Monday, July 15, 2019

Do You Know Mary?

Do you know Mary--the one who sits at Jesus' feet and listens to what he is saying? Do you know the one who lets her sister Martha take care of all of the serving, busying about the house, entertaining all of the guests, while she soaks in all that the master has to say?

This Sunday, after reading Luke 10:38-42, preachers everywhere will be encouraging their congregations to give up the anxieties and concerns that distract us from the good life of sitting and contemplating our relationship with God, but I wonder how many of us really know this Mary.

There are two sets of Mary-Martha sisters in the New Testament. John's version is more famous. His Mary and Martha have a brother named Lazarus, who is Jesus friend. Lazarus, of course, dies, and Jesus comes to raise him from the dead. In that episode, we find Mary staying at home, mourning, while Martha, upon hearing that Jesus was in town, gets up to go and find him. Martha is the one who engages Jesus in the first question and answer. Only later, when she goes back to the house and tells her sister that Jesus is calling for her, does Mary get up and go talk to Jesus. A little later in John's account, Jesus stops back by Bethany and dines at Lazarus' house. Martha serves, and Mary wipes Jesus' feet with her hair. Perhaps there's a similar approach to crisis and busyness embedded in that story, but part of me thinks I just want the stories to line up.

Luke's Mary and Martha occupy only the five verses we will read this Sunday. There is no other mention of Mary or Martha in Luke. In fact, there is no other mention of "Martha" anywhere in the New Testament except John and Luke's stories about the sisters. "Mary" is mentioned many times, but it can be hard to keep the Marys straight. In Luke's gospel account, "Mary" occurs throughout the opening chapters, always referring to Jesus' mother, then in a passing reference in Luke 8 to "Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out," then in the story about the sisters, and finally in the list of women who go to the tomb, including "Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them." In other words, Mary and Martha appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. They are momentary characters, yet their story feels pivotal.

I wonder why Luke chose to tell the story of Mary and Martha but Matthew and Mark left it out. And I wonder why John picks up the story of Mary and Martha and makes it his own, by bringing their brother Lazarus into the story. I wonder whether John's sisters are even the same as Luke's pair--probably, given the subject matter, but they seem to play a very different role in the telling of the gospel. This Sunday, since Luke uses them in isolation, I wonder how much the preacher should talk about Mary and Martha as if they are familiar characters.

I'm preaching this Sunday, and, if you can't tell, I'm trying to avoid simply saying, "Do less; pray more." There's value in that for sure, but what else is this text about? Because Mary and Martha are one-off characters in Luke, I trust that they fit in here for a reason. They immediately follow the parable of the merciful Samaritan, which we heard yesterday. Just before that, Jesus says some strange things about God hiding the truth from the wise and revealing it to infants. He praises his disciples for having eyes that see what they see. "Just then," Luke tells us, "a lawyer stood up to test Jesus." So that means that Jesus is on a role about how someone enters, finds, or sees the reign of God. The disciples have found that they see it through the eyes of infants. The lawyer finds that he must set aside his assumptions about who is his neighbor in order to enter it. Mary and Martha learn that nothing else matters as much as the pursuit of the reign of God that has come to the world in Jesus Christ.

This week, instead of trying to fit Luke's version of Mary and Martha into John's account of the friends of Bethany, I'm going to work on fitting these sisters into Luke's bigger story. In Luke, they are presented as part of a bigger whole, and, in order to see it, I have to leave behind what I know from John. In the end, it will probably say something like, "Do less; pray more," but I hope it will say that as an invitation to something bigger because something bigger is surely what Luke had in mind.

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