Sunday, February 21, 2021

Love in Balance -- a sermon on Martha, Mary, and the Parable of the Good Neighbour

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Love in Balance

Luke 10.25-42 (CEB)

21 February 2021, NL3-31, Lent 1

After the transfiguration, Jesus continued his ministry of healing and teaching, with a new emphasis on talking with the disciples about his upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. Just as he had sent the twelve out to teach and heal, he then sent out seventy apostles, to go in pairs into every village and town, sharing the good news and healing the sick. He told them not to take any extra supplies or money, but to rely on the people they met. They returned with many stories of the Spirit’s work, and Jesus rejoiced with them, even as he reminded them that it is God’s will to be revealed, not their own worthiness or work. Today’s reading begins at the end of that conversation, in Luke chapter 10, beginning at verse 25. I am reading from the Common English Bible.

A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.”

Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbour to the man who encountered thieves?”

Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”

The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”

One of the things I like about the Narrative Lectionary is that it sets out readings in longer sections so we see the context in which Jesus says things, rather than only the short snippets we might be used to. In this case, it’s always surprising to me that the parable about the Samaritan who was a good neighbour and the story of Martha and Mary are next to each other. It seems so strange, to have Jesus tell a parable like that, about doing something to help another, and then immediately turn around and say that Mary has chosen the better part. 

That strangeness led me to do two things over the past couple of weeks. First, to check what else is going on — if the reading were even longer, what would we see? Well, backing up a little bit we find Jesus sending out 70 of his followers to do his work, his ministry, throughout the area, and then they come back and report on all that happened. It’s in the midst of that reporting that the legal expert asks his question. Perhaps he had been on the edges of the crowd, listening to all these things that Jesus’ followers had done, and that led him to ask his testy questions! 

And then after the story of Martha and Jesus talking about Mary, Jesus teaches his followers how to pray. Which is something that any rabbi of the day would instruct his disciples about, of course — and all the more poignant after witnessing Martha’s distress.

The second thing was to dig more deeply into the original language and what some of these words mean. Because we know that all translation is interpretation, but sometimes if we look at words that are shared across the several stories yet translated differently into English, we can get a sense of the point that Jesus is trying to make through these different angles.

This is the moment when I ran into something I had never noticed before. The story of Martha and Jesus and Mary is nowhere near as neat and tidy as we’ve been taught Martha’s housekeeping was. Translators have done quite a bit of interpreting along the way. 

For instance, in the oldest Greek manuscripts it says “Martha welcomed him” but doesn’t say anything about her house. That same phrase is the one used for those who receive Jesus’ message … and those who don’t, like the Samaritan village in chapter 9 where it says they “would not welcome him because his face was set toward Jerusalem” — they did not receive the message because they did not approve of his intentions. Martha welcomed him…but with no evidence anywhere of dinner being prepared!

Then it says that Martha also had a sister named Mary who also sat at the Lord’s feet…and all of those “also”s are left out of English translations. But it’s pretty important to know that Mary “also” sat at the Lord’s feet because it means that’s what Martha was doing, and Mary was also. And then to learn that every other time the phrase “sit at his feet” is used, it means to be a disciple — to travel with a teacher, to learn from him and to do what he does. It isn’t literally at that moment sitting on the floor while Jesus is on a chair, but following him with the other disciples, perhaps even being one of those seventy who had been sent out earlier in the chapter! 

The thing that was most startling to me, though, was the realisation that the word for “my sister has left me”…is a word that in about 80% of other times it is used means “went away” — like physically left, for good.

This is the point that I realised for the first time in 25 years of seriously reading the Bible that Mary never speaks in this story. She has no response to this conversation between Martha and Jesus. All the times I have wondered why Martha didn’t simply speak to Mary rather than triangulating Jesus suddenly made sense. There’s no evidence that Mary was actually there. In fact, it seems more likely that Mary was out in the community of disciples — perhaps even one of the seventy who travelled, two by two, through the countryside. We know there were at least a few women among that company, though it was outside the gender norms of the day. It’s very possible one of them was Mary, out ministering to people and proclaiming the good news.

Ministry is the word used to describe what Martha is doing — though our English translations use words like “getting ready for the meal” or “preparing the table” it’s actually the same word, diakonia, that was used for the angels ministering to Jesus in the wilderness, for Peter’s mother in law, and it’s the same word that will be used in the book of Acts to describe the ministry done by the apostles serving the community’s needs. So Martha sat at the Lord’s feet by doing practical ministry, serving people in need, possibly out of her home. And Mary also sat at the Lord’s feet, somewhere away from home, healing and teaching. And the story tells us that Martha was stressed by this — the words used actually mean she was “pulled in many directions” and “deeply distressed.” She’s carrying a huge emotional burden — as anyone is when someone they love is far away and doing things that could be dangerous. Yet she also needed to focus on the ministry right in front of her. She was feeling pulled apart, mind and heart in two places at once, torn between caring for people in her community and worrying about her sister. No wonder she asked Jesus to send her sister home!

When Jesus then noticed and named Martha’s worry, and told her only one thing is necessary, perhaps he was speaking to that sense of feeling torn, and inviting Martha into her own sense of wholeness, without worrying about whether someone else was doing it right or not. Perhaps he was even calling back to his own teaching about how family ties are changed in his community of followers, and so how Mary followed her call to discipleship was not Martha’s to control, just as how Martha was faithful was not in Mary’s control! And in fact, it says Mary has chosen a good way — not the best way or even a better way, but a good way. There’s no implication that Martha’s way is not good, but rather a sense that both are good and valid forms of serving God and neighbour. Deep down, Martha already knew that…but she still wanted to prove herself right, with Jesus or with her sister, and those competing desires, between sisterly love and faithful discipleship, were tearing her apart.

This is the moment when I saw a connection to the good neighbour parable that I’d never noticed before. I hope you all will tell me what you think of this connection, and whether it makes sense to you or not!

The legal expert — someone who knew perfectly well what the scripture says — asked Jesus what one thing he could tick off his to-do list that would guarantee him eternal life. When Jesus turned the question back on him, he revealed that he already knew the answer: to love God with all your being, and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus said that is exactly how you live…a whole way of life rather than one thing to tick off the to-do list, not exactly about eternal life but rather about abundant life, but the legal expert seemed to understand…and so he looked for another loophole. Who exactly is the neighbour he ought to love the way he loved himself? And therefore who was he free to not love?

Jesus then told a story in which two characters love God more than they love their neighbour. The third character, shockingly, was an enemy, disliked, sometimes feared, and generally thought to be wrong in their religious beliefs… and he behaved with compassion. He set aside his business, his travel plans, and his resources to help someone he did not know and could not have recognised…yet he did recognise him, as a fellow child of God. His love of God and his love of neighbour were balanced, and it showed in his actions. 

Then Jesus was welcomed by Martha, who was feeling pulled in every direction in service to others, so much that she was beginning to lose her own sense of self, and she thought having her sister there would help. Her love was out of balance too — she was showing more love to her neighbour than to herself or to God — and she was feeling the pressure of that imbalance. 

Perhaps these stories are really one big story about what loving God and neighbour looks like. When we’re too caught up in our godliness, we may feel we can’t risk that for anything, even an emergency. And when we’re too caught up in our service, we may feel pulled apart and like we need someone else to come fill us up. When the balance is right, we’re able to see past the to-do list, past the rules, and truly love each child of God we come across.

As Jesus said to the legal expert, and to Martha, and to us: You already know this. None of this is headline news or a groundbreaking discovery — God wrote the covenant on our hearts and called us to love. Do this and you will live. Not just after death, but a whole life worth living, to the full, in God’s kingdom now.

As we begin this season of Lent, may we recognise God’s call to love. Amen.

**among other sources, this paper presented to the Society of Biblical Literature in 2014 (and the basis of a later book) was most helpful in curating a list of footnotes and language notes to supplement my mediocre greek knowledge when I started to realise that something was fishy with the Martha and Mary translations:

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