by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens
Image: “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” by Jan Breugel & Peter Paul Rubens , 1628
A few years ago, our church met together and puzzled and dreamed and planned and struggled with words that would comprise the “Vision Statement”for our church. (What is it?) “Growing by Believing and Doing.” Next month, on August 25th, we will be looking at that statement and asking ourselves -how do we do that? How do we grow? How do we express our discipleship in this world? How do we grow as individuals and as a community? What is the relationship in our community between Believing and Doing?
This understanding of the relationship between Faith (Believing) and Works (Doing) traces its roots back as far as the beginning of Christianity itself. What does one need to do in order to be considered a follower of Jesus?
In the book of James 2: 14-17, the author addresses the balance between Believing and Doing:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good[a] is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
In our scripture lesson today we are confronted with two very different responses to the presence of Jesus: Mary, the dutiful sister sits at the feet of Jesus, absorbing his every word represents BELIEVING, while Martha fusses over dinner represents DOING. Being a Martha myself, this story always made me a bit angry… Why is Mary’s response the one Jesus prefers? Why was Martha chastised, when she is the one doing all the work?
So let us begin with the scripture from Luke 10:38-42
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Myth Number 1: Women were powerless and not full disciples.
It is true, that in the Ancient Near East, women had few rights and were dependent on men for their safety, livelihood and protection. But throughout his ministry, Jesus spoke to women as equals, offered them the same opportunities as he did men, broke the law and broke cultural norms to reach out to female disciples, female strangers and female friends. Siblings Martha, Mary and Lazarus were among the close-knit circle of Jesus’ friends. Jesus loved these three, as is stated in John 11: 5 and went out of his way – both literally and figuratively –to be in their presence.
So when Jesus came to visit them in Bethany, it was Martha who welcomed him into their home. But this is the action of the man, the action of the homeowner. Was Martha the homeowner? Shouldn’t Lazarus be welcoming them, as the man of the household? Was this “normal” or was Martha just a brash woman who overstepped her place? I don’t know, but regardless, it is Martha who steps out of that gender role and Jesus who accepts it.
So, Martha demonstrates her power by welcoming Jesus into the home. Then this scene takes place: Martha working and Mary listening.
Myth 2: Women should be seen and not heard.
What was Jesus trying to tell these two different women in their different responses to him? To understand the contrast in the scene, let’s look at the image used in Luke, and here painted by Jan Breugel & Peter Paul Rubens in 1628:
First: the position of the two women:
1. Mary is sitting beside Jesus at his feet
2. Martha stands over Jesus (The Greek word ephistemai in v. 40, carries the idea of “to stand or be over” and even “to oppose”.) There is a sense that Martha is opposing what Jesus and Mary are doing. Mary should be doing something else — namely, helping Martha.
1. Mary was listening to Jesus’ word or message
2. Martha speaks to Jesus. (1)
So Luke is setting up this contrast and we –as women – absorb this message: Women should be silent and listen, taking the subordinate position to the man.
In fact, I see this story –not as a belittling of the role of women, but as an affirmation of the women in the movement. Look at Mary – learning at the feet of the Master – this is the traditional posture of a true disciple!
And in confronting Martha’s busyness, Jesus invites her too to a place at his feet. “Come and listen.” He cries. “Martha, Martha,” he says in verse 41, “you are worried and distracted by many things.”So lay down your worries at my feet. Lay your burdens down, your busyness and your stress and listen to my words. Be in my presence.
You see, Martha’s DOING wasn’t being denounced. Rather, her distractions. The Greek phrase translated here as to “be distracted” (NRSV) in v. 40 is perispaomai, a word used only here in the New Testament. Perhaps most literally this word means “to be pulled from all directions” — spaomai = “to be pulled” + peri = “from around” (1)
As author Brian Stoffregen asks, “What are the opposing forces pulling at Martha? What are opposing forces pulling at our lives? How do we put the important things first? …(There) is a growing need among our people to learn how to determine their priorities and then to actually make them priorities in their weekly schedules.” (2)
What do we value? Martha was so busy trying to make Jesus welcome that she overlooked an opportunity to sit and listen and enjoy this time with an old friend and a wise teacher. What do we value and how do we demonstrate our priorities to others?
Myth 3: Busyness = Usefulness
And so, I must admit, busyness is not an indication of one’s value. In fact, it can be a distraction from what is truly important. We must – despite how many people depend on us or how anxious we get – stop and rest. One of our Commandments – lived out for generations – is to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. That means different things to different people, but it is a set-aside time for us to stop our normal busyness and attend to the needs of ourselves, our families and to God. A time to listen and hear what God is telling us. A time to come from the kitchen and sit the feet of Jesus. A time to wander through a day, enabling it to unfold in the presence of God.
* I’ll close today with a poem, written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, the renowned Canadian author and writer of the “Anne of Green Gables” books. This poem, called “Come Rest Awhile” calls us to end our distractions and remember what is truly important:
Come Rest Awhile by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Come, rest awhile, and let us idly stray
In glimmering valleys, cool and far away.
Come from the greedy mart, the troubled street,
And listen to the music, faint and sweet,
That echoes ever to a listening ear,
Unheard by those who will not pause to hear
The wayward chimes of memory’s pensive bells,
Wind-blown o’er misty hills and curtained dells.
One step aside and dewy buds unclose
The sweetness of the violet and the rose;
Song and romance still linger in the green,
Emblossomed ways by you so seldom seen,
And near at hand, would you but see them, lie
All lovely things beloved in days gone by.
You have forgotten what it is to smile
In your too busy life come, rest awhile. (3)
May we, the distracted and the too-busy, remember what it is to smile. May we hear the call of Jesus to Come and rest awhile. And may we who devote ourselves to others, stop the perpetual motion and claim time to care for ourselves so that we, strengthened and rejuvenated may serve God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength.
- Brian Stoffregen, found at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke10x38.htm
- Lucy Maud Montgomery, found at http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/come-rest-awhile/