Over the Fourth of July weekend I spent time with some friends. One of them encouraged me to watch a particular sitcom on tv. She described the show as smart, funny and well written. One of her favorite aspects of the show is that the writers will set up a joke in one episode, but delay the punchline until a later episode.
I thought of that show when I read the gospel for this Sunday. The story of Martha and Mary is a follow-up to an earlier event in Luke’s Gospel. Mary’s behavior is a delayed response to a question asked by Jesus.
About a month ago we heard the gospel account of Peter’s so-called confession of faith. Jesus asked “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20) Peter responded, “The Messiah of God.” (Luke 9:20) The Scriptures tell us that Peter had no understanding of what he was saying. His actions following that event are sufficient testimony to his lack of understanding. If Peter had really believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and understood what sort of Messiah Jesus really was, he would not have denied Jesus three times during his arrest and trial before Pontius Pilate.
This Sunday’s reading is part of a section of Luke’s Gospel that gives us instruction about coming to know Jesus. Specifically, this part of the Gospel tells us how we should respond to Jesus’ question about his identity. This section of Luke’s Gospel contains questions from both King Herod and the disciples of John the Baptist about Jesus’ identity. It is in this section of the Gospel that we read about the Transfiguration, the missionary journeys of the Twelve and the Seventy-Two, and two predictions of Jesus’ passion and death.
After having seen all of this evidence about Jesus, the Gospel asks us to respond to his question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20) The story of Martha and Mary provides us with an appropriate response.
Hospitality was one of the highest social values in Hebrew culture. This Sunday’s first reading illustrates the importance that hospitality held in Hebrew culture. In the first reading Abraham entertains three strangers who wander past his tent. At the end of the story we learn that the three strangers were a manifestation of God. The moral of the story is that one should always offer hospitality to travelers because a stranger can turn out to be someone important, even God himself.
Martha’s overarching concern about the burdens of hospitality (Luke 10:40), make a lot of sense from a cultural point of view. It was a sacred duty of every Jew to provide hospitality to house guests. You will remember that, about a month ago, we read the story from Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus scolds Simon the Pharisee for not offering the obligatory acts of hospitality. Jesus said to him, “Simon, do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment.” (Luke 7:44-46)
Martha was doing not only what was expected of her, but what she defined personally as her sacred duty toward Jesus, her guest. She was also trying to offer her sister a graceful way out of what she perceived as Mary’s sloth; Martha’s request that Jesus put Mary to work would have allowed Mary to participate in a homeowner’s duty to a guest. Jesus’ response that “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42), would have been shocking to Martha. Here, in Martha’s house, Jesus was praising what he condemned in Simon’s house.
As I said, this incident is instruction to us about how to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20) Mary gives the correct answer. She was sitting beside Jesus in order to listen to him. She didn’t blurt out Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah of God.” (Luke 9:20) Rather, she gave evidence by her actions that she truly believed Jesus was the Messiah, and further, that she understood what sort of Messiah he was. Mary acknowledged Jesus as the one sent by God, the one who revealed God’s Truth to the World, the one who spoke God’s words of reconciliation and peace. For this reason, Jesus said that she had made the right choice, and wouldn’t be deprived of what she’d chosen. (Luke 10:42)
Jesus’ question about his identity is directed at us. Who do we say that Jesus is? Each of us will probably answer with the response that we were taught in religious education classes, but that answer might not be the truth for us, individually. What we say is not always what we truly believe. What we truly believe is made manifest in our actions. Peter blurted out an answer that he didn’t understand. We tend to do the same thing. Peter’s lack of faith was evident in his actions; Mary’s faith was evident in her actions. So it is with us; what we truly believe is proclaimed by what we do.
What do your actions proclaim about your belief in Jesus? For many people, God is a generic spiritual power that floats loosely around the universe. These people hear Jesus’ teaching as pious platitudes about living a comfortable or admirable life. For others, God is a heavenly vending machine or an invisible “Daddy Warbucks.” These treat Jesus as a sales clerk who takes orders from God’s customers. For others, God is something fearful and stingy; these go to Jesus to try to get what they think God would otherwise withhold due to spite or miserliness.
Jesus didn’t see himself in any of these roles above. He understood himself to be the one sent by God to proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom. Those who believe this give evidence of their faith by lives that manifest God’s graciousness and mercy.
If you want to see an accurate reflection of what you really believe think back to the most recent time that guests arrived at your home, that you talked with a stranger or listened to someone who was talking about some serious matter. Were your house guests an opportunity for you to perform the sacred duties of hospitality, or were they a burden on your time? Are your conversations with people filled with the hope of encountering God, or are they filled with your personal concerns and worries? Does your presence in church today proclaim your joyful expectations of experiencing God, or your desires to fulfill an obligation or get a favor?
The Gospel tells us that there are many answers to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20) All of those answers are clearly visible in the lives of those who respond. Only one answer is the appropriate one; that answer is seen in the lives of those who joyfully, and single-heartedly, attend to God’s Word.