Last revised: July 11, 2022
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PROPER 11 (July 17-23) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 16
RCL: Amos 8:1-12; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
RoCa: Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42
1. Why does this lection cut-off at verse 10, when the best part of the story comes in 18:11-15? Is this story simply there to give an example of hospitality to go along with the story of Martha and Mary?
If you would like a more fruitful pairing of this story (all 15 verses) with a Gospel text, James Alison has a great one in Raising Abel, pp. 160ff., where he pairs it with Mark 16. When Sarah hears the promise, she laughs; and when God questions her about it, she lies because “she was afraid” (the Greek Septuagint: ephobethe gar). When the women at the empty tomb are confronted with the promise, they didn’t tell anyone for they were afraid (Gr: ephobounto gar). He uses this pairing to begin a discussion of Christian hope: “I want to focus on this because there is nothing pretty about Christian hope. Whatever Christian hope is, it begins in terror and utter disorientation in the face of the collapse of all that is familiar and well known.” [p. 161] To give you one other crucial paragraph from this chapter as a follow-up:
In the light of all this we can begin to understand Christian hope as an unexpected rupture in the system. What do I mean by system? Every system. As humans we all live and inscribe our lives within a series of systems, of games whose rules we know and to which we adapt ourselves to a greater or a lesser extent. By ‘the system’ I mean every way of ours of having a story, of organizing our thinking and acting, every way of forging our lives and of talking about them as something sure. And this system is, for many people, most of the time, quite livable. It is moved neither by great hopes nor shaken by great despairs. However, as I have tried to show throughout these pages, every story, in as far as it is grasped, is a system structured by the murderous lie, whose security depends on some exclusion. That is, every system is dominated and shaded by the definitive impossibility which comes from death, the impossibility of moving the stone. [pp. 173-174]
2. In the genre of “eco-exegesis,” Leah D. Schade has an important essay “Honoring and Protecting the Oaks of Mamre.”
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 94-102. He cites Col. 1:15-20 as one of the basic NT sources that developed the idea of a pre-existent Christ who was part of the divine creativity, a Creation in Christ. The latter is another understanding that came about because of the resurrection.
Girard’s anthropology recasts our understanding of myths. Creation myths actually tell the story of how a society was founded, of how order was brought out of the chaos (i.e., a sacrificial crisis). Christ demythologizes those myths with the creation of God’s culture around the self-giving victim. I’ll let Alison explain:
***** Excerpt from Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong *****
…I am speaking of a simultaneous recasting of the two understandings: that of the resurrection of the dead, and that of creation, in the light of the same understanding: the intelligence of the victim. Thus, in the resurrection accounts of Jesus there has disappeared the element of a divine vindication of Jesus over against his enemies. Jesus’ resurrection is not revealed as an eschatological revenge, but as an eschatological pardon. It happens not to confound the persecutors, but to bring about a reconciliation. God is revealed as not partisan, not interested in vindicating any particular group over against its enemies. Rather God is revealed as the self-giving victim of the remaining victimizing tendency of even the chosen people, thus permitting the definitive demythologization of God. God, completely outside human reciprocity, is the human victim. The Father is the origin of the self-giving of the human victim. Thus, far from creation having anything to do with the establishment of an order, what is revealed is that the gratuitous self-giving of the victim is identical with, and the heretofore hidden center and culmination of, the gratuitous giving that is the creation. There is no Christian perception of creation which is not forged through the intelligence of the victim, and principally by the gratuitous self-giving which underlies, and makes possible that intelligence.This means, of course, that when we speak of creation we are not speaking in the first place of the process by which things came, or come, to be. That description is proper to scientists, especially when they are not limited in their empirical observation by the hidden filters of pagan theological notions (normally held implicitly and unconsciously). It means that when we speak of creation we are speaking of a relationship, a relationship of purely gratuitous giving, without motive, with no second intentions, with no desire for control or domination, but rather a gratuity which permits creatures to share gratuitously in the life of the creator. The relation of gratuity is anterior to what is and has ever been. This perception, the perception that the giving in gratuity is anterior to what is, was made possible by the presence to the disciples of the crucified-and-risen victim, whose self-giving was thus seen to be the way in which creation is a reflection of God: it was the intelligence of the victim that opened up for them the structure of the universe. [pp. 98-99]
***** End of Alison Excerpt *****
Alison develops the same theme on pages 49-56 of Raising Abel. Link to an excerpt of this section on “Creation in Christ.”
2. Brian McLaren, “The Historical Jesus: What You Focus on Determines What You Miss,” a presentation at a conference hosted by Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, and available on DVD titled Emerging Church: Christians Creating and New World Together (see the CAC store for more info). Focusing primarily on Matthew 16, he concludes with reflections on Col. 1:15-20. Here are my notes:
- “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;” Remember all the images of Saddam Hussein everywhere in Iraq. It was the same in the first century — images of Caesar everywhere. Firstborn: that’s how the next king comes about.
- “. . . for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him.” Paul is saying, “Our faith in the way of Jesus isn’t a tiny religion in the Roman Empire; the whole Empire is a dirty little neighborhood within the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” We don’t know what we’re saying when we sing about the cross. But in the first century they did. What was the secret to Caesar’s success in the first century? A new torture technology, the technology of the cross. They only crucified rebels, insurrectionists, political revolutionaries, who dared challenge the authority of Lord Caesar. Imagine the power of a naked body hanging there for days, saying, “Who has the power now, Mr. Rebel?” Caesar used that to put the fear of the God Caesar into them. That’s how he achieved the Pax Romana, the Roman peace.
- Can we catch the power of this last line of the song? He makes peace, but not by shedding someone else’s blood. He makes peace by hanging naked on the cross, offering himself, and saying, “The way of the Kingdom of God is not by domination and revolution and scapegoating. The way of the cross is the way of a man, bearing the fullness of God, suffering and forgiving in the midst of the pain, not pledging revenge.” It’s amazing. We don’t sing songs like this anymore. But maybe we will. Songs like this can change the world. A message like this can change the world.
In 2013, my sermon, “Change Agents for Reconciliation,” featured the showing of this portion of the video.
3. Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. This is a brilliant reading of Paul’s letter in a postmodern context. In conversation with both our contemporary culture and Paul’s first century Jewish experience of Roman imperialist culture, they provide targum readings of three portions of the text: 1:1-14, 1:15-20, and 2:8-3:4. Check out this book and the excellent commentary that surrounds the targums. It is quite simply one of my favorite monographs on a book of the Bible.
1. V. 42: one thing or a few things necessary? The Greek is henos de estin chreia, literally, “but one is a necessity” (or need). Several major ancient sources have oligōn de estin chreia, “but few are a necessity.” So the two choices for Jesus’ response to Martha are:
- Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but one is a necessity.
- Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few are a necessity.
Both make sense, don’t they? Both urge Martha to prioritize. Does Jesus narrow it to a singular priority?
1. Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, ch. 9, “Not Many Things, But One Thing,” pp. 58-65. I discovered this chapter after preaching in 2016 on contemplative spirituality (see below), inspired to read this text in that light while listening to Rohr’s Immortal Diamond.
2. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” audio lecture series, tape #6. Link to my notes and transcription on this portion of Luke’s Gospel. These lectures are also now available online in clips; this portion covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 67, Part 68.
A basic thesis of Bailie’s treatment of this passage is that it goes with the previous passage about the lawyer’s question and the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer correctly perceives the two great commandments — love God, love neighbor — but then jumps to the second commandment about loving neighbor. The Mary and Martha story complements the parable of the Good Samaritan by emphasizing the first of these commandments, love of God. For a sermon (in 1998) that makes use of this insight, link to one entitled “The ‘Better Part.'”
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 18, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
4. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” posted these reflections on the text in 2013, “‘Mary and Martha at the Feet of Jesus.”
5. Jeremiah Alberg, Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses, pp. 95-97.
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “Martha’s Mistake“; a sermon in 2019, “The Better Way.”
Reflections and Questions
1. I’m wondering: Is this story a Lukan parallel to John 12:1-8? It’s the same Mary and Martha involved (where Martha’s role is limited to “Martha served”). Is it the same basic point, except made by focusing positively on Mary’s actions (John) instead of negatively on Martha’s (Luke)? The point being that the one needful thing is Jesus?
2. In 2016 I was commuting to an interim ministry, often listening to books during the lengthy commute. On my way there this particular weekend, I happened to be listening to Richard Rohr‘s Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, which ended up giving me a new angle on this passage: reading the Good Samaritan and Mary/Martha stories as the most needful thing of Contemplation and Action. It introduces the congregation to the relatively new revival of ancient prayer practices, and to the importance of that renewal to our ministry. Link to sermon, “The One Thing Most Needful Is . . .”
3. In 2004 I was in my second week of a year-long interim — having spent the previous year at a city ministry and this one being suburban. In a sermon, “Going Against the Grain,” I begin by highlighting how Jesus was going against the grain in choosing the Samaritan and Mary as positive role models in the two consecutive stories. But I conclude by taking a closer look at Martha’s problem in this text. Actually, we might identify at least three ways in which she has become anxious and distracted. (1) She has taken on too many “tasks” (Gr: diakonia; “ministries”). (2) She is in rivalry with her sister, focused on what Mary is or isn’t doing. (3) She employs the age-old tactic of trying to triangle someone else into her relationship with her sister, asking Jesus to take her side and intervene — in other words, to unify themselves against Mary.
Jesus doesn’t bite and gently chides Martha to take the “better part,” the better course for steering clear of the unproductive way she has chosen. Martha should imitate Mary’s focus on learning from Jesus the way of steering clear of rivalries. He is the one person above all in whom our focus and fascination can begin to untangle us from our webs of rivalry. He is the one who came to do the desire of his Father without rivalry. When we learn to imitate him, we become more focused on what is most needful to do, the most needful tasks of ministry (diakonia). We are more apt to notice those who are half-dead and to respond with compassion, as did the Good Samaritan. Our distractedness from too many tasks can find the true priorities for service. And being rooted in Jesus also helps us to begin to disentangle from our many rivalries — without triangling Jesus into them. No, when we are able to attend to a healthy relationship with Jesus, we can find the healthier ways to more directly attend to and mend our relationships with others.