Proper 11 (July 17-23)
Texts: Luke 10:38-42;
Gen. 18:1-10a; Col. 1:15-28
GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
Last week, in introducing my self, I shared that my favorite movie is Gandhi, a well-known winner of 9 academy awards including Best Picture of 1982. This week I’d like to somewhat sheepishly lift up another favorite movie of mine, but one of such low priority to the MGM/United Artists studio that they haven’t released it on DVD yet. It’s probably the least wellknown of Barbara Streisand’s numerous movies. I’m talking about the 1983 film, Yentl, the story of a young Jewish woman who loves to study Torah, the Jewish Scripture. But she lives in early 20′ Century Eastern Europe, where women aren’t allowed to study Torah. Yentl’s father never had a son, so he secretly has taught his daughter love for studying God’s Scripture. But when he dies, Yentl is alone in the world with no left to teach her. So she dresses like a boy and goes off to study at a rabbinic school.
I bring up this movie for several reasons. First, Mary’s devotion in our Gospel Lesson, to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen, reminds me of Yentl’s love of studying God’s word. But the story of Yentl also drives home the strangeness once again of Jesus choosing Mary’s part over Martha’s. If women weren’t allowed to study Torah in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th Century, then how much more scandalous was Mary’s behavior in the Palestine of the 1st Century!
For the second week in a row Jesus has seemingly sided with the wrong person. Last week, in telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he has created for his Jewish listeners an oxymoron. The words “Good” and “Samaritan” didn’t go together for his listeners. The Samaritans were their enemies. Yet Jesus’ parable skips of the more likely heroes, the two Jewish temple workers, and lifts up the Samaritan as the model for good behavior.
This week he seems to be doing the same thing with Mary and Martha. It’s not only that Martha is doing the woman’s better chore in her patriarchal culture, but hospitality itself when you had honored guests was also the higher chore. Yet Jesus singles out what Mary is doing as the better part, seemingly not only elevating her listening over the task of hospitality, but also going against the grain of his culture in applauding a woman who learns from an eminent teacher. Until our era, women just didn’t do those things.
Now, there’s one other reason that I began with the movie Yentl, presenting it as one of my favorites. It is one of my favorites because I can relate to the main character. I love studying Scripture. And I’ve obviously made the career choice in which I get to do that a lot. By the same token, it would be very easy for me to take Mary’s side in this story and lift up the importance of her learning from Jesus. I could easily spend all my time in such studious behavior.
But I need to refrain from going overboard and making this the point of today’s Gospel. It’s not recommending how much time we do or don’t spend at the feet of our Lord, learning from him. That couldn’t be the point after last week’s Gospel, could it? There, we heard about the Good Samaritan, and Jesus concludes very succinctly, “Go and do likewise.” No, today’s lesson isn’t somehow erasing that in favor of more studious behavior. I think the point is that some learning from Jesus is necessary if we are going to learn compassion and reach out to those lying half dead in the road. We need to spend some significant time learning from Jesus, be shaped by Jesus, if we’re going to be his disciples.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the point of these two stories taken together — and I do think we need to take them together — is to point to the rhythm of what our life should be like here at church. We gather at least weekly to be at the feet of Jesus, to worship him, to learn from him how to be his disciples. There is even a sense in which this worship and study might be said to be the better part. We cannot be disciples of Jesus if we don’t spend time with him gathered where he has promised to be, in the Word and in the Holy Supper.
But doing the better part does not mean it’s the only part. At the end of our worship, we say, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.” Serving the Lord. That was Martha’s part. And Jesus wasn’t saying, ‘Don’t ever do this, Martha.’ He was simply saying, “Mary has chosen the better part.” In other words, at that moment in time, Martha perhaps needed to sit down at the feet of Jesus to learn how to serve him by serving others. The one needful thing is Jesus.
Luke gives us a whole bunch of clues, in fact, of how Martha’s serving was messed up and in need of some guidance and direction. We should be able to see some familiar traits of ourselves in Martha. I’d like to point to three [extemporizing around the following points]:
- First, Martha’s in rivalry with her sister, so much so that her focus seems to be more on Mary than it is on Jesus. Instead of listening to Jesus, she is busy thinking about what Mary is or isn’t doing. Do we ever get like that? Instead of just serving Jesus gladly, do we ever start comparing ourselves with our brothers and sisters in Christ?
- This is our classic problem, envy and rivalry. Last week, I also introduced you to the work of René Girard.
- In Luke’s Gospel, even right after hosting his disciples for the Last Supper, the disciples fall into an argument about who’s the greatest. Jesus says to them,
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27)
- Martha’s second problem is triangling.
- Finally, Martha’s third problem is that she apparently has taken on too many tasks. She is not prioritizing to the most needful things of the moment. Sharing about suburban ministry vs. city ministry.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Atonement Lutheran,
Muskego, WI, July 18, 2004