Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
Proper 11; Ordinary 16C
Be like Mary, not Martha, so goes the often repeated, simplistic lesson from this text.
I have been a member of a church supper club called “Mary, not Martha.” The point being to invite fellow church people into one’s home as it is for a simple meal. No fuss, no muss. Low stress. Right. After hosting one of these and having endured lawn work, replacing light bulbs, polishing silver and cleaning bathrooms my husband looked at me with disdain and said, “I will never hear that passage in the same way again.” Me neither. Be like Mary – but make sure your home, appearance, children, accomplishments reflect Martha-like efforts. It’s like that double-bind of “natural beauty” that is achieved through everything but natural means.
Focus on the lofty, the spiritual, the big picture, the ultimate – but make sure a healthy meal is on a well-appointed dining room table while doing so. Spend time with your family all while putting the hours in to get the promotion or simply keep the job. Be like Mary, make sure the many Martha tasks are done, too, unseen and without effort.
You see how impossible this set up is? I can’t imagine this is the abundant life Jesus came to give. Such a dichotomy between Mary and Martha seems to me a false one, an unachievable one, and, frankly, a judgmental one.
Is this story, at base, really about being distracted or not? Is it about valuing a contemplative life over one of service? Is it about sibling rivalry, one step up from Cain and Abel? Is it simply about being rather than doing?
I don’t think so and here is why:
There are two instances of hapex legonmenon in this short passage. (Or so my Schmoller “Hankonkordanz zum griechischen Neuen Testament” informs me.) In other words, there are two words in these verses that are found nowhere else in the New Testament. They are: “sitting alongside” in verse 30 and “was distracted” in verse 41. As it happens “sitting alongside” begins with the prefix “para” and distracted with the prefix “peri.” Now, think back to that beginning Greek class and recall what those prefixes mean.
Remember? Para means beside, alongside. (Think Paraclete!) and Peri means around, about, near. (Perichoresis! How exciting to use this not on Trinity Sunday!) So what? Fair question. Alongside and near are pretty close (pardon the pun). Both seem like good things to be in relation to Jesus, right? Perhaps. But they represent radically different orientations to Jesus in this story.
Mary puts herself, takes her place, alongside Jesus, at his feet.
Martha is hovering around Jesus as she attends to other things.
This isn’t so much about contemplative versus active, or service versus study, as it is where we place ourselves in relation to Jesus. Do we put ourselves alongside Jesus or do we only hover near him? This orientation makes all the difference in the world. Orienting ourselves alongside Jesus, at his feet, means that we will follow closely. We can’t help it. If we place ourselves beside him, at his feet, and maintain that focus, we will inevitably go where goes and do what he does. If we hover near, with Jesus just one of many of our foci, we will inevitably lose track of him and risk going our own way.
It gets even more interesting. The word Jesus uses to describe Martha, distracted, can also be translated as “over burdened.” Dose that image ring any bells? When we aren’t yoked alongside Jesus, our burdens are many and heavy. When we place ourselves alongside Jesus, our burden is light.
But wait, there’s more! In other contexts the word for distracted means “to be pulled away from a reference point.” In other words, when we don’t orient ourselves rightly to Jesus, we are pulled away from our true North, from the One who should be our ultimate reference point and guide. That’s when we get anxious, troubled, agitated and overwhelmed. It isn’t that we have many tasks so much as we’ve made those tasks more important than we should; our busyness becomes idolatry or a sinful source of pride. (See how important I am! If it weren’t for me nothing would get done! Or, a personal favorite when I run over people in the name of doing the Lord’s work: “I am sorry you need pastoral care, but I don’t have time to talk right now. I have a Bible study to plan!”)
The one thing that can’t be taken away from us is Jesus. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord. However, we forget this truth when we pull away from Jesus, stop placing ourselves at his feet and yoking ourselves to him, and simply hover around him, hoping that proximity is enough and following isn’t really required.
The epistle appointed for this Sunday is beautiful and poetic. It is a hymn of praise to and about Jesus Christ. “He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible. … He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together.” In Jesus Christ the fullness of God dwells. Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. This is the one thing, the One, who cannot be taken from us. This is the One to whom we are invited to be yoked, to come alongside, to follow.
Too often we hover around the periphery (you see what I did there?). We make Jesus one of many things that we have to attend to, that we have to work for, that we have to dust off or conjure up. I need to go to church. I should read the Bible more. I ought to take a casserole to that new parent. I will never get it all done.
We will never do any of it as well as think is required or expected. We become overburdened and disoriented. We lose the One who is our ultimate point of reference because we’ve not come alongside him, we’ve worked around him.
That’s when it is helpful to know that in the midst of the chaos that we often create, Jesus is calling our name, not to chide, but to get us to come closer to him. Jesus invites us to reorient our lives alongside him, so that we can take his yoke upon us and find rest.
This isn’t about whether we serve or whether we sit. It is about where we place ourselves in relationship to Jesus and the life that results from that vantage point. Are we putting ourselves at Jesus’ feet and following where ever they go or are we hanging around him, hoping that’s enough?
- What is it that can’t be taken from us? How would thinking about those things alter the way we spend our time, money and energy?
- “Sitting at the feet of” is a phrase that is repeated in the New Testament. Paul in Acts 22:3 talks about being “brought up at the feet of Gamaliel.” It means to learn from, to be mentored by. At whose feet do you sit? Why? What have you learned?
- What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. How does this first question and answer to the Shorter Catechism relate to this story? How do we glorify God and enjoy God forever in our own lives?
- In thinking about spiritual disciplines, are there ones to which you gravitate? Ones you avoid? What might you gain from trying some that go against your preference?
- Use the verses from Colossians in a lectio divina way this week. Consider the passage one verse at a time and use them as part of your daily prayers.
- Take a look at the index in the back of The Glory to God hymnal and note which hymns are appointed for this Sunday. Which ones resonate most with you?
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