A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 6, 2016
Luke 10:38-42 CEB; reading from Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island
This story of Martha and Mary can be viewed as somewhat of a radical story. That is to say, this story makes a radical point that should not be overlooked, especially in today’s climate. And such has to do with Jesus’ elevation of women. In sitting at Jesus’ feet as a disciple, Mary was acting outside the assigned role of women; in short, Mary was assuming the role of a male disciple, something that was beyond the practice of the day. Women’s roles were subservient roles. By permitting Mary to sit at his feet and learn as though she were a male disciple, Jesus was elevating her status far above the status women of the day enjoyed. Perhaps that is one reason that Martha got so upset.
But as a side note, this is not the only instance when Jesus elevated the status of women. There are several stories that relate how Jesus showed respect for women and, by all appearances, treated them as equals – granting the requests of women who came to Jesus and asked for healing, for themselves or for their children; the Samaritan woman at the well with whom Jesus engaged in a long theological discussion; the woman taken in adultery; and the women disciples. And yes, I believe that Jesus had women disciples – Mary Magdalene being one of them – who enjoyed the same status as his male disciples. And being truthful, when it came down to the wire on the day Jesus was crucified, the women disciples showed greater loyalty than the men did, sticking by him while his male disciples fled.
But the radical point here being, Jesus respected women, treated women as equals, and elevated their status in the world. What happened? we wonder. The Apostle Paul treated women as equals as well, and women were some of his best and most valuable partners in ministry. The anti-women letters attributed to Paul were written after Paul’s death in his name, and passages were later inserted into Paul’s authentic letters by editors who opposed women in places of authority. But that is another sermon for another day!
But over time women lost the status and respect Jesus had afforded them. And still today women are belittled, disrespected, unappreciated and underpaid for the work they do and the contributions they make. We need to do what we can to change that. So as I said, this is a radical story.
But then we turn to Mary’s sister, Martha. “One thing is necessary,” Jesus said to Martha. The existential question is, “What is the one thing that is necessary” that Jesus had in mind? That is the primary focus of today.
As we seek to answer the question about the one necessary thing and properly interpret this story, we again must read it within its context. In delving into this story, the first thing we notice is it comes immediately after Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan and the question of the lawyer about what must be done to inherit eternal life. Such is no coincidence. Luke had his reasons for pairing the stories of the Good Samaritan and the visit to the home of Martha and Mary. The Good Samaritan story is about “a certain man,” and the Martha and Mary story is about “a certain woman.”1 In order to truly understand the full meaning of this chapter, we have to take the two stories together. And the two stories together are like two halves of a piece of jewelry that once put together form the shape of a heart.
But before we understand how the two story pieces fit together, we bring questions to this particular story, don’t we? Questions like, Why was Martha chided for working hard in the kitchen, preparing a nice meal for Jesus? Who could complain about that? I certainly wouldn’t. And the fact is, Martha was simply performing the role and duties assigned to her as a woman of that time. Why would she be chastised for doing what women were expected to do? It just doesn’t seem right, does it?
But you see, this is where a bit of informed biblical study and looking at the gospel as a literary whole is helpful. Whereas the story of the Good Samaritan just before this story emphasizes love of neighbor through action, this story of Martha and Mary emphasizes love for God through hearing God’s word. So taken together, the two stories provide a picture of the true or complete disciple of Jesus who demonstrates in his or her life both love of God and hearing God’s word (illustrated by Mary) and love of neighbor that proves itself in action (illustrated by the Good Samaritan). And together these stories illustrate the answer to the question of the lawyer that comes just before them: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). The answer given was, “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” (10:27). The two stories together illustrate that and bring it all together.
And so, to answer the question, “What is the one necessary thing?”, it is loving God with all one’s heart and hearing and loving God’s word. In Luke’s eyes, our duty to love God and being obedient to God’s word take precedence over all other concerns – all other preoccupations, worries and distractions – of life. But this one necessary thing must be coupled with loving one’s neighbor that shows itself through action. As put by biblical commentator R. Alan Culpepper, “As a composite, they are model disciples: ‘those who hear the word of God and do it’” (8:21).1
But then, to make this story relevant, we must try to apply it to our individual lives. Most of us would have to confess that, like Martha in the story, we are preoccupied with and distracted by and worried about many things in life. And periodically we need to ask ourselves if all of those things that we are preoccupied with and distracted by are worthy of our time and energies. As Thomas Merton reminds us, “If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need. Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the ‘one thing necessary’ may be in our lives.”2
Yes, we have to ask ourselves if all of those preoccupations and distractions that drive us are worthy, beneficial, just, and true. Are we putting our resources, time, talents, and energies into things that will last?
In this vein of thought, all of our United Church members should have received in the mail a loyalty letter from our Finance Committee and Church Board, including a pledge card toward the 2017 church budget. It is important for all of us to give consideration to our lives, where we are putting our resources, time, talents, and energies, and then ask if we are adequately including God, church, and community (neighbors) as we prioritize our lives. Remembering the story of Martha and Mary and the Good Samaritan, we need to be sure we are giving place to the one necessary thing – love of God and love of neighbor – and not letting ourselves be preoccupied and distracted by other frivolous or fleeting concerns of life. Making a committed pledge to the church based on what we receive and how our lives have been blessed, and supporting this church financially assures that we are contributing to something that really matters and will last. So reiterating the Finance Committee’s request, I hope each of us will prayerfully and seriously consider our pledge and support for our church’s programs and ministries in the year ahead.
To paraphrase Jesus in another place, what does it profit if we gain the whole world and then fail in the one thing in life that is necessary? Now, please don’t get me wrong and think I am equating the “one necessary thing” with financial giving; I am not. But I believe that one tangible demonstration of our commitment to the one necessary thing as Jesus spoke of it can be through the pledges we make and the offerings we give.
The bottom line and the paramount point for each of us to take to heart is as we prioritize our lives, may we not allow ourselves to be distracted by and preoccupied with things that don’t really matter while forgetting the one necessary thing – love of God and love of neighbor. Amen.
1R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 231.
2Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island.