Mary or Martha or both?

18 July 2010
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 11C (RCL)

Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Tuesday, I was reading an article in the New York Times about BP’s risky behavior. Apparently, the company culture pushed the envelop of safety in order to make more profit. Amos scolds Israel, the northern kingdom, for pushing the envelope of religious observance in order to maximize profit: when will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great. The consequence, according to Amos, is that God will punish Israel by abandoning them: the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place.

Got to be careful about calling down religious condemnation on an oil company. Read from the side of the oppressed, Amos can seem like blaming the victim — why are there so many dead, the Sudanese might ask. Because we have done wrong, would be the apparent answer. Not the kind of theology I like. But perhaps Amos is reminding us that we are all in this together, rich and poor, powerless and powerful, oil company and ecosystem. When we forget that, the number of dead bodies increases.

Many people don’t like the story of Mary and Martha. Who will prepare the meal, we ask, if Martha, like Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. I think this story comes from a time in the life of Luke’s community (Luke calls Jesus “Lord” in this story, which he rarely does — seems to imply a church dispute, not a dispute among Jesus’ disciples during his lifetime). You can almost hear the parish debate: why do I do all the work, while the rest of the folks just warm the pews? I clean the dishes/paint the windows/serve on the Vestry/fill in the blank, and so-and-so just comes to church!

This is the first recorded instance of parish triangulation: tell my sister to help me. Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are busy with many things. Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part.” Only one thing is needed. Jesus doesn’t tell us what that one thing is. Forces us to ask the question, what is needed? Mary has chosen the better part, not the necessarily the one thing.

Hospitality is a matter both of serving the meal, and then enjoying it with the guest. Both are needed. Perhaps the one thing is hospitality. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, that is, becomes his disciple, a bold move for a woman to make in that day. She sees Jesus in the community’s visitor, learns of God from the visitor. That will never be taken from her. She will have it to share with the community.

Amos wants us to see God in the poor and the powerless, lest we think our fate and theirs are not tied together. Jesus wants us to see himself in the guest, so that we remember why we are doing whatever it is we do. Why do you clean up the dishes, serve on the Vestry, paint the windows, whatever it is? Only one thing is necessary. What is it? Hmmm.

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