Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
I am very good at avoiding prayer. Over the years I have worked quite hard on this tendency, and have developed some good habits that help me resist it. But still I have to be alert to it. Even when I come to church early with the specific intent of spending some time in silent prayer, I still have to fight often against distractions. I must reply to that email, I think, its urgency entirely a function of the temptation to do something other than pray. Or I’ll just check up on where the building works have got to. Or I think ‘these pews are very dusty, I should sort that out before I sit down to pray.’ Other times I can make it as far as kneeling in the pew and find that 10 minutes have rushed past as I follow the distractions of my mind without even having bothered to greet or acknowledge God.
I do it on retreat, too, which is really stupid as the whole point of being there is to pray. If I can’t settle I decide to go for a walk. Or make a cup of coffee. Or occasionally start wondering whether I’m really cut out for this sort of thing, and wouldn’t it be better if I just packed my bags and went home and got on with some proper work instead.
All of which gives me an instinctive sympathy with Martha in today’s Gospel reading, and a need sometimes to hear Jesus’ rebuke of her myself.
We know from John’s Gospel that Mary, Martha and Lazarus are close friends of Jesus. And here, in Luke’s story, Jesus arrives at their home. In a few brief penstrokes Luke paints the scene: Mary sits listening at the feet of Jesus, while Martha rushes around in the background before stomping over to get Jesus to tell Mary to help her.
And notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t rebuke Martha for the work she’s doing, for the service she offers. The word Luke uses for service, diakonia, is the word for a kind of ministry. It’s the word from which we get ‘deacon’ – a minister who serves. The practice of hospitality has deep and honoured roots in Jewish tradition. Jesus does not rebuke Martha for offering him hospitality. He rebukes her for being distracted.
‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things’, says Jesus; ‘there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
There is something important going on here about roles and expectations. At the time of Jesus (and, let’s face it, in many places and times since then), the kitchen was the women’s domain. It was social convention that in the sort of situation we encounter in the gospel reading today, the women would be in the kitchen sorting out refreshments while the men would sit at the rabbi’s feet, listening to him. And in this story, Martha is the one who gives voice to this convention: ‘tell her to help me’, she exclaims.
So what Mary does by sitting at Jesus’ feet is a pretty radical act. She steps right outside of the box that society and convention put her in, and finds a space among the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. And Jesus commends her for it! It is not Mary who is in the wrong place, but Martha. Martha’s distractions actually prevent her from offering the sort of hospitality that pays attention to the guest. Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him.
Jesus has come to their house. And he’s come for more than just the need of refreshment and somewhere to stay as he goes about from village to village preaching the gospel. Mary and Martha are his friends. He doesn’t visit simply because they’re conveniently located on his missionary tour, but because he wants to see them, to spend time with them.
For Luke, it is spending time with Jesus and listening to his word that sets people on the path of discipleship. It’s not background or gender or convention or qualification or ethnicity that qualifies people as Jesus’ disciples. It’s the willingness and the ability to sit, with Mary, at Jesus’ feet and listen to him – to be formed by his presence and his word.
‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things’, says Jesus. ‘There is need of only one thing.’ The one needful thing is to spend time with Jesus. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, a prioritisation of contemplation over action – again, Jesus does not rebuke Martha for serving but for being distracted – but it does mean that our actions should flow from our listening, our attention to Jesus.
This is a difficult thing to hear in a culture that fetishizes busyness. When the pressure to achieve, or to earn, or to get through a never ending to do list makes any thought of prayer seem like a luxury we can ill afford, we need to hear Jesus’ words to Martha. We are more than what we do. Our value to Jesus doesn’t lie in how useful we can be to him; nor does he think better of us if we have done well in our jobs or careers, or in how well our kids have turned out. Jesus’ words to Martha interrupt her worry, her distraction, her busyness. They remind her that before all that she is his friend, and she is invited to be his disciple.
Or perhaps the worry and distraction is that we are spending ourselves in the service of others, or busying ourselves with the work of the church, having become so consumed in doing things for Jesus that we neglect to spend time with Jesus. If that’s the case, Jesus holds out to us the needful thing: time in the company of Jesus, and listening to his word. Otherwise, like Martha, it can be easy to mistake our calling, or resent it. Our service, our discipleship, flows from Jesus, not simply from busyness in his name.
Or if the prospect of Jesus wanting to spend some time with us alarms us because we think he will want something more from us, or because we think he’s made a mistake in the company he chooses to keep, or that we have nothing in us that would make us worthy of his time and attention, we need to hear the invitation in what Jesus says. Spending time with Jesus is how we grow in love for him. But just as importantly, it’s where we learn that he loves us. When he knocks on the door of Mary and Martha’s house it’s because he loves his friends and wants to see them and spend time with them. From that flows the life of discipleship for the two sisters. But it starts with welcoming Jesus and spending time listening to him.
And the better part is not just for Mary. It is for all of us, if we will open the door of our hearts to Jesus, welcome him into our homes and lives, and listen to him.