Sermon for 7 Pentecost, Year C
Based on Lk. 10: 38-42
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Once upon a time in a land far away, a king decided to become more informed about the everyday lives of his subjects. To accomplish this, he developed a plan to visit some of his subjects in a small village. He sent his messengers out to two homes where he planned to meet with the families and discuss with them their hopes and dreams and his plans for the kingdom.
On the first day of his two-day venture, he arrives at the subjects’ home to find the family all preparing the meal. The family was trying so hard to please the king that they were preparing the largest, most elaborate meal they have ever seen. As a result, they ask the king and his entourage to seat themselves in the outer courtyard of their home while they complete the meal preparation. Fortunately, the meal is delicious and the king is quite pleased. Unfortunately, the preparation of the meal has been so involved that the family members are physically and mentally exhausted as they adjourn to the sitting room for conversation. As a result, they have very little to say to the king.
The next day, when the king visits the second home in his journey, he experiences something quite different. He is greeted by the whole family as he comes to their door. Although there is a light meal served, the clear focus of the evening is the family’s desire to sit and talk with their king. They share openly their hopes and dreams for their family and village. They listen excitedly as the king reveals some of his new plans for needed changes in the kingdom’s business.
Even though the king did not get as much to eat at the second house, he left there much more satisfied than he had been following his visit the previous evening. 1
Our gospel today is a rather challenging story for many. It addresses issues just as alive and important for us today as they were in biblical times. Issues of hospitality, of being distracted, too busy and stressed-out, of taking time for spiritual and intellectual pursuits.
In contrast to what one might expect, today’s gospel gives us a rather different view of hospitality. Most commentators and many preachers have often interpreted Jesus’ words to Martha in a negative fashion; words which pit Martha against Mary—putting down Martha and praising Mary. However, I believe that this is an unfair way of interpreting this story.
Many have criticized Martha for her heart being in the wrong place; for her being jealous of her sister Mary spending time with Jesus instead of helping Martha in the kitchen. An alternative interpretation—and also a more charitable one!—comes from scholar Rachel Conrad Wahlberg.
The very fact that Martha urges Jesus to tell Mary to help her suggests a pattern of customary activity—that Mary usually does help. If Martha always cooked and Mary always entertained a guest (rigid assignment of roles) there would have been no problem. (Each would have accepted and respected one another’s roles.) To say to Jesus, “Make her come to help,” implies: “This is where she belongs.” 2
In defense of Martha, why could the principle of “many hands make light work” not have applied? After all, if both women would have prepared the meal it likely would have gotten done faster, thus giving both sisters more time to spend with Jesus. Following this interpretation then, Martha was not complaining because her heart was in the wrong place—nor because she was jealous of Mary. Rather, she was complaining because her heart was in the right place! She was missing out on what Jesus was saying. She wanted to be with Jesus too, just as much as Mary did, that’s why she complained so strongly. It is wrong, then, to stereotype Martha and Mary. Both were involved with hospitality and with learning from Jesus. In John’s Gospel, we know this is true, because there it is Martha who confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. In order for Martha to confess this truth, she had to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him, like her sister Mary.
This story of Martha, Mary, and Jesus teaches us that we all need to strive to live a well-balanced life. There are times—all-too-often,--when we become too distracted, too busy, and stressed-out because we spread ourselves out too thin. Our lives can easily become so preoccupied with doing practical things like: fixing, building, cooking, baking, cleaning, driving children to sports activities, attending this, that, and the other organization, club, or society function—on and on the list goes. The problem is that we think we can handle it all, that it all gives us more meaning and purpose to our lives—because we live in a society that defines people by what they do, not by who they are. Therefore, our lives become so full of distractions, busyness, fretting, fussing, worry and anxiety that we miss out on what is truly important in our lives. In fact, we can become so distracted with being busy and focused on all of the practical things that we may not be able to listen to and learn from Jesus. We can lose our focus and grow more distant from our God and miss or fall away from the God-intended purposes and vocation of our lives.
Today’s gospel reminds us that: our doing needs to be balanced with study, learning, reflection, the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Our pursuit of that which is only passing and finite needs to be balanced with that which is infinite and eternal. That is precisely why we come to church, to pray, to hear God’s word and receive the sacrament. Jesus also speaks to us who become too focused on doing things, he says: “Don’t just do something, sit there! Learn from me, listen to my teachings, grow in your spiritual and intellectual wisdom and knowledge. Balance your busy, active life with quiet times of reflection, study, prayer and worship. Feed your mind, your heart and soul—not just your body or your belly! Let the eternal, lasting things shape and influence the passing, temporary things—not the other way around!
May we learn from Martha, Mary and Jesus how to live a balanced life of doing and being, action and study, practice and knowledge, work, prayer, and worship.
1 Cited from: Emphasis, Vol. 25, No. 2, July-August 1995 (Lima, OH.: CSS Publishing Co.), p. 31.