Luke 10:38-42: When the Center Cannot Hold

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: July 21, 2019

Jesus is playing referee and Martha is down for the count! Every time I read this story I can’t help but think that it ends with a smack down, and Martha is the one lying defeated on the mat. Now, I realize that we are not supposed to say things like this about Jesus, but just stick with me for a bit and I’ll explain . . .

Like so many stories in the Gospel of Luke, the story of Mary and Martha is the second in a pair of stories that teach us something about what it means to follow Jesus. The first story in this pair is the story of the Good Samaritan, and it features two men: a “certain man” who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers, and a Samaritan, who defies all cultural expectations and stereotypes to come to his aid. Jews and Samaritans so disagreed on who was worshipping the right God at the right time in the right place, that Jews would go out of their way to avoid Samaria when they were traveling. The story of the Good Samaritan teaches us what it means to love God and neighbor, and it does so in the most scandalous way possible: by putting a Samaritan—an outsider, of all people—in the role of the one who knows. It would have been a shocking story to the Jewish audience to whom Jesus told it.

In the parallel story of Mary and Martha, Mary takes the part of the Samaritan. Mary defies all cultural expectations and norms to sit at the feet of Jesus as he teaches. Mary plays the part that is normally reserved for men of her time and place by daring to refuse her duties as host and learn from the rabbi. And Martha? What is her part in the story? Is she the shocked and scandalized audience to this story of cultural defiance? Or is she rather the victim, stripped of her dignity, bruised in her ego, and left on the sidelines? There are clues in the narrative that link Martha to the “certain man” who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. Martha is introduced as a “certain woman,” who opened her home to Jesus and felt ill-used when her sister left all the work of serving to her. And for those of us who carry the spirit of Martha in our hearts, it certainly feels like she is similarly abused for having her priorities all wrong! In fact, I usually feel a little beat-up too after I read Jesus’ words to her: “Martha! Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” Some familiar translations, like the New International Version, make Jesus’ words cut even deeper for Martha by rendering them “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Ouch!

So if Mary is the Samaritan in this story and Martha is the victim, what does that make Jesus? The robber? This isn’t, after all, a parable that Jesus is telling. It’s a story he is participating in! Had the disciples complained about Mary’s presence at the feet of Jesus, I would not have been surprised. Following a rabbi was a man’s calling those days. But Jesus sounds like he is pitting sister against sister, like we’ve just stepped into an Alanis Morrisette song:

Sister blister we fight to please the brothers

We think their acceptance is how we win

They’re happy we’re climbing over each other

To beg the club of boys to let us in

Where is the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel who says “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Mt 18:15). Where is the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel who says “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mk 11:25). Where is the Jesus of John’s Gospel who says “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35). I hardly know what to make of a Jesus who says, “Martha! Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” End of story . . . Or is it?

For as long as there has been a gospel to read and interpret, the story of Mary and Martha has been used to pit Mary against Martha, the life of devotion against the life of service, the life of the mind against the life of physical labor. And for those of us who have servant hearts, as Martha does, this comparison stings. The interpretation that elevates Mary above Martha and the life of devotion above the life of service hinges on two words: agathen merida, “good portion.” In the NIV, this phrase is translated “Mary has chosen what is better” to mean that Mary has made a better choice than Martha. Mary has chosen not just “the good portion” but “the better portion.” But what Jesus is actually saying is much simpler than that and does not necessarily imply a comparison between the two women.

In early Jewish writings “the good portion” is a phrase that means to study Torah:

When groups gather to study [Torah], [it was] traditional to pray beforehand: God, please “give us our portion in your Torah.” Upon leaving, one would thank God for one’s “portion” in life, which was good because one had a chance to study the Scriptures. Listen to how one early rabbi (1st-2nd cent AD) would pray as he left each day’s session:

“I thank thee, Lord my God, God of my fathers, that you set my portion with those who sit in the study hall and the synagogues, and you did not set my portion with those who sit in the theaters and circuses.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 4:2)

In this prayer, the rabbi does esteem his portion more highly than that of those who engage in idle pastimes, like theaters and circuses. But I find it unlikely that a life of service would fare as poorly in his esteem as a life of idle pastime. Another rabbi writes:

Turn [Scripture] over and over because everything is in it. And reflect upon it and grow old and worn in it and do not leave it, for you have no better portion than this.” (Mishnah, Avot 5:2)

. . . To ruminate in [Scripture’s] profound insights, to marinate in God’s wisdom — . . . This was the “good portion” that Mary chose.[1]

Mary devoted herself to the life of prayer and the Word. She defied all cultural expectations and norms to sit at the feet of Jesus as he taught. Mary dared to learn at the feet of the rabbi, a role that was reserved for men. Her choice was a radical break from the accepted role of women in her culture. But it is not a higher calling than Martha’s.

So what of Jesus’ words to Martha? Does he simply rebuke her and leave her to deal with the household chores? I don’t think so. Martha has chosen a life of service—diakonia  is the Greek word for “service.” And she is serving an important office for the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus sends his disciples out on a mission of teaching and healing, he gives them these instructions:

Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. (Luke 10:5-7)

The mission of teaching and healing depended on hospitality and the service of householders like Martha who offered safe shelter, food, and drink to the first disciples. Eventually, this kind of diakonia became a church office, instituted when its membership began to grow beyond the scope of the original twelve disciples’ capacity to serve. The early church gathered in houses for prayer, hymn singing, study, and table fellowship. Diakonia was the service and hospitality offered to these house churches as they worshipped. The origins of the office are described in the Book of Acts:

1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution [of food]. 2 And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

This division of duties among disciples of Christ into prayer and study on one hand and service—particularly table service, providing meals and hospitality—goes back to its very origins. Acts goes on to describe one of the seven, Stephen, who, “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.”

Diakonia is the same word that gives us our word “deacon.” In the Presbyterian church:

The ministry of deacon as set forth in Scripture is one of compassion, witness, and service, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lost, the friendless, the oppressed, those burdened by unjust policies or structures, or anyone in distress. (BOO G-2.0201)

Martha chooses to serve: to welcome Jesus and his disciples into her home, to shelter and feed them, to offer them a place from which they can teach and heal and in which they can study and pray.  It too is no higher or lower a calling than Mary’s choice to sit at the feet of Jesus and study Torah.

Jesus himself models the life of service for his disciples when he washes their feet at their last meal together. And he is careful to point out to explain to them why he serves them in this way:

“Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. . . . 20 Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”  (John 13:12-15)

To offer hospitality and service to those whom Christ sends is to receive Christ himself. It is an echo of the story of Abraham under the oaks of Mamre, in which he receives, washes the feet, and serves at table three men who embody the Lord, the very God who called Abraham and promised to make of him a great nation. To receive and serve those whom God sends us is to receive and serve God. As such, it is a high and sacred calling.

So since the life of prayer and study is not a “better portion” than the life of service, what exactly could Martha have done to prompt these words from Jesus? Martha is going about her service with a distracted, anxious, and troubled spirit. And it is this spirit that Jesus addresses when he says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; but only one thing is needed.” It is not her choice to serve that Jesus addresses, but her distracted, anxious, troubled state of mind, and what she expects Jesus to do about it.

As Martha sees it, the solution to her distraction is Mary. So “she went to [Jesus] and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’” We do this, too, don’t we? Who among us has not sought to ease our own unhappiness by changing someone else’s behavior? And Martha tries to enlist Jesus to force the change. But as Jesus sees it, the solution is not to pull Mary away from her portion, but for Martha to rediscover the center, the peace, and the serenity in her own portion.

To be distracted is to be pulled away from our center, to be pulled away from the one thing that needs our attention. Think, for example, about what it is like to serve breakfast at Urban Ministries of Durham, as we will do next Sunday. When the people we are serving begin to come through the line quickly, when the dining room is at its fullest, when the line still stretches out the door, when the bowls and glasses and cups can’t cycle through the wash as quickly as we need them, it is easy for us to become distracted, anxious, and troubled. It is easy to focus our attention not on the people we are serving, but on the many trays coming past us, the many glasses of Tang that we are handing out faster than we can replenish them, and the many cups of coffee that seem to empty the canisters too quickly. It is easy to forget to look the men, women, and children in the eyes, to greet them with a kind smile and a warm welcome. It is easy to forget that only one thing is needed: to receive those whom God sends us to serve as if we were receiving Christ himself.

Perhaps when Jesus says “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; but only one thing is needed” what he intends is not to scold Martha, but to re-center her ministry in “compassion, witness, and service, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lost, the friendless, the oppressed, those burdened by unjust policies or structures, or anyone in distress.”

Mary sat at the feet of Christ and Martha served. Neither Jesus, nor the disciples, nor Paul, nor Peter, nor any who have taught us what it means to follow Christ have ever suggested that the Marys of this world, the ones who sit attentively and study at the feet of Christ, have any higher calling than the Marthas, the ones who serve. And so, whether we study or serve, may we always find our center, our peace, and our serenity in Christ. Amen.

[1] Lois Tuerburg, http://ourrabbijesus.com/articles/what-was-the-good-portion-that-mary-chose/ (cited 7/14/2019)