In the wake of momentous world events this week – from the random attack in Nice, France which claimed numerous innocent civilian lives, to the attempted military coup in Turkey, to the landmark vote on same-sex marriage made at our own General Synod, it seems almost irrelevant to be looking at this minor gospel story about two sisters who can’t get along, and the attempt by Jesus to smooth the waters. Of course, the presence of tension and conflict connects all of these stories, unfortunately – and in light of that, I’m thinking that dispensing with the age-old ruminations of whether we’re Marys or Marthas is in order, and that looking at the story through the lens of motivation might be time better spent. Perhaps it can help us connect some dots in our own lives, in the life of our Church, and in the life of the world around us.
Last week, in the parable of the Samaritan, Jesus really left no doubt about our responsibility to translate our beliefs into actions. Our neighbour – the person that we are to love as we love ourselves – is the person who needs our compassionate attention….and sometimes that person is us. Simply put, last week we learned that a critical priority should always be merciful and humble response, whether as giver or receiver, and holy concern for both self and other is the motivation.
Then comes the story of Mary and Martha which feels a bit like a non sequitur…. because on a cursory reading, Jesus seems to be holding up the example of Mary sitting at his feet and listening, as the preferred option to Martha’s busy attempts at hospitality; and really, when we hear the notes of frustrated self-pity in Martha’s voice, doesn’t it make you wish, for her sake, that she could just have ordered take-out pizza and then none of this would have happened: no confrontation, no tension, no redirection. Indeed, many among us probably react with defensiveness and not a little indignation to this story…. especially if one of the roles that we have personally adopted in life is that of the fixer, the person in charge, the person who sees what needs doing and makes things right. Instinctively, we tend to take Martha’s side – we probably feel a bit sorry for her – her motives, after all, seem to be good ones and her sister Mary seems to be selfishly oblivious. Ah, but then comes the magic word – distracted – it’s used twice in this short passage, and so we know it’s the key to understanding it. What is the big distraction? Perhaps preoccupation with doing the right thing according to tradition or custom; perhaps fear of being judged and found wanting; perhaps a need to impress; perhaps a fear of saying or committing some kind of faux pas that might generate ill feelings or dissension as a result. Perhaps we can relate to these motivations. Fear is a strong motivator, which is why it inevitably turns up in political rhetoric and enters just about every decision we make in the Church. It’s often way too easy to get distracted by possible consequences and walk on too many eggshells, letting other less important things take precedence, than to simply and confidently do the right thing at the right moment. In fact, I think we often choose to be distracted because it is the simpler, perhaps more familiar choice than risking some breach of unspoken etiquette or tradition.
So what might Jesus be asking of Martha, and of us, in this story? Are we being challenged to live with self-awareness and confidence, perhaps? To recognize opportunities when opportunities come to call? To choose to be undistracted? To move beyond good intentions into life-giving actions and interactions? To choose to be motivated by love and authenticity and an unquenchable spiritual thirst above all else? Those are, I think, the real choices on offer here, which, if we embrace them as operating principles of our faith, should clarify our motivations for whatever we happen to do….as people, as citizens, and as Church.
I think it would be fair to say that most of us, in some sense, invite Jesus into our homes and into our lives, just as Martha did. At some point, it dawns on us that our Christian faith matters, and we make a commitment, however tentative at times, to enter into the mystery we call God, specifically as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus. Hospitality, we know, was a central theme and concern of his life, and in today’s lesson we catch a glimpse of true hospitality that we are asked to offer God: to not simply dabble around on the edges of our faith, but to actually embrace enough openness to let God change us, to let God motivate us. Hospitality means paying attention to God, whether we are at work or at rest, in service or in prayer. It is to let God get involved in our lives, right at the centre, rather than leaving God sitting in splendid isolation in the front room while we go about our business.
Come, Lord, be our Guest.
Luke 10:38-42 – Year C