The first time I told you this story, I promised that you’d one day get tired of hearing it, but it’s been two years, so you’ve probably forgotten it by now anyway. It comes from a book called Dakota, the spiritual memoir of American poet, Kathleen Norris. At one point, Norris begins to reflect on the tradition of hospitality that Christian monasticism has inherited from our ancient Jewish siblings. It is seemingly written into the DNA of the monastic tradition that a wayward traveler can always find safe lodging and a meal with monks who are trained to welcome every stranger as if it were Jesus himself knocking on the gate. Even in the monastery, however, true hospitality is challenging to maintain. Norris tells the story of an older monk sharing with a younger monk how difficult it is to always be ready to welcome a stranger as if they were Jesus. “I have finally learned to accept people as they are,” the older monk said. “Whatever they are in the world – a prostitute or a prime minister – it is all the same to me. But sometimes, I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, “Oh Jesus Christ, is that you again?”
Offering hospitality is difficult, no matter who it is we are welcoming. Whether it is a new faculty member from up the hill, a new employee at one of our may industrial plants here in town, or a neighbor experiencing homelessness, at Christ Episcopal Church we believe that we too are called to welcome each new person who enters our midst as if they were Jesus, but in our Gospel lesson this morning, we learn that actually welcoming Jesus can be challenging. As I mentioned several weeks ago, offering hospitality to travelers was a given for people in the ancient world. Life was still very nomadic in those days and the Hyatt hotel chain had yet to be created. Whether you were travelling for religious, economic, or political reasons, travelers were often dependent upon the kindness of strangers for a place to rest and find nourishment. It was just a few verses ago when Jesus sent seventy disciples ahead of him to prepare the way with instruction to take nothing extra with them, and to rely on the hospitality of others everywhere they went. As his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem unfolded, Jesus practiced what he preached; spending a couple of days in many small villages along the way, eating what was served to him, and sleeping where he could find a place to lie down for the night.
On this particular day, Jesus arrived at the home of Martha who welcomed him and his disciples with open arms and a flurry of activity. Luke doesn’t tell us what all her many tasks were, but we can take some educated guesses. First, she likely prepared a bowl of clean water, in which the travelers could wash their feet from the dusty road. Next, she stoked the fire in order to bake fresh bread and prepare the evening meal. She likely got to work grinding up the chickpeas for hummus, while maybe a servant went to the market to get fresh olives. Following the Law, the rituals for hand and vessel washing while preparing dinner kept Martha busy enough as she also refreshed the wine and made sure her guests were comfortable. As the rare single woman who owned her own home in first century Palestine, Martha was most likely used to doing things all on her own, but given the celebrity of her guest this day, surely, she was working harder than usual to make everything extra special. As she worked, occasionally she glanced at the crowd gathered around Jesus, which was probably a bad idea. Could nobody see how hard she was working? Did nobody care? Who did Mary thinks she was, just sitting there, listening to Jesus as he taught? As Martha’s resentment grew, she became increasingly distracted, literally in the Greek, dragged about, by her many tasks.
Eventually, Martha became so frustrated with being pulled around by her chores that she lashed out at both Jesus and her sister, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work? Tell her then to help me.” Her spirit of hospitality had long-since faded, but it is in this moment that any remaining façade of Martha welcoming Jesus into her home disappeared. It’s not very hospitable to blame your guest for your sibling’s bad behavior. It might be even worse to try to drag your guest into the middle of a family dispute. “Jesus Christ, would you do something about her,” is not the sort of hospitality the Son of God would expect.
It is worth noting that what happens next is not Jesus rebuking Martha for her work. As I’ve already mentioned, hospitality was an ethical cornerstone in the ancient world. Unfortunately, this story has long been used to pit women in the church against each other. If we read Jesus’ words to Martha as an admonition against her busyness, we tend to hear it as Jesus lifting up “the Marys,” those who quietly listen and obey. While Jesus does say that Mary has chosen the better part, what the issue really seems to be about isn’t pitting those who work against those who pray, as both are required in the Kingdom of God. Rather, the issue is about where our hearts are focused.
Do you remember back when this journey to Jerusalem first started? Three different disciples tried to follow Jesus and were sent away. “There was no time to rest; no time to bury the dead, even a parent; no time to say goodbye to family; no looking back.” This journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to death and resurrection, isn’t a trip that can be taken half-heartedly. It isn’t a journey that can be put on hold. Jesus requires full commitment from his disciples, and where Martha falls short isn’t in her wanting to serve, but in how her servanthood ultimately distracted her from the bigger mission. She had originally welcomed Jesus into her home in the hopes that the Good News would be proclaimed in her community, but she lost focus, got dragged about by her many chores, and ended up breaking relationship with her sister and with Jesus. Mary’s better choice wasn’t that she lived into the role of the silent woman or that she chose to listen to Jesus, but rather, that she decided to focus on the relationship that God had put right in front of her face. The one thing that Mary found was love, and she lived it out at the feet of Jesus. Martha may have started out her service in love, but resentment and frustration took over somewhere down line. I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Martha. I know that I’ve begun many a project based in the love of God or the love of my neighbor, but at some point, lost focus and ended up frustrated by a lack of help, a lack of affirmation and accolades, or a lack of other people doing what I hadn’t told them I wanted them to do.
Martha is not simply worried or troubled by the many tasks she has to do. She’s literally out of control, being dragged here and there by social constructs, internal pressure, and maybe, her Enneagram number. Like Martha, we live in a world that is constantly trying to draw our attention away from Christ. It isn’t for our own lack of trying that we are drawn away from sitting at the feet of Jesus, but that our minds are attuned to so many things that we end up being pulled away from him, sometimes literally dragged here and there, by our many tasks. As the hecticness of the fall looms large, as we fill our calendars to overflowing, I pray that God might gift us with the space to slow down, to let our minds rest at the feet of Jesus, so that we might focus solely on the Kingdom of God and its mission of hospitality, reconciliation, grace, and love. Amen.