Word and Work
Sunday, July 17
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
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
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?
6. How would you respond to the claim of Bette Davis that “only work satisfies”?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Sometimes the most familiar and even beloved of stories from the Bible are the ones we struggle with most. Our passage from the Gospel of Luke, the story of Mary and Martha, is a good example. It’s a short passage, but it provokes some disagreement among scholars, including those who see the situation of women in the early church (where the Gospels were written, a generation or so after the apostles) reflected in this story. What an interesting way to address the question of women in ministry: not through laws or “the way we’ve always done things,” but through a story.
Among the first followers of Jesus, there was already disagreement about the “the role of women,” a phrase that has helped to marginalize women and keep them from sharing their God-given gifts of leadership in the church, as if God intended roles based on gender. In my own lifetime, two thousand years later, women were not even permitted to study graduate theology in the church in which I was raised, and their voices are still excluded from the pulpit today. This regrettable tradition contradicts Jesus’ own example of including women and honoring their dignity, and the story of Mary and Martha invites us into that conversation and controversy.
Hearing and doing, word and work
One helpful way to read this Gospel text may be in relationship to the story that precedes it, about the “Good” Samaritan. Many scholars 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 faithfulness, about how one “inherits eternal life,” Jesus went 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 this week’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.
Who’s going to set the table?
We can also 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.” No wonder Jesus’ scolding of Martha provokes a bit of tension among many listeners.
Setting the scene for both stories
From last week’s story about the Good Samaritan, we recall that Jesus was making his way toward Jerusalem, toward his suffering and death, when a Samaritan town refused to welcome him – not a good move in a culture that so highly valued hospitality. The Jewish people around him already hated the Samaritans. How ironic, how surprising, then, when Jesus used a Samaritan, of all people, to tell a story about the meaning of compassion, of what it means to be a neighbor.
Of course, Jesus was responding to the question of a legal expert who wanted to know exactly what he has to “do” to “inherit eternal life.” Jesus answered his question with a question about what the Law says, 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 says 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.
Who will feed the hungry?
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 but men, too, who work in the kitchens and fellowship halls of churches all across the land. We might wonder about the conversation during the clean-up time after coffee hour this Sunday and at Bible study on Wednesday! We might also ask, what if we heard this story actually told from the kitchen?
Think about what the church would do and be without these folks, if they suddenly decided to take this story at face value and sit down, right when they’re needed to be pouring the coffee and putting out the baked goods. 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 don’t go 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, more valuable, more holy than cooking the meal or laying out the welcome mat? I don’t think so.
Loving neighbor, loving God
Rather, we might think of these passages as a two-part story that Luke tells us about the heart of faithfulness, about how to inherit eternal life. The story about the Good Samaritan taught us about loving our neighbor, and this week’s story – this is so simple that it’s beautiful – is about loving God. Part of the irony here is that the lawyer asked what he needed to “do” to “inherit eternal life,” but 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.
Does busyness equal importance?
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 and learn from him just as any male disciple could, can we begin to imagine how disconcerting such a idea is for us, in our culture today? We live in a multi-tasking 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 people, the days are packed, one after another, with many things, and minds full and overflowing, worried and distracted, like Martha, by many things. However, we might also consider how a story about sitting quiet and still is heard by those who have nothing to do all day, who are lonely, perhaps, or longing for both companionship and meaning, an opportunity to share their gifts or simply be in community.)
What would quiet be like?
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; we checked on one another and we got to know one another better. We made room and time for community.
Can you imagine time for our internal lives, hours spent in being with God, abiding with God, in tending our relationship with God, listening to the quiet voice of God 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, really, 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.”
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.” 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.
When (and how) can we hear the voice of God?
We do so much talking in our churches – we focus, after all, on “the Word” – but we can’t hear God speaking in our hearts if we don’t regularly (not sometimes, but often) stop and just sit and listen, like Mary at the feet of Jesus. How indeed can the Stillspeaking God get a word in edgewise over the beepers, smart phones, texts and tweets, social media and even old-fashioned television and radio messages that bombard us 24/7? (“24/7”: there’s an expression worth contemplating!) 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 for not helping her. Maybe he was reciting one of the psalms of their people, our ancestors in faith, like Psalm 131, which quiets our souls so that we are like children on a loving parent’s knee, our minds clear of distraction and worry, our hearts still, resting in God’s love. Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful book, An Altar in the World, includes a chapter on “waking up to God,” among other everyday spiritual practices that you can do wherever you are, but really, every chapter in her book feels like a lesson in listening for God.
The most unlikely of teachers
It seems, then, that Jesus has once again chosen two 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. No, an outsider and someone on the margins teach us that hearing and doing go together. Again, the point of these two stories, one after the other as the earliest Christians would have heard them, is that it’s not hearing OR doing, it’s hearing AND doing the Word of God that makes us faithful disciples.
That’s the twist in these two stories from the Gospel of Luke. Just as the lawyer asked Jesus about eternal life, it’s easy for us to think of doing whatever we need to do to “earn” our salvation so we can go to heaven after we die. (So much for amazing grace!) But Jesus understood that the fulfillment of the promises of God has already begun, and that we can taste and feel those promises in our own lives, even here, even now. Life abundant: full of word and work, hearing and doing, and resting in the presence of God.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews retired in July from serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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.”
Leo Tolstoy, 19th century
“In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 19th century
“A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is visible labor and there is invisible labor.”
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.”
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