Genesis 18.1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-42
First we hear of Abraham’s profound hospitality toward three strangers (one God) who come to visit. Abraham’s hospitality is expected – gracious hospitality was an incredibly important value to the culture in that place and time. Abraham and his male relatives had just been circumcised, and it was the heat of the middle of the day, so reclining beneath a tree seems a most natural place for him to be. And in the midst of the hazy heat and recovery from a…rather unpleasant medical procedure…Viola! Three incredibly unexpected travelers appear. Even in that situation, Abraham’s hospitality is immediate and abounding. Little did he know he was hosting God.
Once the travelers being speaking, we start to get the clues: they know who Sarah is even though she’s not right there, the language switches from plural to singular, and low and behold the promise of descendants is proclaimed once again by God to Abraham. Sarah will have a son, even though it was so hard to believe. Now, by this point, it had been years since this old couple had heard this promise from God. Hard to believe the first time, we can understand Sarah’s laughter – perhaps desperate laughter, bitter laughter, disbelieving laughter.
We know this sound – uncomfortable and frustrated. These past few weeks, when it seems the news can’t get any more horrific or sad, our broken hearts are crushed again with news of another shooting, another terrorist attack, another, another, another. And yet to Abraham and Sarah, and to us, we hear God’s question – is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Is anything too extraordinary for the Lord? Is there anything the Lord cannot do?
From a story of abounding hospitality, we turn to one that at first glance, seems to be saying that hospitality, in fact doesn’t matter. This story has long gotten under my skin – how about you? Feeding people is how I show them I love them – is Jesus telling me that I shouldn’t? My struggle with this text is a result of interpretations that have twisted this beautiful story of discipleship into a story about Mary versus Martha. Interpretations that pit one sister against another and then ranks their choices do a dis-service to the story. This interpretation calls out our sin of comparison, which we so often fall into. Comparison, competition, who is better – focusing on these things rarely ends with acceptance. And so the story becomes about who wins at the expense of another. But really, this story isn’t about comparison but completion. Not about who is better, but WHEN is better.
You see, this story was never meant to stand on its own, but it MUST be read alongside the story of the Good Samaritan, which we heard last week and comes immediately before this one. The setup for these two stories is the lawyer who tested Jesus by asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus askes the lawyer ‘what is written in the law’ and the lawyer responds with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” When the lawyer then asks ‘who is my neighbor’, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, which is immediately followed by the story of Martha and Mary. Back in chapter 8 of Luke, Jesus talks of his family, his disciples, as the ones who hear the word of God and do it.
If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment. Perhaps if we asked Jesus which example applied to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would be ‘yes.’
Mary and the Samaritan exemplify the great commandment, and the choice of these characters is deeply meaningful. A despised outsider like a Samaritan would be the last person someone would expect Jesus to teach about as a merciful follower of the commandments. Mary is doing what a man does – sitting at the feet of a teacher was absolutely NOT the place of a woman. These characters are scandalous, shocking, and the fact that Jesus is using THEM as examples says something incredibly important about who disciples can be.
Of course we have not forgotten Martha. Jesus’ “Martha, Martha” is not one of chastisement, but of deep affection. The issue at hand for Martha is not about the fact that she is serving, but the fact that she is incredibly ‘distracted.’ The Greek word translated as ‘distracted’ here means being pulled, being dragged away, being overburdened. Serving and hospitality done out of anxiety and distraction is not what we are called to as disciples. Serving and hospitality done out of love and discipleship is another thing entirely.
As much as I want to stand with Martha every time I hear this story, I wonder what Mary has to teach us in our current context. The violence, hatred and rhetoric of our world right now seems to have us all ready to scream STOP. Mary has me thinking that perhaps what we need to do is STOP and LISTEN. Really listen. To each other. To people who are different from us both in their experiences and opinions. This is not a time to simply wait for our turn to speak, this is a time to listen as Mary did. To pay rapt attention to those who will broaden our horizons and open our minds.
What happens if we as individuals and communities stop, take a breath, truly listen to each other? Perhaps then we will discern best how to act, not react. Perhaps then, we will notice that God has joined our table and proclaimed promise. Is anything too extraordinary for the Lord? Seminary professor Sam Giere writes “Against the soundscape of Abraham’s silence and Sarah’s incredulous laughter, the Lord’s extraordinary promise rings through. This promise did not usher in a utopia. Far from it. It does however, confirm yet again that in the midst of humanity’s capacity for messing things up, God remains faithful.”
God remains faithful to Mary AND Martha, to the lawyers AND the Good Samaritans. God’s faithfulness is representative of God’s kingdom – where the rule (the commandment) is simply to love God and one’s neighbor. This rule is so radically different from those of society that by following this greatest commandment, we will find ourselves breaking the rules. Most importantly, I think it will drive us to break the rule that you can only be on one side: Martha OR Mary, Israel OR Palestine, Black Lives Matter OR Blue Lives Matter. God’s truth is in the and – Mary AND Martha, Israel AND Palestine, Black AND Blue Lives Matter.
By refusing to choose only one side but still honor the unique experiences and situations of different groups of people, we will find that we can be like Mary, not in that we only listen and never work, but in that we are willing to go where we are not expected. We will find that enemies can be merciful. We will find that in getting to know actual people, our expectations, biases and stereotypes will be shattered. We will find ourselves gathered for a meal, and realize that God has come to join the table, and brought a profound word of grace.