Poor Martha

21 July 2013
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 11C (RCL)
Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Amos is generally agreed to be the first prophetic book in the Bible, and as such one of the earliest written biblical works to come to us in its original form. Amos is a thoroughly pessimistic work — there isn’t a lot of hope in its prophecies. Amos, a peasant from the southern kingdom, came north to call Israel to judgment. The crime seems to be the exploitation of the poor (and not just by the rich, but even the poor preying on the poor). The merchants in this passage can hardly wait for the sabbath to be over, so they can get back to their cheating. Apparently, the rich would extend credit to the poor, and then take their land when they couldn’t pay (selling the poor for a pair of sandals — sandals being the exchanged in the exchange of land — cf Ruth 4:7). A friend managed a rural Walmart, and pointed out that many of the employees had to receive food stamps just to get by. All of us are funding such practices. What would Amos have to say?

The passage in Colossians speaks about Jesus as the icon of the invisible God, and the fleshly Body of Christ as the arena of the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile. It would be easy to read the authentic Pauline literature and come away with a false impression of his denigration of the flesh (Paul uses the term “flesh” in a very specialized sense as the arena in which distinction is drawn). As a result, it was possible for early Christians to devalue what took place in this world, the world of physicality and flesh. This author (probably not Paul) seeks to correct this mis-impression by pointing out that Christ’s fleshly Body, the Church, is the place where reconciliation takes place, and that the sufferings we undergo in the process of that reconciliation make up for what is lacking in Christ’s suffering. Reconciliation is hard work, and will require suffering, giving up cherished ends, in the realm of physicality and the flesh. But, it means that these sufferings, the things we give up, have a role in God’s plan of redemption. To get employees of Walmart off of welfare, we would have to be willing to give up such low prices, but that would have redemptive value.

The Gospel passage is sure to drive any number of people in a congregation crazy. The immediate question will be, “Then who IS going to wash those dishes?” There are any number of women who have washed the Thanksgiving dishes while the men watched football who will think Jesus’ sharp answer to Martha is not very fair.

One of my favorite cookbooks is La Technique by Jacques Pepin. It includes almost no recipes, but covers things like how to sharpen a knife, how to chop an onion, how to make pasta and on and on. He dedicated the book to those who sweat in the kitchen for the enjoyment of others. Perhaps Martha’s problem is the way she approaches her task: she is distracted and worried. It is possible to engage in tasks contemplatively, or to engage them resentfully. The startling thing in this story is that Jesus accepts Mary, a woman, as a disciple. Within every community, there are people called to active and passive contemplation of the divine (and sometimes those roles switch). We are to engage those roles with full focus on the divine, sweating in the kitchen, when it is our turn, for the full enjoyment of those who sit at the feet of Jesus.

Colossians tells us that what we do in the realm of physicality and flesh matters to the divine. Whether we are sitting at the feet of Jesus or washing dishes, what we do has redemptive value, if we do it for reconciliation. Or, if we exploit others in this realm of material, we can be sure God will pass us by and never forget the things we do.

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