First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

Focus (Genesis 18:1-10a; Luke 10:38-42)

Today’s lessons are understood best if we start by seeing them within the social context of life in an ancient Mediterranean culture. The story in Genesis 18, although probably composed much later than Abraham’s time, does have a genuine remembrance of ancient social customs and roles because, in many ways, these had not changed for the centuries between Abraham and the writing of this story about him. The culture dictated that males took the lead in matters outside of the home, while females were in charge within it. That is why Abraham is the one who actually invites and welcomes the strangers into the tent, while, on the inside Sarah took over. Hospitality was a crucial cultural duty, and turning strangers away was a difficult thing to live down in the community. In this story, the close connection of the appearance of three strangers to Abraham with God’s appearance to him by a grove of trees at a place called Mamre, near Hebron in southern Palestine, led later hearers to connect these strangers with messengers (or angels) of God who announced the birth of the heir to Abraham and Sarah whose name was to be Isaac.

Although the Genesis story is intentionally mysterious about these strangers, the lesson many Hebrew readers got from it was: “You never know who you will entertain.” Centuries later, the Epistle to the Hebrews points back to this story with the reminder: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2). I should have thought this interpretation of the three visitors as angels was common, whatever we might want to make of it. For our purposes, I want you to see that Abraham had the cultural responsibility to be in charge of offering hospitality and Sarah for carrying it out.

When we come to our Gospel Lesson, although we begin to see some changes, I have to say that the social roles for family-life hadn’t changed much from Abraham to Jesus. So, in this regard, the story is interesting. In fact, Jesus had puzzled just about everyone when he talked about a new definition for the spiritual family that we was gathering around him. In Luke 8, Jesus’ mother and siblings tried to gain access to him, and couldn’t. Jesus response was: “My mother and brothers are those who hear my word.” I doubt that most people understood the implications of this, but it would have been a hard teaching and quite socially radical. Our story in Luke 10 assumes a redefinition of family social roles among followers of Jesus.

Our Gospel story is unique to Luke. It comes right after the story in which Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and this arrangement is not an accident. Luke intended us to read this little story next. This is the only time in the Synoptic Gospels that Mary and Martha are mentioned. The Gospel of John picks up these characters and makes much more of them by saying that they were sisters to Lazarus (John 11-12) and that they lived in the village of Bethany, just out of Jerusalem. But, we’re not reading John, we’re reading Luke, and, according to his story, the action takes place in “a certain village,” any village, generic village. It’s the same way Luke identified the man who fell among thieves in the story of the Good Samaritan just previous: a “certain” one, and also, a “certain” priest, or Levite, or Samaritan. This is a pointer to the fact that Luke doesn’t want to make historical, biographical or geographical points, but wants us to see them as pointing to wider teaching that includes readers and hearers. It’s also interesting that Martha (whose name means “lady” the female equivalent to “lord”) is the one who welcomed Jesus. Some of the manuscripts of the Greek New Testament carry the words to her house in the text (and our pew Bible includes these words). The pew Bible makes clear what is implicit in the welcome. It was, in other words “her house.” According to tradition, as we saw in Genesis 18, and as was the case in Jesus’ day, too, the roles of “greeter” and the “owner” should have been male. That Martha is the one who does the greeting to her home may argue that these words might not be additional, but original, and that some manuscripts rather left the words out because they spoke of social roles that were “irregular” for that culture. Sometimes good religious folks get scandalized when social conventions are set aside. It was easy then (and still is) to assume that our own cultural norms are given by God and intended as God’s will for everyone. They weren’t then, and ours aren’t today either. To go on with the story now, since Martha called Jesus “Lord,” it may mean that she had already joined in that new kind of family that Jesus was forming. She was already in social roles (welcoming guests, maybe owning a house) that her culture said she couldn’t have. Jesus didn’t bat an eye at any of this. Although this is a point made in a small, quiet way by our text, it is what the words say and we shouldn’t ignore the fact that following Jesus can allow (or even require) a change in social roles.

Now, Martha had a sister named Mary. Since “Mary” (Hebrew Miriam) was a common name, it’s unnecessary to try to identify this Mary with any other one we know (Mary Magdalene is the most common wrong guess). Now, Mary was also doing something that was against the grain of culture. She was sitting at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching. This, again, was not permitted to women in that culture, and it even irked her sister Martha a bit. It’s funny how Martha could blaze one trail and think it OK, but deny another trail to her sister to blaze. Don’t we do that all the time, ourselves, however?

The core of the story is Jesus’ exchange with Martha and what we can learn about social roles for followers of Jesus as we listen over their shoulders, so to speak. Martha was “distracted by her many tasks” (according to the pew Bible). Although this verb “distracted” is unique in the New Testament here, it occurs several times in secular Greek in and around the time of the New Testament. Literally it means to be “drawn this way and that,” or “spun around.”I think everyone that’s ever had company has felt this way. There’s lots to do, and it’s easy to lose focus and go from this to that, without accomplishing all one could. I don’t think that means that Martha was a neurotic hostess or a poor multi-tasker, but did have many tasks and she concentrated on the “many” rather than the “tasks.” I identify with her, and you probably do too. It wasn’t that she was unhappy to be offering hospitality, and she was probably good at it. As we saw, she had even taken over the task of welcoming guests and bringing them in. There was, lack of focus.

Martha was, for example, not excited that her sister had abandoned that hospitality task to listen to Jesus’ teaching, which was, as I said, another task that would not normally have belonged to women in Jesus’ day. “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 was not really all that willing to play Dr. Phil and do an intervention. He answered Martha this way. He, first, called her by name. This was personal communication that was, first, not about her sister, but about her. What Jesus said to her has been variously explained, and it’s difficult to translate partly because the text carries many variants. Although the pew Bible carries the best text, the translation “you are worried and distracted by many things” is confusing. One reason is because the word translated “distracted” in this line is completely different than the one translated that way in the previous verse. What the current line means is that Martha was anxious and put into an uproar” (again, fairly rare words) by many things.

The best translation, then, goes on “but there is need of only one thing.” I think what Jesus is saying is that Martha was allowing her expert and excellent “doing of many things” to rob her of focus of the most important thing. What is that one thing? Well, Jesus didn’t say in so many words, and, so, people have guessed through the centuries. Before I add my name to that list, let me go further with the story. Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the good part (maybe the better part), which will not be taken away from her.” Now, what Jesus is not saying here is that Martha’s gift of offering hospitality is less valuable than Mary’s gift of being a learner. My guess is that Jesus is here being very open about accepting women as learners (scholars, teachers, etc.), and says that, in his family, this gift is permanent. In that day, to have women disciples, learners, apostles, etc., was a radical position, and Jesus says “Get used to it.” I think of what Paul wrote, “In Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus is saying to Martha not to despise different gifts given to others, and, indirectly, not to mistake common cultural categories for God-given ones, such as that hospitality is only for women, and learning only for men, or that learning is better than hospitality.

If Martha had a problem, it was with focus, as I said. She was allowing her many tasks to rob her focus from the one primary thing. Hospitality is, at its root, accepting and welcoming the people, not elaborate, complicated, machinations that, in the end of the day, can keep us from visiting and sharing what’s important together. Everyone who has tried to plan a gathering knows how easy it is to be prevented from enjoying the people by the details. One more thing. It’s not accidental that this little story follows the story of the Good Samaritan, with its emphasis on doing good things. Martha is a “Good Samaritan.” Her much doing finally pulls her this way and that, puts her in an uproar, and distracts her from meeting people. People who try to be the Good Samarian and are not discerning and try to meet every need they encounter will soon end up like Martha. We need focus and wisdom. In addition to foucs, Martha needed the balancing of Mary’s careful, quiet listening to Jesus and thinking about it. And Mary needed the balance of Martha’s doing things.

So, what can we learn here? First, although it’s beneath the surface of this text, it is clear that following Jesus began and begins with the violation (or changing, or expansion, pick your word) of some cultural norms. Following Jesus will not always set well with the culture we’re in – even the religious culture. (We could think and talk for a long time about what equivalent social norms Jesus is calling us to violate, change or expand today.) We can also learn that discipleship is not “doing” detached from “listening,” “thinking,” and focus. This story tells us that it’s really Martha and Mary together, that make up the discipline of following Jesus. It’s focused doing and listening together. The story sets before us two wonderful ways to be as a congregation: the way of hospitality and the way of learning, and suggests we need an integration of both. May it be so.

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.