not by what we do, but by what God does. Grace.
To answer, Jesus, as he often does, responds with a question or two. “What is written? What do you read?” he asks. A better translation of that second question is “How do you read?” It’s an implication that our perspective and the lens through which we read scripture can drive our interpretation.
The lawyer responds to Jesus: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Again, the full life God calls us to isn’t about what we do. However, to not respond to God’s grace by serving neighbor cheapens God’s actions toward us. Jesus tells him his answer is correct, that doing this will give him life. But, the lawyer isn’t finished yet. He’s got one more question for Jesus. “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a story, one we know well. Or do we?
We continue with verse 30. Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
We know this story. How the priest and the Levite, both men who should have been the ones to stop and help this man, wounded and dying at the side of the road, pass by him. On the other side, no less. Not even stopping to check his condition. It’s only the Samaritan who stops to help. A man who would have been on the cultural edge of Israel - an “other” in our language today. I don’t think the first two men were evil. Perhaps, as Martin Luther King wrote, they just got the question wrong. The question they ask themselves is “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Instead, the Samaritan asks the question, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” It’s a perspective that is outward looking, teaching us that discipleship in response to God’s grace is focused on service to others, even if it means we cross cultural boundaries.
Immediately after this exchange, we then move in Luke to the second story for today, beginning at verse 38. 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.”
We finished the previous story talking about crossing cultural boundaries. These aren't only ethnic or racial boundaries. They are also boundaries of gender. The gospel of Luke crosses boundaries. It features more women in it than the three other gospels combined. Notice in this story that Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha. By himself. This, in itself would have been a cultural “no-no.”
The story of Mary and Martha is familiar to us. We’ve heard it many times before. It’s a story that as it has traditionally been interpreted pits sister against sister, woman against woman - placing hospitality and service against making time for study. Today, I’d like to offer an alternative perspective, first introduced by theologian Mary Hanson in 2014. It may get a little theologically nerdy. But, I think it’s important to hear this voice, a voice that comes from the cultural edge of theological circles.
The basic gist behind her perspective is that by repeating for generations the traditional interpretation of this story without re-evaluating it - an interpretation first preached by Origen, a Christian scholar from the third century. Hanson’s claim is that this interpretation has left many unsolved questions and contradictions. One example of this is that it contradicts Jesus’ own words from the beginning of the chapter. Here, Jesus is sending the 70 disciples out into mission. He lifts up the positive aspect of hospitality and service. Then, later on in chapter 22, sets himself up as the example of a “servant.” It’s a direct contradiction to the very things that, under the traditional interpretation of this story, Martha is condemned for.
Now, I won't go into the theological and exegetical details of her perspective now. I will in our Learning time after worship today. Hanson’s premise is that both Mary and Martha are known to be “sitters at the feet of Jesus, listening to his words,” a phrase that is often simply used to describe being a disciple. But, here’s the interesting part. Her claim is that Mary is not even present. That she is away from the house, leaving all of the work for Martha. But, this isn’t necessarily household work we’re talking about. The word for work in Greek comes from the room diakonia, which, is where we get the phrase “diaconal minister” from. The implication is not that Martha is distracted by household work, but potentially by her work of ministry, which might include leadership in a house church. She’s feeling overwhelmed and overburdened and is asking Jesus to tell Mary to return to help her. Where is Mary? Our text never tells us, but there are hints earlier in the chapter. Is it possible that Mary was one of the 70 sent out to evangelize? Whatever the case, when Jesus notes that she is “worried and distracted” it is not a reference to a boiling pot on a stove. There’s a sense in the Greek words used here that there much more going on, perhaps even a sense of unrest or disturbance for which Martha is deeply concerned over Mary’s well-being, wherever she may be.
It’s only been since Wednesday that we heard the words of Jesus about what it means to leave people and things behind to follow him. If we are open to the interpretation of this story, it’s a lesson for us in discipleship and it’s costs, as with the story of the Samaritan. For Martha, it means the emotional stress of leadership and, also, the possibility of deep concern for her own sister’s welfare. For the Samaritan, it's about concern for neighbor, especially when it might put us or our perspective at risk.
Discipleship is not intended to be easy. It may require hard decisions. It may demand risk and sacrifice. It may also require, as we see in Luke’s gospel, listening to other voices, especially those that have not been heard.
But, we have an example to follow. In Jesus, who gives the ultimate sacrifice and who moves across boundaries and borders to change our world. As we journey alongside him to the cross this Lent, may we be reminded once again what it means to be his disciples. And may God renew us as we travel. Amen.