Word and Work
Living God, you raise us to fullness of being in sharing the Christ-life together. Teach us to pray and grant us hopeful persistence in seeking your will and your way, that by the power of the Spirit, love and faithfulness may meet to disarm the powers of the world. Amen.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But 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." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
All Readings For This Sunday
Amos 8:1-12 with Psalm 52 or
Genesis 18:1-10a with Psalm 15 and
Colossians 1:15-28 and
1. Who are the "behind-the-scenes" people in your church, who make much of its ministry, including its hospitality, possible?
2. What would these stories sound like if they were told by those who are mostly silent but whose quiet action often drives the ministry of our churches?
3. How does the Gospel reading, paired with last week's passage about the deeds of the "good" Samaritan, reconcile the disagreement between two sisters over household chores?
4. What would need to change to bring a sharing of "hearing" and "doing" across lines that have often been drawn when assigning "roles" in the life of the faith community?
5. Why do you think Jesus chose such unlikely teachers for the lessons about loving neighbor and loving God?
by Kate Huey
Sometimes the most familiar and even beloved of stories from the Bible provide formidable challenges for our reflection. Today's passage from the Gospel of Luke, the story of Mary and Martha, is a good example. It's a short passage, but it provokes a great deal of disagreement among scholars, including the suggestion by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza that the story doesn't date to the time of "the earthly Jesus" but instead reflects a "struggle" in the early church over "the proper ministerial roles for women." What an interesting way to address the question of women's ministry: not through laws or "the way we've always done things," but through a story.
One helpful way to read this Gospel text may be in relationship to the story that precedes it, about the "Good" Samaritan. Many commentaries point out the importance of "hearing and doing" in the Gospel of Luke. The happy placement of these two stories illustrates that it's "hearing AND doing," not "hearing OR doing" that matters. Our weekly theme, "Word and Work," might be another way to express "hearing and doing"--and both of them are central to the life of faith. When he was asked, in last week's passage, about "the bottom line" of what it means to be faithful, about how one "inherits eternal life," Jesus goes to the heart of the matter by telling a story about love in action on the part of a stranger (and a hated one at that) toward his most unexpected neighbor. In today's little story, we hear that sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening carefully is also important, right at the heart of things, too.
It's also helpful to read this text with the Genesis 18:1-10a passage about Abraham offering hospitality to strangers by the oaks of Mamre, and to reflect on hospitality and the openness it requires, and the generosity of spirit that makes it both possible and authentic. (We can't help but notice, however, that Sarah and the servants are the ones who do all the work.) Hospitality is, of course, a core value of the Bible, and Abraham's welcome to his three visitors leads to all sorts of blessings for him and for us as his descendants in faith. On the other hand, in the Gospel reading, Martha's task-oriented approach to hospitality distracts her from the actual person she is welcoming, while Mary's focus on Jesus is single-minded. The problem is that, in both stories, someone had to tend to the physical needs of the guests, and neither Abraham nor Mary is, as we used to say in my large family, "pitching in." Perhaps this might provide a moment of humor to lighten the tension over what seems to be Jesus' scolding of Martha.
Last week, Jesus responded to the question of a legal expert who wanted to know exactly what he had to "do" to "inherit eternal life." Jesus answered his question with a question about what the Law said, and the man responded with what Marcus Borg, the great Jesus scholar, translates a bit differently: These are the two great "relationships": to love God with your whole heart and soul and strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus said that is exactly right: do this and you will live. So Jesus cares about our relationships--with God, and with one another. They're at the heart of what it means to live faithful lives. And that is what Jesus is teaching, all the way to Jerusalem and his death: what it means to be faithful disciples.
If we then remember that the story of the Good Samaritan teaches us what it means to love our neighbor, we can better understand the meaning of this week's story about Mary and Martha. First, let's think about all the wonderful people--not just women, either, but men, too--who work in the kitchens and fellowship halls of churches all across the land. Think about what we would do without them, if they suddenly decided to take this story at face value and sit down, right when we need them to be pouring the coffee and putting out the baked goods. (One might wonder about the conversation in the kitchen and fellowship hall during the clean-up time after coffee hour this Sunday.) What would happen to church potlucks and, by extension, the gathering of food items for food pantries, the work to combat hunger and feed the world? And what about our hospitality ministry, when we wait before we come into church and pray until we have stood out there, by our door, and made sure that everyone has received a warm greeting and a welcome to our worship? Is that what this story of Mary and Martha means, that sitting and listening and praying and learning are more important than cooking the meal or laying out the welcome mat? No pastor in her or his right mind would suggest such a thing, and I don't believe it's what Jesus is saying, either.
Loving neighbor, loving God
We might think of today's passage as part two of Luke's story about Jesus teaching us about the heart of faithfulness, with the story about the Good Samaritan teaching us about loving our neighbor, and today's story--this is so simple that it's beautiful--teaching us about loving God. Now part of the irony here is that the lawyer asked what he needed to "do" to "inherit eternal life," and yet, in this little story about two women, both of whom loved Jesus, Jesus says that all our efforts and deeds are to be balanced and even nourished by times of doing absolutely nothing but sitting and being with God.
If that was a shocking thing for Jesus to say to a woman who was trying to meet the expectations her society had set for her, not to mention the radically counter-cultural message that a woman could sit at the feet of the master like any male disciple and learn from him, can we begin to imagine how disconcerting such an idea is for us, in our culture today? We live in a world that seems to equate busyness with importance; a long to-do list, especially when it's finally completed, gives us a sense of satisfaction and even security…at least, until we start on a new list of tasks to be completed. For many, our days are packed, one after another, with many things, and our minds are full and overflowing, worried and distracted, like Martha, by many things. But Henri Nouwen once wrote that our lives, while full, are often unfulfilled. "Our occupations and preoccupations," he said, "fill our external and internal lives to the brim. They prevent the Spirit of God from breathing freely in us and thus renewing our lives."
When can we hear the voice of God?
Can you imagine what life would be like, even for a little while, without all of the things that keep us busy? Several years ago, when the northeast United States had a massive power failure, the people in our neighborhood did something extraordinary: we sat on our porches and front steps, and we walked up and down the streets and talked to one another, about the power failure, about what folks needed, and we got to know one another better. Can you imagine time--without any distractions, any to-do lists--time for our internal lives, hours spent in being with God, abiding with God, tending our relationship with God, listening to the quiet still voice of God still speaking to us, deep within our hearts? In our congregation, visitors were sometimes surprised when we pastors waited for several minutes, just a few minutes, actually, in silence before saying the pastoral prayer. One woman (one who often worked very hard in our kitchen, coincidentally) said to me, "That is my favorite time in the service; it's the only quiet time I get all week, and I wish it would last even longer." Making room for the Spirit of God to breathe freely in us, it is true, renews our own spirits, and our lives as well, when we walk out the door of our church.
We do so much talking in our churches--after all, we're very big on "the Word"--but we can't hear God still speaking if we don't stop not just sometimes but regularly--and just sit and listen, like Mary at the feet of Jesus. How can the Stillspeaking God get a word in edgewise over the beepers, cell phones, voicemail, text messages and tweets, television and radio messages that bombard us? How can we tend to our internal lives like careful gardeners who spend time nurturing new growth, pulling weeds when necessary, and gently showering the thirsty green plants with refreshing water?
I like to think about what Jesus may have been saying to Mary there in the living room, while Martha banged around in the kitchen, annoyed at her sister not helping her. Maybe he was reciting one of the psalms of his people, our ancestors in faith. John Michael Talbot's translation of Psalm 131 might express something of what Jesus intended for Mary (and Martha!) to hear: "O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes fixed on things beyond me; in the quiet, I have stilled my soul like a child at rest on its mother's knee; I have stilled my soul within me. So Israel, come and hope in your Lord; do not set your eyes on things far beyond you; just come to the quiet. Come and still your soul like a child at rest on its daddy's knee; come and still your soul completely."
The most unlikely of teachers
It seems that Jesus has chosen most unlikely teachers for us, one a hated Samaritan and the other, a lowly woman--not a respected Pharisee or lawyer, not an authoritative expert or a great prophet--a Samaritan and a woman teach us that hearing and doing go together. The point of the two stories, one after the other, is that it's not hearing OR doing, but it's hearing AND doing the Word of God that makes us faithful disciples. If we are so busy with our "doing" that we can't stop, regularly and long enough, to listen for God, well, then our lives, as Henri Nouwen says, will remain full, but unfulfilled. And that, to me seems like quite the opposite of "inheriting eternal life."
That's the twist in these two stories from the Gospel of Luke. When the lawyer asked about eternal life, it's easy to think of doing whatever we need to do to "earn" our salvation so we can go to heaven when we die. (So much for amazing grace!) But Jesus understood that the fulfillment of the promises of God has already begun, and we can taste and feel those promises in our own lives. Let's listen once again to the words from my favorite preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor: "To hear Jesus talk about it, eternal life also means hitting the jackpot now; eternal life means enjoying a depth and breadth and sweetness of life that is available right this minute and not only after we have breathed our last.... Let the summer showers of God's love soak the seeds of your right answers so that they blossom into right actions and watch the landscape begin to change. Just do it, and find out that when you do, you do live, and live abundantly, just like the man said." Life abundant: full of word and work, hearing and doing, and resting in the presence of God.
A longer preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
For further reflection
Aristotle, 4th century B.C.E.
Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.
Bertrand Russell, 19th century
One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important.
Bette Davis, 20th century
It has been my experience that one cannot, in any shape or form, depend on human relations for lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.
George Eliot, 19th century
If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of the roar which is the other side of silence.
Meister Eckhart, 14th century
Every creature is a word of God.
Walt Whitman, 19th century
Seeing, hearing, and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.