Lent I; March 5, 2017
Imagine yourself as part of the group in Mary and Martha's house. Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, and he knows what's going to happen there. Those who have been traveling with him also know, but I presume that Mary and Martha don't know. They are honored to have Jesus in their home, and Martha hurries into the kitchen to prepare a dinner suitable for such a guest. Mary, however, sits with the others to listen to what Jesus has to say.
How does Martha feel to be working so hard to honor Jesus while her sister just sits?
Some responses: annoyed, frustrated, overwhelmed, mad
Now, consider what Jesus says to her: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." Now how does Martha feel? How would you feel if Jesus said that to you?
Some responses: guilty, ashamed, sad
So, what do we do now with these feelings? Get mad at Jesus? Carry around a grudge against him? To soften it a bit, here's my take on the situation: Jesus is as gentle with Martha as he knows how to be. And the comment about "many things" and "one thing" may be as simple as his saying to her: You're trying to make a big dinner for me, when all I need is something small. I don't need a roast with vegetables; a sandwich will do. Given what's happening in my life, what I really need is for someone to listen to me. That's what Mary chose to do.
However she felt, it is clear what Martha did with the experience. She learned from it. John, in his Gospel, tells about an event not long after this: their brother Lazarus has died, and Jesus comes to them. Martha is the one to run and meet him. And Martha is the one who says, "I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world" (John 11:27).
One of the things I have enjoyed about growing older is being less captive to my feelings. I still have them. The other day at the office Diana said to me, "You're smiling." I said, "I have to. What I want to do is put my fist through a wall. But instead I'm smiling." Then we began to wonder if that's why there is a hole in the wall outside my office; did one of my predecessors give in to that urge?
Anyway, if someone were to speak to me the way Jesus spoke to Martha, I would be pretty upset. But I hope that I would use those feelings to learn something helpful. Martha certainly did.
Now, consider the first story in today's reading. A respected member of the community, a scholar of the Law of God, asks Jesus a question. Now, it's a perfectly legitimate question, but Luke is suspicious of the man's motives: he says that it's a test. And Jesus turns the question back on the man: What do you have to do to inherit eternal life? What does the law of God say? I wonder how you and I would answer that question. Anyway, the lawyer quotes Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18): You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.
The lawyer presses Jesus for more. Again, the question is a legitimate one: Define "neighbor." Again, Luke is suspicious of the man's motives. Luke says the lawyer wants to justify himself. But it is a good question, I think. Who is my neighbor?
To respond to the lawyer's question, Jesus tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan. I don't need to retell it; I'm sure you know it. But here's something to consider. It is no accident that the hero of the story is a Samaritan. Samaritans worshiped the same God as Jews and used many of the same holy books. They lived in neighboring territory. But Jews and Samaritans hated each other. You may remember from Wednesday's reading that a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus. And Jews would ordinarily go miles out of their way when traveling to Jerusalem just to avoid Samaritan territory. Did you ever go out of your way because you didn't want to travel through a certain part of town?
Anyway, the lawyer who asked the question was a respectable member of society. The two officials who avoided the injured man in the story were both respectable members of society. And the hero of the story was someone hated; he was a person that it was socially acceptable to hate. If Jesus were telling the story to us, what sort of person would the hero be? In our society, who is it socially acceptable to hate? Or, if that's too strong a word, fear?
Some responses: Muslims, Native Americans, undocumented immigrants, young black men in hoodies
And Jesus concludes the story: that is your neighbor. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is easy when the neighbor is that nice lady who gives your grandchildren cookies. The person that is shunned, the person your society tells you to hate or fear, is your neighbor. Love your neighbor as yourself.
I wonder if the lawyer took that hard lesson as well as Martha took hers. The stories we hear, the experiences we have, are not random. There are lessons for us in them, hard lessons sometimes, but lessons that can help us love God and love our neighbors. They are lessons that, as the lawyer wanted to know, can help us inherit eternal life. Martha learned the lesson of eternal life; she was the one who said, "I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." The Book doesn't tell us how she learned that lesson, but I suppose she thought about what Jesus said to her in her own house, when she was angry with her sister, and put that together with everything else she knew about Jesus. I hope that I can learn my hard lessons as well as Martha did.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master