A Provocation: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 10:38-42

10:38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.

10:41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;

10:42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

A Question or Two:

  • Who owned this house?
  • What is the difference between the Many and the One?
  • Are you sure?
  • What is Torah, and why do we study it?

Some Longer Reflections:

Don’t miss this: It was MARTHA’s home.

She is not an auxiliary member of this household, present only because she is good at auxiliary tasks like cooking.  This is her house.  And she is acting out hospitality.  That is her responsibility because this is her house.

Don’t miss this: Hospitality is crucial.

It is a requirement.  In the ancient world (and in traditional communities today), extending hospitality to travelers is an absolute requirement.  According to texts in the Bible (and not according to homophobic biblical interpreters), Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because the people living there sinned against hospitality.  Martha’s busy-ness is therefore not a target for current critiques of our cult of Busy.  We have convinced ourselves that we must at all times be overworked, too busy, working as hard as we can.  Martha is not one of us and she does not share our cultic behaviors.  We make ourselves endlessly busy as part of our pathology.  Martha is busy with the essential tasks of offering hospitality to travelers.  There is a difference.

Shaming Martha

One of the dangers involved in interpreting this passage comes with a willingness to shame Martha for doing stereotypical woman’s work.

It does matter that we notice when the scene valorizes Mary’s choice to engage in study with a teacher.  That means that Luke’s storyteller sees Torah study as being open to women, and not just to men.  This is important, and reveals something about the social world out of which this story comes.  This matters.

But it also matters that we not shame Martha, especially not for doing “woman’s work.”  Hospitality is the duty of the entire household, for one thing.  And tasks traditionally performed by women are as honorable as any other tasks.  Limiting women to only those traditional tasks and roles is NOT honorable, but the tasks themselves are crucial to our life together, no matter who does them.

The contrast in this scene is not…

The contrast in this scene is not between woman’s kitchen-work and man’s study, but between, as Jesus identifies it, the many things and the one.  The “many things” are a distraction, says Jesus.  This needs to be heard carefully.  The distinction between the One and the Many, important in ancient philosophical discussions, hands people the task of determining what is the one thing that holds everything together.  The world is a vast plurality.  Even an individual life is a mass of tangled complications and contradictions.  But in the midst of all of this everything, what holds it all together?

In this scene, Mary has chosen the one thing that holds everything else together.  She is sitting at the feet of the teacher who is the messiah.  And in Luke’s story, that means that she is studying Torah.  Luke’s whole story emphasizes the warmth of Jesus’ connection with the Jewish family.  In Luke’s narrative world, Torah and Temple are the heart.  This understanding of Torah is an enduring element of Jewish faith.  At the heart of every human activity is Torah.  All of human life is shaped by Torah.  In this scene, Martha’s many activities (all of them necessary for the central human responsibility to act out hospitality) represent the complexity of human life.  Mary’s study represents the core of what Martha is doing, the heart of hospitality, the one thing that connects everything we must do.

To hash two religious traditions, Torah is the Tao of the Jewish universe.

I’m not too happy with that cultural mishmash, but it catches what’s going on in this scene.  Martha is doing important work, and Mary has caught the heart of it all.

So, what is Torah?

It is not Law.

Law, at least in American life, is something people evade, bend, even break.  Law is something that punishes.  That is something that forbids and constrains.

And Law, at least in Christian theology, is something that (we imagine) God demands.  At this point, Law becomes either the price of entry “into heaven” or the force that kills all human aspiration.  In customary Lutheran theology, Law kills and/or drives us to Christ.  This is an illuminating, if limited, theology.  In rigid, masochistic forms of Lutheran piety, God takes great delight in killing us so as to raise us again to life.  There is not much illumination to be had in such an angry theology.

While you surely can find proof texts to support such extreme notions in Luther’s writings, such theological schemes are built on Luther’s pathological notion of a God who demanded perfection and hated anything, and anyone, who fell short of absolute perfection.  Luther later discovered a life-giving awareness of the sheer goodness of God, but we do well to remember that his mentors in the faith were urging him to trust the goodness and forgiveness of God long before he discovered what he called the gospel.

For today, I will leave it to the ideologues to fight that one out.  I am convinced, however, that it is dangerous to spend one’s theological time and energy focusing on the fury of God.

And none of this has anything to do with Torah.

Torah is the Tao of a Universe created by and loved by God.  As such, it gives us patterns that lend shape to our lives: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God, to name an extremely important pattern.  For Jews, observing Torah means living lives that witness to the God who loves us and all of creation and creates order in the Universe as part of that love.  The sun rises and sets, harvest follows planting, the food that gives us life also gives us delight: all of these are part of the order that God creates.

It is no surprise, to Jews or Christians, that there is brokenness and disorder also in the world, but that is what makes Torah study and observance crucial.  Jewish communities live orderly lives as an act of bearing witness against the disorder, and as part of the responsibility of faithfulness to testify to the fact of disorder.  To quote one of my favorite hymns from childhood:

This is my Father’s world

O, let me not forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong

God is the ruler yet.

Both Jews and Christians recognize that we must name the brokenness of the world, and push back against the notion that the brokenness is somehow intentional.

Mary is studying this important truth.  She sits at the feet of Jesus and studies Torah, the grace that holds the Universe together.


2 thoughts on “A Provocation: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 10:38-42

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