When I was growing up there was a very large youth group in the church that I attended. At one point there were up to 50 teenagers who would meet on Friday evenings for table tennis and billiards and on Sunday nights for Bible Study.
Remarkably, we would meet in people’s homes on those Sunday nights… I’m not quite sure how on earth we managed it now, but I have a vague memory of people sat on every inch of carpet, up the stairs and on any piece of furniture that could take the weight. But until now I hadn’t really spared a thought for the poor families who hosted us, brewing up and supplying biscuits for all those youngsters who must have descended on them like a swarm of locusts.
I wonder if something similar was going on in our Gospel reading today. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus had sent out 70 people to different towns and villages to let them know he was coming. He gave them strict instructions based on the hospitality that they received. It was just after they came back from that, and were telling him how they’d got on, that the lawyer had approached Jesus and asked those question about eternal life and neighbours – which prompted Jesus’s story about the Samaritan and the man in the ditch. A story about indiscriminate neighbourliness.
Our Gospel verses today follow on from that Samaritan story. So, when it says ‘Jesus and his disciples’ in some versions and ‘they’ in others, it could very well include those 70 others as well. So, Jesus, the 70 others, the disciples, plus maybe the group of women who moved round with them and financially supported them too. Maybe 90 people. All of them descend on Martha and her sister Mary…
No wonder Martha gets frazzled. But initially she welcomes them. The Greek word used for ‘welcome’ means a bit more than that – it means ‘with evident favour and kindness.’ After two earlier stories of Jesus getting a cold reception from people in other towns and regions (8:37 and 9:53), Martha gets it right. She gladly receives them, with favour and kindness.
And if you think about the Gospels and the early church in the rest of the New Testament, the hospitality of local people in the places being visited were crucial for spreading the good news of Jesus. Giving the visitors food and a home for the night. So, all credit to Martha.
Scones and Yorkshire tea
But then the wheels come off. Martha is rushing round like a mad thing, baking industrial quantities of scones or scones and exhausting her supply of Yorkshire tea bags… whilst sister Mary is sat at the feet of Jesus.
Martha had listened well to Jesus. She knew the important thing was to give service to others. It seemed reasonable to assume that Jesus would agree with her complaint about her idle, good-for-nothing sister.
But Jesus neatly side-steps that one, like he did with the lawyer last week. Yes, serving is encouraged; hospitality and welcome are critical. But they’re not meant to be a drudgery or accompanied by distraction and worry. The problem is not Martha’s work – it’s about how she handles her aggravation.
And we can sympathise, can’t we. Overwhelmed by all of our many tasks, we identify the problem as someone else and then rope in a third person to get them on our side and have a good moan to.
Jesus doesn’t play the game though. He focusses on Martha and how she’s worried, rather than focussing on Mary. Earlier he had told the parable of the sower and the seed, where the seed which falls amongst thorns grows but then becomes choked. He likened it to the person consumed with worries (8:14). Then later he tells the disciples not to worry since it won’t add a single hour to their life (12:25). Worry has the potential to destroy hospitality.
And he’s just told the story of the Good Samaritan where he commanded neighbourly compassion. The verses on Martha and Mary are intended to build on that.
Meanwhile, Mary had shown radical courage and ditched the traditional female gender role of the time and had sat with the male disciples at the feet of Jesus. In the first century, rabbis did not teach women. It was outside of the normal laws and customs. So, all credit to Mary too! But that’s when we get the interruption of Martha with Jesus. Martha, however, didn’t get the reply that she anticipated.
Front of house
In our Genesis reading another meal was interrupted and disrupted with a revelation that was more than the hosts could have imagined. Hospitality was an obligation, an expectation. There were no hotels. Travellers wouldn’t survive without the hospitality of ordinary people opening their homes.
There were fewer guests this time by the oaks at Mamre, just the three, but the meal prepared is an extravagant one. It’s the choicest, finest flour that makes the bread. It’s the most tender, fatted calf. And here the Lord promises Sarah and Abraham a child in their considerably older age. Something that was inconceivable to them at their time of life, both physically and intellectually.
There’s upset in this story as well. Missing from our reading is Sarah’s response of disbelieving laughter. Again, it’s unsurprising given the circumstances. You might also notice that whilst Abraham is front of house, doing the running around, it’s Sarah and the servant who actually do the work…
Jesus disrupts the meal in Bethany, with the promise that his teaching is for both Mary and Martha and not just the men – that women could be disciples too, with equal value and personhood before God. It was not something that could be controlled by others who might seek to prevent it for reasons of gender or anything else.
And ironically, Martha ends up receiving direct teaching from Jesus – and one-to-one rather than part of a group. Jesus meets her where she is, in the midst of her distraction and worry, and gives her the ‘better part’ too. Both Mary and Martha experience words which draw them deeper into discipleship, to help them become ever more Christ-shaped.
We are not being presented with ‘either/or’ here. It is ‘both/and’. Both hospitality and contemplation are needed – it’s not a choice between the two. And at different times we will be at varying points on that spectrum.
I think we learn from both Martha & Mary and Abraham & Sarah, that as we welcome others, as we are hospitable to others, we need to look out for the interruptions and disruptions. They may well be the opportunities taken by Jesus to teach us something too. Something radical, something surprising.
But all that said, don’t you just wish that Jesus had replied: “Martha, go and put your feet up” and to the disciples: “Come on boys, roll your sleeves up, we’re going to the kitchen – wherever that is.” Amen.