Called, Reoriented, and Resurrected

Sermon on Luke 10:38-42

Psalm 52: 8-9 But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever. I will give you thanks for what you have done and declare the goodness of your Name in the presence of the godly.

Introduction

I’m intense, and I like to do things well, really well. More to the point, I like to do a lot of things and all of them really well. I take my calls and tasks seriously—my whole person is always invested—“dial-it-in” isn’t in my vocabulary even when I’m burned out, tired, and exhausted. When I was a stay-at-home-mom, I did it with everything I had; when I was an athlete, I spent hours perfecting each move; as a priest, I make sure I’m 100% invested with you; as a student, I hold myself to exacting standards, putting forward my best at every turn, without excuse.

While often this intensity and tendency toward perfectionism is just my neutral mode, every so often the two collide in a horrific accident resulting in the tragedy of oppressive anxiety. I know I’m not alone here. I know you know what I’m talking about. Anxiety sneaks in through an unlocked inner door, illuminating the lack of control. Then, as the lack of control sinks in, fear of failure oozes in through the same door. The burden of both collapses my inner world; my imagination runs wild; my pulse races.

In these moments, I’ve become too associated and tightly bound up with my works and tasks. They’ve started to define me existentially (as a good mom, as a good student, as a good priest, as a good athlete) and eventually ontologically as a human (if I do these things I’m good, my being in the world is good, my essence is good). Anxiety surges; I’m made aware there’s no remedy for it within myself—because it’s my “self” that’s affected. I can’t help myself, because I’m the one who’s anxious. I’m backed into a corner, squeezed in on all sides, and brought to the confession: Help! I’m not in control!

No matter how hard I try, I cannot depend on myself in this moment. I must be called out of myself and called to another; I need to be redirected, reoriented, and realigned. In these moments, I’m lost and must be found; I’m dead, trapped in the tomb of myself, and must be resurrected.

Luke 10:38-42

Now Martha was being troubled greatly by much service; and she stood near and said, “Lord, it concerns you not that my sister left me behind alone to serve? Therefore command her so that she may lend a hand to me.” And [Jesus] answered her and said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and are being disturbed about many things, but one [thing] is a need; for Mary picked out for herself the good part [and] it will not be taken from her whatsoever.”[1]

(Luke 10:40-42)

Our master-storyteller is at again. Following the good Samaritan story redefining what neighbor love looks like, Luke launches into a (seemingly) disconnected story featuring Jesus, Martha, and Mary. Here, Jesus shows up at Martha’s home and Mary is there, too.[2] Jesus is being intentional here. He enters this certain village and is received into this particular home.

Then, as Jesus enters, two things happen: Martha jumps into service to host the guest she’s welcomed (ὑπεδέξατο, “she received as a guest”) into her home, and Mary gets up, walks over, and sits down at Jesus’s feet (παρακαθεσθεῖσα[3]). This isn’t a case of work v. rest or active v. passive; it’s a case of stone and flesh, death and life. Which part will you choose: that which is dead (turning toward stone) or that which is living (turning toward flesh)? The distinction Luke is making here is orientation: one is oriented and one has to be reoriented.[4]

Martha does exactly what’s expected of her according to the law, tradition, and etiquette; Mary, not so much.[5] Martha grows more and more burdened (περιεσπᾶτο, “she was being greatly troubled”) by the demands of hospitality while her sister just sits there, abandoning her. So, Martha—pushed beyond what she can take—goes to Jesus. Now, both sisters are before Jesus.

Martha wants Jesus to command Mary to come help her with the tasks of table service. She wants him to right the situation, putting it back to normal; she wants him to make it make sense to her.[6] Jesus will help her and 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 life forced to serve the things conceived and born of death? When does the Reign of God give way to the kingdom of humanity?

When Jesus speaks, he doesn’t condemn Martha for her anxiety and burdens; he loving calls her (Martha, Martha). The first Martha gets her attention; the second one draws her into himself. Like a mother would her anxious child: the voice of love speaks, and when it does it brings love and not condemnation. Then, Martha’s reoriented from what to whom: God with her—from stone to flesh, from death to life. Jesus doesn’t tell her: stop worrying. He calls her by name. He doesn’t shush or shame her for feeling burdened. He reorients her to him by calling her by name; she is resurrected out of death into life, from dead stone to living flesh. That’s the gospel gospelling itself: love loving.[7]

Where Martha expects Jesus to side with her (which, according to custom, he should), he sides with Mary.[8] As Jesus addressed Martha, he highlighted discipleship isn’t worrisome obedience to “domestic performance,” (to dead traditionalism) but about (re)orientation toward the One who is the revelation and disclosure of God’s love and life. [9] And this love doesn’t incorporate thrusting people back into systems and structures that leave them bound and gagged, laboring unto death (that’s the old age). Jesus is not the Ancient One who deals death, but who speaks and brings the dead into life. Love isn’t in service to the law, but the law in service to love; the tablets of stone serve the fleshy Son of God.

Martha lost herself in the many things demanded of her according to custom, but there is only one need: The Word made flesh. In trying to serve her guest according to the rules and laws of the old age, Martha rendered herself incapable of service to Jesus the Christ. 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 and reoriented toward the divine activity in the world following closely to the path initiated by Jesus, the path of love. Our faith and works must 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.[10]

Just as before, so to now: following Christ, participating in the mission of God in the world, partaking and promoting divine love in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit will look very different than our expectations. To love our neighbor is to have mercy; to love God is to reject that which kills and choose that which brings life and light into the world.[11]

Conclusion

The paradox of humanity in this small potent story is this: we’re both Martha and Mary. You can’t pick sides here. We aren’t one or the other (no Maries in a Martha world); we’re both. We run through our days and our rat-races, fretting over the demands of our age—rest is a complete illusion here. Being oriented to the old age, its demands, and trying to appease 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. So, while we’re called and we heard, we need to be called and to hear…again (it’s why we come here every Sunday).

It’s not about activity being bad and passivity being good, but about our orientation and reorientation in our activity. In Christ, we are called by name out of ourselves, out of death and unto God and life. We receive freedom and liberty for us and for others who are also dying as we were dying. Then we, in the power of the Spirit, go forth and call others by name, too, intersecting their deadly inner narratives with a word of hope and life that is the Word of God (the Gospel).

We cannot isolate Mary’s active love of Christ from the active love for the neighbor of the Samaritan.[12] Work and worship are not separated (no dualism). Luke 10 is an exposition of the entire Law: to love your neighbor is to love God; to love God is to love your neighbor (in this story Jesus is both God and Neighbor).

Beloved, we don’t need to justify ourselves through incessant and frantic activity trying to meet the demands of the old age. [13] We’re justified by faith (alone) in Christ (alone) by God’s grace (alone) and not by any toiling. We’re called by name and look; we’re called by name again and step closer. The one calling, God of very God, ends enslavement to and silences condemnation of the powers of sin and the old age by reorienting us in the life-giving powers of love and the age of Christ. We’re resurrected out death into life.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 140. “It is important to note that the home is Martha’s, and that Mary is simply her sister. Although one might surmise that Mary also lives there, it is not the home of May and Martha, but the home of Martha, who has a sister named Mary.

[3] aorist, passive deponent, participle, feminine, nominative, singular. The first principal part is: παρακαθίζω. This verb carries with it an activity that is lost in the English translation “she sat”, might be better to say, “got up and sat down beside” to emphasize that Mary intentionally chose to sit at Jesus’s feet with the purpose to listen to his words. This plays well with the last part in Jesus’s statement to Martha: Mary picked out for herself the good part…

[4] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 338

[5] Gonzalez, Luke, 140. “Martha does what is expected of her when a guest comes to the house. Mary simply listens to Jesus.”

[6] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 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.”

[7] Cardenal, Solentiname, 340. “I: ‘We might say, then, that what Jesus is saying here is that the only important thing is love.’”

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

[9] 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.”

[10] 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.”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 141. “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.”

[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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s