“You’re not welcome to sit at the feet of Jesus. It’s not proper. In fact, it’s scandalous. How dare you do this? You, a woman, are sitting in a spot reserved for a male disciple. You need to go back into the kitchen where you belong! You need to wait for others to interpret for you what Jesus is saying. You’re not worthy to receive this information firsthand. YOUR status in society is less than OUR status in society. You need to know your place. You need to play the role God has written for you. The Scriptures are very clear on this subject. Any questions?”
And you thought our gospel lesson was a simple story about serving Jesus verses listening to Jesus; about being worried and distracted by responsibilities and obligations, instead of drinking deeply of Jesus’ wisdom.
Well, nothing could be further from the truth! The story of Mary and Martha is a scandalous story. It’s a story about crossing cultural boundaries we’re not supposed to cross. It’s about who is, or is not, welcome to sit at the feet of Jesus.
So don’t be deceived. This is not a sweet story we can read to our children and grandchildren at bedtime. It is a radical call to inclusion and welcome. It forces us to examine who we think is worthy or unworthy, welcome or unwelcome, to sit at the feet of Jesus. So fasten your seatbelts. We’re about to go on a bumpy ride.
The story begins with the words “Now as they went on their way.” The “they” in question is Jesus and his disciples. According to Luke, the last thing they heard him teach was the Parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus excludes no one in answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” If you were here last Sunday, you heard Gary given an excellent sermon on this parable and the questions it raises for us.
As Jesus and his disciples enter whatever village this is, his broad, expansive, compassionate, inclusive vision for what it means to love our neighbors is still ringing in their ears. They are here for a little R&R provided by Jesus’ friends Mary & Martha. I assume their brother Lazarus is there, too. He is absent from the text, but most likely present in the story.
As Jesus and his disciples were greeted, I assume feet were washed, drink was provided, and food began to be prepared. In first century Jewish culture, all of these acts of hospitality and preparation were done by the women of the household, while the men sat around and talked. [Sound familiar?] Not in my household! It’s a bit different when two men are married. There are no assumptions regarding who is supposed to be in kitchen and who is supposed to greet the guests. So you have to work these things out!
But there is no “working things out” in this story, in this culture, in this period of history. The expectation of everyone would have been that it was Mary & Martha’s job to provide hospitality. The only one who would have sat and talked with Jesus and his disciples would have been Lazarus.
But we know the story! Mary is having NONE OF THAT! Luke tells us she does something that might seem perfectly natural to us, but would have been scandalous in her culture and time period. She sits down at the feet of Jesus! Yes, she does! She sits down at the feet of Jesus. And she listens to the stories and wisdom he is sharing with Lazarus and the male disciples who accompanied him.
Now, I know this story is only four verses long. But you have to trust me that there is A LOT more going on here than meets the eye. We see some of the scandal of this situation in the way Martha reacts to Mary. I’m certain she is not the only one who is upset by Mary’s actions.
Lukes says Martha is “distracted” by her many tasks. This is a polite way of saying she’s angry. She’s ticked off at Mary who is sitting there doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. She needs to get her butt into the kitchen, with all the other women of the household, because this is where she belongs. Furthermore, Jesus should know better. Rabbis are not supposed to be teaching women directly, especially in an intimate setting such as this.
And so, we can feel the Martha’s anger growing bigger and bigger until she cannot stand it any longer. She comes out of the kitchen and gives Jesus a piece of her mind which is also pretty scandalous. Luke says Martha asked Jesus a question. However, I don’t think it was a question of inquiry. I think it was a question of impropriety.
If you don’t know what that means, let me simply things for you. Martha was sassing Jesus! Yep, that’s what I said. Martha was sassing Jesus! “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do ALL THE WORK. BY MYSELF? Tell her then to help me.”
But before we get too judgmental of Martha, let’s admit that there are moments in our lives when we, too, are products of our culture and tow the line regarding the roles people are supposed to play in society. I’m certain that all of us are also guilty of transgressing those lines and challenging those role and expectations.
Furthermore, we’ve all been guilty of sassing Jesus. It comes in the form of questions such as “Lord, where are you? Where are you in the midst of my suffering? Do you not see me working my fingers to the bone trying to survive in this world? I’ve been working so hard for you, and what reward do I get for all my hard work and effort?”
We are more like Martha than we care to admit. Sometimes it’s hard for us to see beyond the culture we’re raised in. Here are a few examples. Most of us were raised to believe that there’s something inherently wrong with those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. Some of us grew up with prejudices against people whose skin color is different from ours, or who are homeless, or poor, or differently abled. Some of us grew up with the notion that somehow women are inferior to men. Their role, just like Martha, is to be in the kitchen cooking our food and raising babies.
In all of these cases we were given Bible verses to support these prejudices and were told not to question them. So, be gentle with Martha. She is a product of her time and culture, just like we are products of our time and culture. We all have roles in society we are expected to fulfill, just like Martha and Mary had roles they were expected to fulfill.
The beauty of this story is what Jesus did when these roles and expectations were challenged, both by Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus and Martha sassing him in public. With absolute love and compassion in his eyes and in his voice, I imagine Jesus responding to Martha like this: “Martha, my dear sweet stressed out Martha/ My Martha who thinks she’s only worthy to wash my feet and prepare my food, take a deep breath, sister. Let go of your anger, your exhaustion, in trying to be whom society thinks you need to be. You are worried and distracted by many things. You are trying so hard to be a good Jewish woman, to be a faithful servant to God, and this is commendable. But you’re missing out on something. These men who are sitting at my feet may be a little scandalized in this moment but Mary got it right.
Everyone is welcome to sit at my feet. You are welcome to sit at my feet. I do not care what you’ve been taught. You have heard it said that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. But I say to you you are God’s beloved, and I would love to spend some time with you! So, come on over here, sit down, and let me enjoy your company.”
I hope you can see what’s really happening in this story. The big question it asks is “Who do we think is worthy or unworthy, welcome or unwelcome, to sit at the feet of Jesus?” The good news of the gospel is that Jesus didn’t seem to care about what society thought regarding who was worthy or unworthy to be in his presence and dine at his table.
This is where the Church in 2019 is getting things wrong. I don’t recognize the Jesus some people seem to believe in. The Jesus who is fine and dandy with keeping asylum seekers in cages and treating them worse than we treat prisoners of war. The Jesus who separates children from their parents, and is quick to demonize those whose skin color is different from theirs. The Jesus who hates gays and Muslims, the poor, the homeless, and sassy women who don’t know their place. The Jesus who excludes more than he includes, who judges more than he loves.
This is a false Christ and has nothing to do with the Jesus who welcomed Mary to sit at his feet, and invited Martha to do the same; who fed a crowd of 5,000 people without asking if they were worthy enough to be fed; who told us that if we really want to see Jesus, then we should feed the hungry, give the thirsty clean water to drink, (Detroit Michigan, anyone?) welcome the stranger, (Did you hear me?) welcome the stranger, (Let me say it one more time!) welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, stand in solidarity with those who are imprisoned and remind them that they, too, are beloved children of God.
This is What Jesus Would Do. This is what Jesus said we should do. It should not be up for debate or discussion. If someone tells you Jesus would act any differently than what I just described, your pastor is giving you permission to tell them they are wrong.
Only four generations ago, all four of my great grandparents came to this country seeking a better way of life. They were not wealthy. They did not speak the language of this country. They were factory workers, homemakers, and farmers.
But this country welcomed them. And while they were quarantined for a period of time while their immigration papers were being processed, our nation treated them humanely. We fed them and gave them a bed to sleep on. We treated them like human beings, like God’s beloved.
Fast forward to 2019 and we have families from Central America who are appearing on our southern border. Many of them have applied for asylum, seeking a better life after fleeing a lifetime of poverty and violence we cannot possibly imagine. Like my great grandparents, they are not wealthy. They do not speak the language of this country. They are factory workers, homemakers, and farmers.
But we are not welcoming them. We are treating them inhumanely. And our leaders are busy trying to pass laws so that they even can’t apply for asylum without first applying for it in the countries they pass through to get to us. As far as I know, they also refuse to allow charitable organizations to come into these detention centers and give these asylum seekers some TLC.
The only difference in these two stories I can see is their skin color. If a family from El Salvador or Guatemala is seeking a better life for their loved ones, and is applying for asylum in our country, why should they be treated any differently than my family who came from Germany, Poland and Austria?
And yet, there are followers of Jesus who think this kind of treatment of our brown brothers and sisters is okay. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how these followers of Jesus read the same gospels I do and arrive at this conclusion.
For me, this is not a political issue. It’s a humanitarian issue. It’s a gospel of Jesus Christ issue. When I see the Jesus I know and love, portrayed as being okay with this kind of treatment of our neighbors, I will not and cannot remain silent. I will continue to remind others that Jesus set a really, really big table, and I intend to do the same. Jesus challenged those who told others they were unwelcome to sit at his feet, and I intend to do the same.
So, C’mon Mary and Martha, you are welcome. C’mon Jorjeh and Margarita, you are welcome. We are all God’s beloved. We are all welcome to sit at the feet of Jesus. When we loose sight of this, it leads us to make Jesus in our image rather than the other way around. AMEN.
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck