Serving and Being Served
A sermon based on: Luke 10:38-42
given at Mount Vernon Ohio July 17, 2016 *( 2010)
by Rev. Scott Elliott
My brother Darin is two years younger than me. As lads we always seemed to be different from each other in more than years. I was messy, he was clean. I was athletic, he was artistic. I was noisy, he was serene. He pestered me. I picked on him. You get the picture. We were not so much rivals as we were on each other’s nerves. We squabbled and did not get along much of the time.
Mom usually would tell us to work it out, or stop arguing, or sometimes – this will be hard to believe– she’d tell me I was wrong! Like “Darin’s right. It is his room too and he deserves to be able to open the closet without stuff falling on his head. As kids my brother and I were very different. As teens we were still different in many regards but by then we pretty much got along.
Nowadays we both have something besides our childhood memories in common. See we have both spent a good part of our adulthood on Spiritual quests. Darin’s quest has including much wandering and taking in the world and its myriad of peoples as he has traveled almost non-stop for three decades. In his travels Darin’s actually met the Dali Lama and studied at his “retreat” in India. He’s also boarded with well known Yogis and meditated in thousands of years old temples. He’s lived among all sorts of peoples in all sorts of countries.
I have done none of that. I have raised a family with Nancy in this country and have found a way to be on a spiritual quest not in traveling, but in study and prayer and meditation and being a father and husband and a pastor and doing things in communities I live in, like right here in this spiritual home and place.
As brothers our paths have been quite different. Yet boiled down Darin and I have ended up seeking the same things: God, and to do as God aims. On our two very different paths we have both found that that which we call God aims us to Love and to oneness with the whole of creation; to do this we must serve what is Scared even as we let the Sacred serve us.
I mention all this sibling stuff because today’s Lectionary text is about two siblings – sisters Mary and Martha, who seem to have conflicts and different paths on their spiritual quests. Indeed, most of us remember and hear today’s Lectionary text as two siblings arguing at home in front of a meal guest, Jesus. One sister we imagine is left in the kitchen sweating over dinner and dishes, and she finally approaches Jesus upset about the other sister who is just sitting listening to Jesus.
This very common way of hearing the story puts the sisters in a domestic setting that pits one against the other. When we hear it in that way, it denigrates Martha’s work and tends to suggest that the best role for women in the church is as passive listener at the feet of Jesus. This way of understanding the story is very patriarchal. The women cannot win.
The woman who serves is Martha. Her name means “she was rebellious.” 1 Yet in our usual way of hearing the story Martha is NOT rebellious. She does what the patriarchal culture allows her to do, in fact demands her to do. In this way of hearing the story Martha is in the kitchen and home serving. And she is held up to ridicule for doing just what she is expected – one could even say required– by the culture to do, serve.
And in our usual way of hearing the story Mary (who’s name means “their rebellion” 2) does not do what is expected of a women. She is accepted because she behaves male-like, not serving. The message being women, cannot be accepted in their womanly role, they can only be accepted if they rebel and be like men. Where does that leave women who choose, or have no choice but to serve? Why do women have to be like men to be acceptable?
As a feminist progressive pastor who believes that God accepts women (and men) in whatever role they choose or have to play, I have trouble with the typical reading of the text that pits Martha and Mary quests against one another, especially since it seems to belittle Martha for serving which is what Jesus did and calls us to do.
Theologically a reading that picks on Martha for serving does not work with how I experience God. So, basically I have three choices with respect to the text. My first choice is that I can accept hearing the text as it has been taught. My second choice is I can reject the text outright as wrong. Or my last choice is I can look and see if there might be another way of hearing the lesson.
Since belittling Martha and her service does not work theologically, that leaves me with abandoning or re-hearing the story. I am happy to report that there is another way to hear the story. First of all, the text actually says nothing about Martha doing housework or preparing a meal or doing dishes. We hear that because of stereotypes of women in the home and some of the ways in which translations play into this.
I chose for us to hear the King James Version of the text because it more accurately reflects the original Greek. Let’s consider the words of the story again bit by bit. Here is the first part as we heard Charlotte read so well:
Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.
Hear how Martha has a house? It’s “her house” not a man’s. This tells us that Martha is no ordinary woman in her time and place. In first century Palestine, women did not usually have property, nor did most of the followers of Jesus — Martha owned a house. That is extraordinary! As a homeowner we are told that Martha “received” Jesus into her home. The word “received” is important, in Luke Jesus’ disciples are sent out to be received into homes. Here Jesus himself is received into Martha’s home. He is not just being brought in for a dinner party.
Theologian Warren Carter notes that in the context of this story:
Being received involves much more than being supplied with food and drink. It primarily denotes the embracing of the disciple’s mission and its eschatological reality. . . Martha [is] an embodiment of the positive responses named in [Luke] 10. In receiving Jesus, Martha is a child of peace  who has encountered God’s reign . . . She is among the blessed disciples who ‘see and hear’; she inherits eternal life. Martha’s receiving Jesus signifies her commitment to Jesus[’] mission and to the God who sent him. She appears as a model disciple . . . ” 3.
See, here’s the thing, it is likely that the story is remembering that Martha and Mary were partners in leading a house church as Jesus’ disciples. And we are told Martha – the focal point of the story– is the one responsible for receiving Jesus into the house. We are told that she is serving him. 4. She is doing as a good disciple is expected to do serving Jesus. 5.
Next we are told that Martha “had a sister called Mary, [who] sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” In the early church, even more so than today, church members were referred to as family. So we are not sure if Mary was a actually blood sister, but we know she is at least a sister in the family of Christ.
Mary in this story is only sitting and listening. This happens. Some folks come to church and at times, for whatever reason, they feel the need to limit their spiritual quest to listening and sitting and getting served by Christ. That’s a valid choice at times on our spiritual journeys.
So if Mary is not serving Christ while being served by Christ, that leaves Martha doing all the other serving in this house church. That’s what is likely going on here in the context of the original version of this story.
In this way of hearing the text it’s no surprise then that next we are told that Martha is encumbered with all the work of serving and has concerns. The server’s weighed down by all the serving she’s doing. So what does Martha do? Well typically we hear her as complaining to Jesus.
But let’s reconsider that. What do we call it when we talk to Christ? Prayer. Right? Even when we complain to Christ. it’s called prayer. Martha can be heard to pray to Christ about the concern she has about being encumbered by serving all the time with little help. 6. Martha goes to Christ with her concern. Here is what the text tells us about this: “Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, ‘Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.’”
Have you ever noticed that Jesus tends to not take sides in two party disputes? His answers in disputes are clever. Later in Luke 12 a man asks Jesus to tell his brother to give him his share of an inheritance. Jesus’ response is “Who sent me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Then he advises the man that he needs to be on guard against greed.
Jesus tells us over and over again not to judge. Folks in the Bible who want him to call a dispute in their favor are usually in for a surprise. He turns the question to him – prayers to intercede– into a focus on their need. And it is never what they think they need, but rather what they do need.
Jesus’ general advice is in essence – to borrow some more from Luke at chapter 6 (42), is to take the log out of your own eye . . . Worry about your own needs. With that in mind, listen to Jesus’ response to Martha’s prayer “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.’”
Jesus answered and said unto her, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
What happens when we hear this as Jesus telling Martha about the log she needs to take out of her own eye is that we hear that Christ’s answer to Martha’s prayer is that she (Martha) needs but one thing, to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his word. In other words, Martha a disciple who is over-burdened with service to the Lord, needs to remember to let the Lord serve her too. That is the remedy for what ails her. It is the answer to her prayer. Jesus will not stop serving Mary, Martha needs to let Jesus serve her. Jesus does not judge Mary, and he does not judge Martha either– and neither should we. Based on her prayer he assesses the situation and tells her exactly what she needs.
In hearing the story this way Martha’s service to Christ is not denigrated. She is doing good stuff, God’s work in the world. She is a heck of a disciple. What she needs is to let herself be served by Christ and to not worried about Mary’s service. Because when we let Christ serve us eventually when the time is right our spiritual quest will lead us to the part Martha does so well, to go out and serve. But we have to be careful and not let service to others for Christ become such a burden that we stop allowing, or forget to allow Christ to serve us. And we must not judge others, but tend to our own needs.
Warren Carter puts it like this:
[T]he Lord responds to Martha’s prayer by providing instruction about how to maintain leadership. The instruction is explicit for Martha and implicit for Mary. [Jesus] encourages anxious and distracted disciples to center themselves on God by recognizing and trusting God’s gracious valuing of them and providing for them, In like manner Jesus suggests that Martha needs but ‘one thing.’ Mary’s ‘good portion.’ The good portion that Martha needs is not to prepare one dish in the kitchen but to join Mary in listening to Jesus’ teaching as a means of overcoming her distraction and regaining her single-heartedness. His word to her is not a rebuke but the answer to her prayer concerning her distraction ‘with much ministry.’ 7.
So today’s story can be heard as a lesson that we must follow all of the greatest commandment, to love God and neighbor as our self. In Luke’s version of that commandment Jesus ends it by advising us to go and do that and live. Martha is doing the loving God and neighbor part. She is serving. But she over does it. She loses balance in her life and becomes anxious with her serving.
Why? Because she lacks one thing, she is no longer taking time to let Christ serve her with teachings and presence. She is forgetting to also love herself. There needs to be a balance. Being Christian is not only about serving, it is about being served. We cannot best serve Christ if we do not also let Christ serve us.
So the lesson is that we are to serve Christ, but we are to also take time to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen and bask in Christ’s presence too. May we all find ways to serve Christ, and to be served by Christ, on our Spiritual quests.
*based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2010
1. Bible Works 8 KJV Codes definition for “Martha” for Luke 10:38
2. Ibid. at 10:39 definition of Mary.
3. Carter, Warren, “Getting Martha Out of the Kitchen,” A Feminist Companion to Luke, The Pilgrim Press (2001), p. 217. I also used general ideas in the sermon from this Carter essay, as well as from Loveday Alexander’s essay “Sisters in Adversity: Retelling Martha’s Story” which is also located in A Feminist Companion to Luke at p 197-213.
4. Ibid., 222
5. Ibid., 218.
6. Ibid., 226.
7. Ibid. 227
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