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Hespeler, 21 July, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 18:1-10, Psalm 15:1-5, Colossians 1:15-27, Luke 10:38-42
ery early that morning – before the sun had peeked over the hills – Mary had been awakened from a very deep slumber by her older sister. “Mary, Mary,” Martha called to her, “something exciting is going to happen today. I just know it – something that will change everything. Do you know that man – the one from Nazareth that everyone has been talking about – he and his followers have been travelling all over Galilee preaching and healing and telling stories. Well, I heard the people in marketplace talking yesterday and it seems that he is coming here to our village and that he is going to come today. Do you know what that means?”
Mary, who was still more than half asleep and trying to reclaim a half-remembered dream, didn’t have the faintest idea what that meant and she indicated that with a long, low growl.
“Mary,” Martha continued with more insistence, “I think that this is finally it, the solution to our problem.”
Mary’s next grunt was more of an affirmative; she knew exactly what her sister meant when she spoke about “our problem.” She understood that, ever since their mother and then their father had died, they were both in a precarious position. Martha had somehow managed to keep the family home and lands intact despite the efforts of creditors and greedy relatives. She was hard-working and she never gave up. She had won for them a certain free space, but they both knew that their position was incredibly insecure. Unless one of them could marry and soon, unless there was a man who could protect the property, they would lose everything. But, without a male relative to speak for them, there had been no way to secure the kind of marriage that would really help.
Mary was puzzled. “How can some preacher from Nazareth, of all places, possibly be the solution to ‘our problem?’ What can he do for us?”
“Haven’t you heard what people have been saying about him? He is not just some ‘preacher from Nazareth.’ They are saying that somehow the God of our Fathers and our Mothers is present in him. People have looked into his eyes and seen the Creator of the universe staring back at them. Mary,” Martha said while her eyes took on a strange and yet familiar glow, “this is it, the opportunity I have been preparing for all my life.”
“Oh,” said Mary to herself, “not this again.” Ever since she had been a little girl, Martha had been obsessed with one of the ancient stories of their people – a story of Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. One time, when Father Abraham was sitting outside of his tent, God came to visit him in the form of three men. But Abraham didn’t know that it was God, for the visitors appeared only to be common travelers. Nevertheless, following the laws of hospitality, Abraham and Sarah treated the visitors like kings. Martha loved to describe that encounter so much, that Mary could hear her voice telling that part of the story without even trying.
“As soon as the strangers appeared,” Mary could hear her saying, “Abraham went and bowed down low with his face to the ground before them. He told them that it would bring the greatest honour upon him if they would only be willing to share a few miserable morsels of his food. He really played it up, made it seem as if the food was so terrible that they would almost be doing him a favour if they ate it.
“But then, of course, he and Sarah played a great switch on them by offering them the most incredible feast with bread made of the finest flour, tender veal and tangy cheese. And then, while they sat there enjoying the delectable morsels, and while Abraham hovered over them, not even daring to sit down and eat with them, it happened. God gave them the one thing they needed, the one thing that would fulfill all of their dreams. Within the year, Sarah would have a son.”
“Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” Mary said to her sister, “you think that we’re going to invite this Jesus from Nazareth to our house and offer him hospitality and you’re going to blow him away with your amazing recipe for veal parmesan and he’s going to give us everything that we need? Martha, don’t you understand that things don’t work like that in the real world?”
Martha’s expression turned cold at her sister’s rebuke. “I don’t care if you think it’s going to work. I just want you to go and find the man and invite him to come to this house. And you better do it as graciously as ever Father Abraham did.”
And that’s how it happened that, after a quick breakfast, Mary found herself waiting just inside the village gate for the preacher to appear. When he arrived, she knew which one he was immediately. He traveled at the centre of a small knot of men and a few women too. They hung on his every word as he spoke. Immediately, before anyone else had the opportunity to do so, Mary stepped forward and fell to her knees before the stranger. The man stopped and looked down with surprise and amusement. The smile on his face only widened as Mary repeated the words that she had learned from her sister’s many retellings of the story: “My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves in our house. Let us bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.”
With that, Mary finally looked up into the eyes of the man. He looked at her so intently and with such intelligence and understanding that she suddenly caught her breath. She had not taken seriously what her sister had said about this man. She had assumed that he was just another traveling charlatan who had caught the imagination of the countryside. She hadn’t imagined that he might truly have something new and worthwhile to say. But, now that she had seen him, she knew that she had to know more about him.
“I thank you for your gracious invitation,” the man replied, “I must indeed dine at your house this evening.” and with that he turned to the others who were approaching him seeking healing and other help.
Her sister was expecting her to return home directly to assist her as she prepared to host the guests at the end of the day. Of course, there would be a million things to do and Martha would obsess over every detail. Suddenly, however, Mary was filled with the desire to be anywhere else but in the kitchen with her sharp-tongued sister. But, more than that, she found herself to be filled with a desire to know everything that this man would say and do during the day in the village. She knew that she would pay for it later, that Martha would nurse her grievances against an absent sister and that she would never let her forget it if she abandoned her now, but she somehow couldn’t help it. She turned to follow the crowd that was beginning to form around the preacher.
By the end of the day, Mary was even more exhausted than Jesus was, though she hadn’t really done anything – anything, that is, other than strain her ears to hear his every word and crane her neck to see everything that he was doing. He had been so busy that she was sure that he had completely forgotten her and her invitation, but, no sooner had the crowds begun to thin, than he turned and looked for her. Come, my sister, he said let us go to your house. I am starving!
So, she led them there. Martha opened the door at the very moment they arrived (she had clearly been watching for them) and bowed even lower than Mary had done earlier as she repeated the familiar words once spoken by Abraham. She didn’t look at her sister, didn’t even say a word, which Mary found to be far more ominous than anything that she could have said. But still, as the group entered, she did not turn, as she knew her as a sister expected her to, and instead led the group into the courtyard where she sat at Jesus’ feet as if she were one of the man’s disciples.
Mary wasn’t the only one who was intent to hear Jesus’ reflections on the events of the day. Everyone wanted to debrief with him and hear him talk about his various encounters and debate with him on the meaning of his parables. But Mary, in the kitchen, was sending up a great commotion. “Bang! Smash! Crunch!” the vessels were being battered together as if they were disobedient children. It got to the point where no one could concentrate on what Jesus was saying before Martha finally came storming out of the kitchen. Her anger was not directed, as Mary expected, at Mary, but instead at the teacher himself: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
Jesus looked at her. His eyes were filled with such compassion and understanding. You could tell that he understood completely why she was broken over this. It was not that she was angry at her sister for abandoning her to do the work, not really. She was weary of an endless war to create for herself the space to live in a society that would give her nothing. She was tired of a fruitless battle to save the heritage of her family. She was lashing out at her sister because she was the only person that she was allowed to get angry at but she knew, deep down, that Mary was not against her. It was the whole world that was against her and Mary was one of her few allies.
“Martha,” said Jesus. Martha looked at him. She was actually a bit startled that he even knew her name – that he would have even been interested to know it. Mary didn’t find that surprising at all – not after she had seen the way that he had operated all day, but this was the first time that Martha had really seen him. He somehow defied all expectations.
“Martha,” he said, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” He told her that as much as he appreciated her hospitality, and he did appreciate her hospitality, the importance of what she was doing was not found in what she did for her guest. He was not judging her on what she was doing for him. He was here for the pleasure of her company, her and her sister.
“Mary has chosen the better part,” he said, “and nothing will take away the joy of what she has chosen. Now you need to choose what is most important for you. Nothing you could possibly do, nothing you could feed me or offer me, could possibly make you more beloved or acceptable in my eyes. Mary, by choosing to be here and giving full attention to me is already receiving everything that I can give.”
In the end, they did not have the fancy and beautiful meal that Martha had dreamed all her life that she would one day give to some divine visitor. Everything was not “perfect.” But there was food enough for everyone and much enjoyment that each took in everyone’s company. It was in that, and not in the over-wrought perfection that someone created in the kitchen, that the divine presence was to be found that day.
And as for Mary and Martha’s problem, the one that Martha had thought that only a divine visitor could solve for her? Well, let’s just say that by the end of the day, both of them had a very different understanding of what the key issues of their lives were and where they ought to put all of their energies.