Come and Follow Me

Luke 10:38-42 (Sermon)

Introduction

One of the temptations in addressing this Lukan gospel passage, is the temptation to create a dichotomy between Mary and Martha. You’ve likely heard the moral of the story expressed as: Be “Maries” in a world of “Marthas”—an exhortation to Christians to prefer passive, private, quiet worship life like Mary, rather than a life filled with activity and motion and doing that coincides with Martha’s. [1] If you’ve ever heard this dichotomy between the sisters and felt a certain amount of tension and frustration, good news: you are not wrong.

It’s a bad application of the text. It throws shade on Martha that she doesn’t deserve and puts Mary in a position she hasn’t chosen. If we fall to the temptation to draw the line between Martha and Mary—substantiating the former with bad and the latter with good—we end up pitting the sisters against each other in a way that will plague us with a burden insidiously destructive to our discipleship—it’ll make any form of the law look like a fuzzy little kitten.

If we are dead set on this dichotomy between the sisters, let’s be warned: we’ll miss out on the wonderful story of what it means to be fully human; we’ll miss Jesus’s verbal deftness rendering the law in service to the gospel; we’ll miss witnessing the powers of sin and death collapsing under the weight of the invasion of God into our world in Christ—bringing to ashes our categories and expectations based on divisions; [2] we’ll miss the moment when the Christ takes from our weary shoulders the domination of toil and replaces it with the light burden and easy yoke[3] of the activity of discipleship, of following after this One who is the first of new creation. If we are dead set in pitting Mary against Martha, we’ll forfeit a word that is dynamic and life giving for a word that is static and death dealing.

And as he journeyed with [his disciples], he, he entered into a certain village; and a woman whose name [was] Martha received him as a guest. (10:38)

The story opens up with Jesus on the move with his disciples. Luke adjusts the focus and the disciples recede into the background. [4] Jesus enters this town and this woman, Martha, receives him. Hold still here. I don’t want us to miss this small moment in this brief story because we want to move quickly to the activity of Mary and Martha. Jesus is being intentional here. He enters this certain village and is received into this particular home. Luke asks us to listen: Do you hear it? God comes. Christ inaugurates everything occurring from here on out; everything is set in motion by the divine One who has come into our world, in to the very heart of our homes. We asked for none of this; in fact, we weren’t even looking for it and certainly not in this way. God comes.

And she had a sister called Mary, and [she] was seated at the feet of the Lord and listening to his word. (10:39)

Luke moves the narrative along quickly: Jesus has arrived at this home and Martha and her sister Mary are introduced. Martha takes the lead to receive Jesus as we read in the last verse, and Mary is imaged in what seems as a more passive role: the one who is sitting and listening. But, again, if we move to quickly to the action of the story, we’ll miss what Luke wants us to hear and see.

A striking aspect of this verse is that there is no way Mary is passive here. While I usually don’t spend time explaining words in their original biblical language, I must do so here because our English translation is painfully lacking. The text reads, “Mary was seated at the feet of the Lord…” However, we must understand the past tense participle (παρακαθεσθεισα) translated as “was seated” would be better rendered as: “Mary got up and placed herself at the feet of Jesus…” The radicality and boldness of Mary’s movement is lost in our translation. Thus why we want to make the bad dichotomy between Mary and Martha. Mary is as active as Martha is.

When Jesus enters the room, Mary stops what she is doing, moves toward him, and assumes the (active) role of being a disciple[5] to this one who is the Christ, the word made flesh, the apocalyptic invasion of God in the world. Nothing, neither the Law nor some societal gender expectations, [6] will keep Mary from being close to the one she adores, the one she loves, the one who has called her and the one whom she hears. She’d rather suffer the consequences of bucking expectation and assuming a position that was not hers to assume or seize[7] rather than not be near Jesus whom she loves.

This isn’t about active equals bad and passive equals good; Mary and Martha are equally active. This is about something bigger than we think. It’s about God’s cosmic battle with the powers of sin and death through the arrival of the good (Christ)—the good we weren’t looking for but need.

And Martha was troubled greatly about all of the service. Now, she stood before [Jesus] and said, “Lord, is it not an object of anxiety for you that my sister has abandoned me alone to serve? Therefore, tell her for the purpose that she may lend me a hand. (10:40)

Martha is burdened by what has to be done and her sister, according to her, has “abandoned” her to do all the work of service for their guest. So she asks for help. Now, both sisters are before Jesus. One has seated her self to listen and one who has stepped close to cry out for help. How are either of these positions is wrong? Martha, under extensive anxiety, forsakes her independence and goes straight to the one who can help. Thus the supposed dichotomy between the sisters (activity/bad; passivity/good) diminishes more.

Rather than looking where we want to look, let’s look in the direction Luke is asking us to look; what’s the real distinction Luke is trying to make here? The distinction Luke is making with this story is orientation; orientation as a result of hearing; orientation as a result of hearing that manifests in love of the One who has come. One is oriented and one has to be reoriented.

Martha calls out from the depths of her humanity, burdened by the weight of the demands and cares of the laws placed on her, oppressed by the many anxieties weighing her down she cries out. She needs help, and she goes to the one she knows can help. She calls Jesus’s attention to the storm in her life, like the disciples did in Luke 8 when their dingy was threatened by raucous waves and roaring winds. “Master, we are going to drown!”, they cried out. “Lord, I’m going to drown!”, cries Martha. “Do something, Lord!”

Martha wants Jesus to intervene in a way that forces Mary to come and help her with the tasks of table service. She wants him to right the situation and put it back to normal; she wants him to make it that makes sense to her. [8] Jesus will help her and will make things “right,” but not in the way she expects. When does God work within our systems and according to our plans? When is the word of the gospel forced to serve the things conceived and born of ash and dirt? When has the Reign of God given way to the kingdom of humanity?

When Jesus speaks, everything will change, will become topsy-turvy and flipped around; including Martha.

And the Lord answered her and said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled in mind about many things, but there is one need; for Mary picked for herself the good portion which it will not be taken away from her.” (10:41-42)

Jesus speaks. The Word words himself. Jesus doesn’t condemn Martha for her anxiety and burdens, but loving calls her (thus the double use of her name). The first Martha gets her attention, and the second one draws her deeper into himself. Like a mother would her anxious child. The voice she knows of the one who loves her so very much speaks, and when he does so in love and not condemnation. Martha’s orientation shifts from what must be done to the Lord sitting before her. And Jesus doesn’t tell her to stop worrying. He calls her by name. He doesn’t shush her, tell her she’s ridiculous, or shame her for feeling burdened. He merely reorients her to him and does so by calling her by name. That’s the gospel gospeling itself: love loving.

Then, he exposes her. First he flips her words. Martha asked Jesus if it was causing him anxiety that she was abandoned to serve. Jesus aren’t you upset my sister isn’t doing what she is expected to do? Jesus’s reply? Nope. I’m not. You’re the one, Martha, who is anxious to fulfill the relentless beast of burden of what is expected. Second, he intensifies her state: And it’s more than just this particular table service that’s causing you anxiety, Martha; it’s many things. It’s the demand upon demand placed upon her by the things of her world that are weighing her down. Martha is burdened to fulfill what is expected of her, but notice that this isn’t what Jesus expects. [9] Jesus isn’t upholding and isn’t going to uphold the law created and sustained by the old age, the very age God is putting to an end in Christ’s advent.

As Jesus addresses Martha, he highlights that discipleship isn’t worrisome obedience to “domestic performance” as one scholar called it, but about orientation toward the one who is the revelation and disclosure of God’s great cosmic rescue plan. [10] And this rescue plan—the cosmic invasion of God to contend with the powers of sin and death in the world—doesn’t incorporate thrusting people back into systems and structures that have only left them bound and gagged and laboring unto death (that’s the old age). Jesus is not the Lord who deals death, but the one who speaks and the dead come to life. He is the word of life and the body of living sustenance. The gospel is not in service to the law, but the law in service to the gospel; the tablets of stone serve the embodied Son of God who came to save the world.

Martha lost herself in the many things being demanded of her according to custom, but there is only need: the Word made flesh. In trying to serve her guest according to the rules and laws of the old age, Martha renders herself incapable of service to the Lord, to Jesus the Christ. Thus the contrast between Mary and Martha is orientation: Martha has her eyes to the old age; Mary to the new one inaugurated by Christ. Discipleship and its service is to be oriented toward the divine activity in the world following closely to the path initiated by Jesus. Our faith with our works are to be oriented to Christ and the Reign of God taking place in Christ; not to our objectives, our systems, our common sense, and our dogmas.[11]

Conclusion

The paradox of humanity in this small potent story of Luke 10: we are both Martha and Mary. You can’t pick sides here. You are not one or the other; you are both. I am both. We’ve been called and we’ve heard, but we also need to be called and to hear continually. We run through our days and perform in our rate races, fretting over the demands upon demands upon demands of our age: rest is a complete and total illusion here. Being oriented to the old age and its demands and trying to appease it so to silence it is a worthless endeavor because those systems and demands are insatiable. We will never be able to have or do enough to settle all the anxiety and silence the cacophony of demands. When we look to the old age to bring us hope, we are hopeless.

Rather, in the reign of God inaugurated by the advent of Christ Jesus, the cessation of the old age and the beginning of the new age, is the only means by which we will have true peace and rest. Paul writes in Colossians,

“[Christ] is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (1:15-20)

Following Christ: freedom; taking up his yoke: liberty. It’s not about activity being bad and passivity being good, but about our orientation in our activity. In Christ, we are called by name unto him who is life and are brought out of the death of toiling and into new life of work. We receive freedom and liberty for us and for others who are also dying as we were dying. The way Luke structures chapter 10 of his gospel, we cannot isolate Mary’s active love of Christ from the active love for the neighbor of the Samaritan. [12] For him, work and worship are not separated. Chapter 10 is an exposition of the entire Law told in story. According to Luke, we cannot walk by our neighbor who is dying on the side of the road, beaten and bruised, and claim to love God.

We don’t need to justify ourselves to God through our incessant and frantic activity trying to appease the demands of the old age. [13] We are justified by faith (alone) in Christ (alone) by God’s grace (alone) and not by means of any of our toiling. We are called by name and we look; we are called by name again and we step closer. The one calling, the one proclaiming himself, puts an “it is finished” to the enslavement of the condemnation of the powers of sin and death, and he ushers in the comfort of the powers of love and life with “Come; come and follow me and I will give you rest.”

 

 

[1] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1997. “Although long interpreted as establishing the priority of the contemplative life over against the active one, the interests of this brief narrative unit lie elsewhere. Luke’s narration is manifestly concerned with the motif of hospitality.” 433. I’m not drawing out the specific theme of hospitality, but that should be incorporated into my discussion of the next albeit rather subtly, snuggled in between choosing the good part and discipleship.

[2] Gonzalez 141. “They must read within the context of Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom and radical obedience. In the chapters immediately preceding, Jesus has been teaching about the demands of the kingdom and of discipleship. In the coming of Jesus, something radically new has happened and this radically new thing demands an equally radical obedience (see, for instance, 9:57-62). The parable of the Good Samaritan calls for a radical obedience that breaks cultural, ethnic, and theological barriers. The story of Mary and Martha is equally radical. First of all, we often do not realize that the first one to break the rules is Jesus himself. He is the guest, and against all rules of hospitality he rebukes Martha, who is his host. And Mary too breaks the rules. Her role as (most probably) a younger sister, or as one living in the house of her sister, is to help her in her various chores. Instead, she just sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him.”

[3] Matthew 11:30

[4] Green 435; Also, Luke is intentional here: the “they” and “them” fall out of view once Jesus is received as a guest into Martha’s home.

[5] Green 144, “By means of this juxtaposition [with 10:25-37], Luke illuminates his overarching concern with genuine “hearing” of the word of God (cf. 8:4-21)…Now, Mary is depicted as one who has begun the journey of discipleship by acknowledging through her posture her submissiveness to Jesus and by ‘listening’ to his word. Martha’s ‘doing,’ on the other hand, is censured, rooted as it is in her anxiety as a host rather than in dispositions transformed by an encounter with the word.”

[6] Green 435, “She is positioned ‘at the Lord’s feet,’ signifying her submissiveness, particularly her status as a disciple (cf. Acts 22:3). The latter nuance is commended by her activity at his feet: she ‘listened to his word’ For the Third Gospel, to listen to the word is to have joined the road of discipleship (e.g., 6:47; 8:11, 21; 11:28)—in spite of the reality that, in this period, Jewish women were normally cast in the role of domestic performance in order to support the instruction of men rather than as persons who were themselves engaged in study.”

[7] Green 435fn142, While some Law was learned it was only in regards to those laws that controlled the feminine realm and were taught by mother to daughter.

[8] Green 436-7, “…Martha’s address to Jesus takes an unexpected, perhaps unconscious turn; while she engages in the irony of self-betrayal, her attempt to win Jesus’ support in a struggle against her sister ends in self-indictment. The nature of hospitality for which Jesus seeks is realized in attending to one’s guest, yet Martha’s speech is centered on ‘me’-talk (3 times). Though she refers to Jesus as ‘Lord,’ she is concerned to engage his assistance in her plans, not to learn from him his.”

[9] Gonzalez 141, “Here Jesus rebukes Martha for doing what is expected of her, and commends Mary, who is eschewing her traditional woman’s role.”

[10] Green 434, “As high a value as Luke puts on service (by which he often denotes leadership, cf. 22:24-27), service grounded in and brandishing moral intuitions other than those formed through hearing the word is unacceptable. The welcome Jesus seeks is not epitomized in distracted, worrisome domestic performance, but in attending to this guest whose very presence is a disclosure of the divine plan.”

[11] Green 437, “…his status as Lord identifies him as the one whose design transcends self-oriented or conventionally correct plans and whose message takes precedence over the same. Thus, over against the attempt of Martha to assert the priority of her enterprise over that of her sister, Jesus provides his own two-sided valuation of the scene before him. Martha is engaged in anxious, agitated practices, behavior that contrasts sharply with the comportment of a disciple characteristic of Mary. Martha is concerned with many things, Mary with only one. Hence, Martha’s behavior is negatively assessed, Mary’s positively. What is this ‘one thing,’ this ‘better part’ Mary has chosen? Within this narrative co-text, the infinite range of possibilities is narrowed considerably: She is fixed on the guest, Jesus, and his word; she heeds the one whose presence is commensurate with the coming of the kingdom of God. With Jesus presence the world is being reconstituted, with the result that (1) Mary (and. With her, those of low status accustomed to living on the margins of society) need no longer be defined by socially determined roles; and, more importantly in this co-text, (2) Mary and Martha (and, with them, all) must understand and act on the priority of attending to the guest before them, extending to Jesus and his messengers the sort of welcome in which the authentic hearing of discipleship is integral.”

[12] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice Minneapolis, MN: 2017. “Theological commitment to the true socialism of the kingdom of God and engagement with socialist analysis of capitalist social structures, which are antithetical to that kingdom, coalesce in Gollwitzer’s thought to make the fundamental point that Christians must take sides on political issues, and they must take the side of the oppressed. Many of those Americans today who think of themselves as Christians feel very uncomfortable when faced with this demand. As Gollwitzer correctly notes, however, taking sides ‘sounds terrifying only to him who is blind to the fact that the empirical church has actually always taken sides.’ Christians have, by and large, sided with the status quo, But the gospel’s call to repentant conversion—to metanoia—‘reaches into the politico-social dimension,’ and ‘as long as we shrink from revolutionizing [that dimension], we have not really heard’ the gospel’s call. That is, we have not encountered the God who loves justice, and who is consequently served through the pursuit of political love.” 146

[13] Helmut Gollwitzer “Fellow-Workers With Love” The Way to Life Trans David Cairns. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1980. “When we no longer defend and justify ourselves, then God, who is greater than our heart, defends us, and holds us fast…and we can breath again; we are not rejected as we deserve to be, we are still accepted by the love of God.”132.

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