PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Familiar passages may seem too easy to us, O God, but as we hear your Word fresh and new, may we understand what you would speak to our hearts this day.
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 10:38-42, NCV
38 While Jesus and his followers were traveling, Jesus went into a town. A woman named Martha let Jesus stay at her house. 39 Martha had a sister named Mary, who was sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him teach. 40 But Martha was busy with all the work to be done. She went in and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me alone to do all the work? Tell her to help me.”
41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things. 42 Only one thing is important. Mary has chosen the better thing, and it will never be taken away from her.”
SERMON Martha & Mary of Bethany
It’s a familiar story, but it’s not the only story in which these two sisters appear. Not everything I reviewed this week made sense to me. One of the Bible studies had events out of order or made assumptions for which I couldn’t find a basis. That’s part of the problem when we consider familiar stories. We get to the point that we don’t remember for sure what the original story was and where the embellishments were added. Some of that will come up as we consider Mary and Martha today. But we also want to consider what lessons they have for us these 2,000 years after their stories took place.
As I pondered their story after my coaching call on Friday, I realized we often interpret Mary and Martha’s story in Luke 10 as Jesus scolding Martha for choosing the wrong thing. It suddenly occurred to me that the text doesn’t actually say that. Jesus doesn’t make any judgment on what Martha does best, her hosting and serving duties, running the household and especially the kitchen. What Jesus does chide Martha for is her expectation that Mary should be more like Martha. Truth be told, “should” is not a polite word applied to ourselves or to anyone else. It is a word of judgement, and you already know the Bible teaches that only God has the right to judge humankind. Jesus recognizes that Martha is distracted by her to do list, by her should list. I think it might make Jesus sad that Martha is so worried about serving her company that she can’t take time to enjoy her company, but he doesn’t scold her for it. Where he draws the line is when Martha wants to deny Mary that privilege. Jesus has welcomed Mary into the conversation circle usually occupied only by men in that culture and time. Mary is seated in a place where her love and respect for Jesus is obvious, at his feet. Jesus won’t let that spot or opportunity be taken from her.
Each woman honored Jesus and demonstrated their love and devotion for him, according to her own personality. Martha was a doer; Mary was a listener. Both are significant. Both are needed. Each of us needs to find a proper balance for listening and doing in our own lives. No matter how much you love to study or meditate, sooner or later you have to do the dishes and take out the trash. No matter how well you keep your house or cook, you need to find some time to read your Bible and pray. But we generally lean in one direction or the other. I think Jesus accepted that in these women and wanted them to accept that in each other.
While we are visiting their home as we ponder this passage, let’s take a look at the family. We have three siblings who apparently live together. Martha and Mary are named here. In John’s gospel we also find Lazarus as their brother. Parents and spouses are never mentioned for any of them, so it seems a fair guess that their parents are no longer living, and none of them have married. We do not know the ages of the family members, but John McArthur speculates they are younger than Jesus which would put them in their late 20s perhaps, since his ministry began at 30.
Martha appears to be oldest, the Head of Household, because the scripture indicates that this is her house and that she is the one who extended the invitation to Jesus. Like the women we mentioned last week who supported Jesus out of their own funds, we have another woman with the means to sustain herself, even a family and offer hospitality to guests. Interestingly, Martha’s name in Aramaic means Lady or Mistress, so it suits her well as the householder and head of the family.
We don’t know how this friendship began, but one author suggests it started with Martha extending an invitation to dinner at her home. Since Bethany was only a couple miles outside Jerusalem, it became a place Jesus and the others could visit when traveling there. I can picture Martha, perhaps all three of them, being part of a crowd that heard Jesus speak. Perhaps Martha was inspired then to seek Jesus out and make the offer of a meal at her home.
I can imagine that, because it reminds me of the first time I heard Luminate in concert at Cornerstone Music Festival and found the courage afterward to approach Sam and invite the whole band to our campsite for supper with the rest of my group. That began a friendship lasting many years, feeding them when they were at venues within driving distance and praying for them. We even hosted one concert here. The last few years Deb and Bonnie went with me to their concerts, added to the food supply and talking with them backstage. Perhaps Martha and her siblings’ relationship with Jesus and the disciples went something like that.
The Mary Marthas, my Saturday morning group that takes its name from this very story, are doing a study from Max Lucado and Randy Frazee called “Making Room for Neighbors.” Yesterday’s lesson was on hospitality, looking for ways to make time and opportunity to get to know the people around you, the people passing by, especially in your neighborhood. One gentleman did this by changing one simple habit. After his daily bike ride, he always took a glass of water out to the backyard to relax and cool down. He didn’t change his schedule, but he moved his cool down to the front driveway and put a second open chair next to his. Now he could see others walking by and share a greeting, but the chair also offered welcome if anyone wanted to sit and chat a bit. I thought of the neighbor whose kitchen was always open to youth and adults with coffee or milk and her famous chocolate chip cookies. I’ve heard others talk about growing up in a home where a pot of coffee was always available for whoever stopped in during the day. While some people have a certain gift for hospitality, any of us can develop a hospitable attitude by adding a welcoming gesture or phrase somewhere in our daily routine.
As Lady of the house Martha fulfilled the many clearly defined duties of a woman in her day:
We said in class Wednesday, that in our own day we haven’t changed those expectations all that much. Gender roles are far more open to shared duties or reversed roles than they once were. We have conveniences Martha didn’t, but we women still place many such expectations on ourselves whether or not others impose them on us. When we also work outside the home pursuing a career or to pay the bills, we just add that on top of the rest of what we think we “should” do. Rather than living overwhelmed by that weight of responsibility and guilt for not meeting such expectations, we have to prioritize. Mary demonstrates one needed priority.
Martha’s focus is on her duties, her kitchen, serving her guest, but do you see how that word “her” is always there? Martha’s focus is on herself. Mary sits by Jesus, listens to Jesus, worships Jesus. Mary’s focus is exclusively on Jesus, and there is the difference. Why is Mary credited with the better part? Jesus knows where Mary’s heart is turned, fully in his direction, while her sister has Jesus on the periphery of her “should” list revealing a subtle form of pride at its core. I couldn’t help but compare these sisters then with the sacrifice of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. I never understood why God chose one offering over the other, until I caught the word “best” in the story. Cain gave some grain from the field; Abel gave the best parts of the first born of the flock. Cain did his duty; Abel gave his best. There are plenty of days I only do my duty, and other days when I give my best. How about you?
I think Mary knew how to live out Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” She brought that stillness as a gift of her devotion to Jesus. Martha’s gift was hospitality, but the danger she and we face is this, to become so busy for God, that we essentially ignore God.
Now we come to two more stories of Martha and Mary in John chapters 11 and 12.
Lazarus, who is the brother of Mary and Martha, becomes quite ill. Jesus already has a strong relationship with this family; this happens late in his ministry. The sisters have sent a message to Jesus; basically, Lazarus is on his deathbed, and Jesus knows it.
It’s risky for Jesus to come near Jerusalem, because by this time the Jewish leaders are out to get him. Jesus waits a few days for his own reasons. Just as a side note: when Jesus plainly tells the disciples that Lazarus has already died, they are still lacking in faith and understanding, but they are strong in loyalty. When Jesus does finally arrive, Martha and Mary are receiving friends and neighbors who are there to mourn with them. Martha, ever the hostess, comes out of the house to greet Jesus. Martha’s deep faith in who Jesus is can be heard in what she says, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” (John 11:21-22) As their conversation continues, we see that she believes as some Jews did, that the dead will be raised on the last day. Then Jesus makes the claim quoted often at funerals, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will have life even if they die. 26 And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) He asks if Martha believes this. She responds with a faith statement that is the foundation of Christianity. “Yes, Lord!” … “I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Peter has said this earlier; now Martha also declares that Jesus is the One God has promised all along.
It takes courage to make that statement of faith in the midst of a crisis or tragedy. Martha isn’t a fair-weather follower of Jesus. She proclaims her faith even in deepest sorrow. Some give up with life gets rough, but others of us know that is when we need our faith in Christ the most, when we need to stake our lives on the promises of God, when we have to trust that we are not alone, not ignored, not without hope. Our faith grows not on the easy days, but on the tough ones. Martha’s faith grew deep when Jesus came to mourn her brother’s death, and that faith would find relief.
Mary has remained in the house all this time until she is told that Jesus is asking for her. Martha had gone outside the village to meet Jesus as he came to town. Mary now took her turn to go out and greet him. She and the mourners who followed her are all crying. Through those tears, she says as Martha had, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32) Jesus weeps with her as he asks to be shown where Lazarus is buried.
I heard Martha’s comment as a statement of faith, because she went on to say, “even now….” I hear Mary expressing her broken heart, and with it asking the question we all want to ask at such a time, Why? Why was he taken from us? Why did he die so young? Why didn’t you come sooner? Why? It’s a question we ask when we are in pain. But putting it that way reminds me of a favorite verse in Psalm 147. “He heals the brokenhearted, binding up their wounds.” Jesus doesn’t abandon us in our sorrow; Jesus brings comfort and healing in his own way and time.
Lazarus is buried in a typical cave like tomb of that day with a large stone in front of it. Sound familiar? What is about to happen will bring comfort indeed to the sisters, but Jesus is also taking this opportunity to demonstrate God’s power and foreshadow what will happen for himself in days not too far ahead. When Jesus asks them to move the stone, practical Martha is worried about the stench, but Jesus offers them a miracle, calling Lazarus out of the tomb, alive once again.
In the next chapter, there is a banquet at the home of Simon who was once a leper. Perhaps Jesus is the one who healed him. Perhaps they are celebrating Lazarus’ resurrection. The text tells us that Martha is serving the meal; she is once again using her gifts, to help a friend and honor Jesus. We are told Lazarus is there eating with Jesus and the disciples. Mary comes forward to show her love and devotion to Jesus in her own way. She has a jar of very expensive perfume, pure nard, which is an essential oil from the spikenard plant that grows in the Himalayas. Imagine the expense of bring it from India or Nepal to Judah! Washing your guests’ feet is standard hospitality in that time and place, but Mary has taken it a step further, anointing Jesus’ feet with this precious oil and wiping them with her own hair.
This same story is told in Matthew 26 and Mark 14 but with some differences. Mary isn’t named, nor are Martha or Lazarus noted as present. But it is in Bethany at the home of someone named Simon who has had a skin disease and takes place near the end of Jesus’ ministry. I think it is the same story in these three cases. The other difference is that Matthew and Mark say she pours the perfume on Jesus’ head (a common act of hospitality) whereas John echoes another story saying she anoints his feet. I’m not too worried about that detail.
As we said with Mary Magdalene, don’t get this story confused with the sinful woman. That happened earlier, in a different home, and that woman is never named. However, being a friend and attentive student of Jesus, Mary likely knew that story. Perhaps she wanted to express her love and gratitude for Jesus who brought her brother back to life. She wasn’t gifted in the kitchen or serving at table as Martha was, but this story gave her an idea of what she could do. She owned this precious jar of perfume. It was the best gift she had to offer. So, she replicated what the other woman had done.
This time it’s one of the disciples who is outraged, Judas Iscariot. She shouldn’t have wasted that money, it could have been used to help the poor. Another side note: Don’t be fooled by Judas’ words. This is where we are told that he used to help himself to the ministry funds in his care. Jesus defends Mary and foreshadows what is to come by saying, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.” (John 12:7) This dinner party takes place, the day before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time, riding a donkey, greeted with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” His burial is coming soon.
I like Elisa Morgan’s take on this Mary. “Mary of Bethany understood who Jesus was, she somehow got that he was the Messiah, …And in this moment, she did what alone she could do, she gave to Jesus what she could give.” (Twelve Women of the Bible, Study Guide, p. 103) Mary did what she could, and so can we. If the big picture is overwhelming, we can’t do everything, but we can do something. The kitchen was not Mary’s forte. That’s okay. What Mary could do was share her precious perfume. That’s probably not something Martha could offer. It’s not something Lazarus had available either. But Mary could, and she did.
When you get to the point of saying, “I can’t do it all.” Ask yourself, what’s the one thing I can do today? What’s the one thing I can do for my friend, for my neighbor? What’s the one thing I can do for Jesus? When we as the church reached the point of admitting, “We can’t do all the things we used to do.” It became important for us to ask, “Okay, what is it that we still can do?” We will have to ask ourselves that question periodically as we move forward, because the answer will continue to change over time.
When Mary and Martha welcomed Jesus into their home. Martha was distracted and worried, as Jesus said, about many things. Mary simply sat at Jesus’ feet and listened. From Martha’s perspective Mary was doing nothing. But sitting at Jesus’ feet was doing something. Mary honored the teacher with her full attention as any teacher would hope from a student. At the second dinner party, Mary honored Jesus with her expensive oil, an act of hospitality that went above and beyond the expected norm. Mary did what she could do. So did Martha. And so, may you.
I encourage you in the days ahead to look at your lives, your neighborhood, the people Jesus puts in front of you, the opportunities Jesus gives you. At the same time consider your gifts. What resources do you have? What are you good at doing? Keeping in mind that you need some balance of devotion and service, look for what you can do to honor Jesus in your life.
GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 15:21-28, NET
21 After going out from there, Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” 23 But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” 24 So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!” 26 “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
SERMON The Canaanite Woman – Confidence in Faith
There was a pastor’s group that I was required to attend as part of my ordination process. On our Fall retreat we were given ministry scenarios that we had to role play. JongMin Martin Lee had the misfortune of being cast as the volunteer at a community free clinic while I was cast as a single mom with a very sick child who needed medicine. We didn’t know each other very well yet, but we each had kids. That was the Fall Jessika entered Kindergarten which means Tali was three. In the role play Martin had to tell me that the clinic couldn’t help me; he was supposed to send me away. I went into full mother bear mode. I’m still not as assertive in general as I was in that role play. Don’t tell me you can’t help my child. Martin survived, and I think our friendship was forged at lunch after that experience. We sat at the same table and got to know each other as real people and as parents.
I can’t help but remember that experience when I read today’s gospel story. I get that woman’s desperation and assertive insistence. My child is sick, tormented by a demon. I’ve heard your reputation. I know you can help; you can heal her, and I’m not giving up until you do! That’s the mind set she brought to the table.
There are so many things going on in this short story, but let’s start with location. If you look at a map of the Middle East in Jesus’ time, you have Judah down here. You might recognize stories from cities in Judah – Bethlehem, Bethany, Jerusalem. North of Judah or Judea is Samaria, those shirt tail cousins the Jews don’t like to claim. We’ll get to the Samaritan Woman at the Well in a few weeks. North of there you have Galilee, Jesus’ home turf with more cities you might recognize from Bible stories – Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum. Along the western border of Galilee and extending further to the north, hugging the shores of the Mediterranean is Phoenicia including the cities of Tyre and Sidon, north of Galilee, and it is in this territory that our story takes place. Today these cities are in Lebanon, just south of Syria. Back in Joshua’s time, this whole larger territory was called Canaan.
The reason for attempting to give you a mental picture of the area is that this woman is referred to by more than one regional name. I know her as the Syro-Phoenician woman, but every translation I happened to look at called her the Canaanite woman. Sadly, we don’t know her actual name. It doesn’t come up in the conversation. What is made clear, and is pertinent to the story, is that she was a foreigner.
Now, Jesus had taken his disciples north, out of their usual area of ministry. Most of them came from Galilee, and much of the early ministry took place there. But Jesus has pulled them out of their comfort zone and headed north into foreign lands. The people of Phoenician were not generally Jews. There was a peculiar set of prejudices in those days. Even Jews from Galilee looked down on Samaritans and Gentiles referring to non-Jews. Samaritans disagreed with some worship practices of other Jews. Jews from Judea looked down their noses on everybody: Samaritans, Galileans, and of course Gentiles. As Jesus takes the disciples north, he is extending the borders of his ministry and perhaps trying to stretch the narrow minds of his disciples. They are in foreign territory, but they took their prejudices with them.
A local woman approaches them. She is distraught and seeking assistance. She politely and respectfully states her needs, for her daughter to be released from whatever has taken over the child’s life. The disciples’ first reaction is to send her away. She’s crying after us, it’s annoying. Send her away. It’s disappointing that this is their MO. When parents brought their children to Jesus for a blessing, the disciples tried to send them away, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 10) When the crowds followed to listen to Jesus teach, the disciples wanted to send them away, so they could eat. Jesus said, “You feed them.” (Luke 9) So as we look at the conversation, I want you to keep in mind that when the disciples didn’t want to be bothered with the people who came, Jesus usually responded in the opposite manner, and the disciples had to deal with being wrong.
If you take a light reading of this story, that doesn’t seem to be the case. When the woman asks for help, Jesus basically says, “I only came to help the people from my own nation.” But she bowed down and implored him with words of respect and reverence, “Lord, help me.” Bowing is a humble act of deference in any culture, and she has now twice acknowledged Jesus as Lord. Jesus responds with a jibe, and I can picture the disciples smiling and nodding with something of a sneer on their faces. Hah! See! Even Jesus puts this foreigner in her place. The words that sound so harsh to us are these. “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” We can’t imagine Jesus saying such a thing. He just called this poor distressed woman a dog using an ethnic slur that any other Jew used for Gentiles. Or did he?
Two things are going on here. First, is Jesus reeling his disciples into a trap to teach them something about their own inappropriate attitudes by starting out echoing exactly what was going through their minds? I think he was setting them up to learn a hard lesson that they still hadn’t gotten. Plenty of people looked down on the disciples for a variety of reasons: where they came from, their lack of education, their blue-collar jobs or worse yet that tax collector. But for all of that the disciples were looking down on others, particularly a foreigner in this instance and a needy one at that. I think Jesus was in teaching mode as usual.
But the other thing we would completely miss in any English translation if we didn’t have scholars explaining the nuances of biblical languages is this. The usual ethnic slur for Gentiles was a strong word meaning something like a wild dog, a scavenger. Jesus modified it by using a warmer diminutive term that refers to a household pet, a puppy. It’s not the same reaction at all. I don’t know if the disciples caught that distinction right away or not, but I think the woman did.
She didn’t miss a beat. She played right into the skit Jesus set up with her response, “Yes, but even dogs eat the crumbs from the Master’s table.” She is wittily saying, I don’t need to be treated like your countrymen. I just need this one thing. I need you to heal my daughter. I know you can do that. I’m begging you to do that. Do me this one favor, and I’ll get out of your way, but please, just heal my daughter. Again, that’s the mind set she brought to this conversation.
Jesus liked her answer. I think it made him grin, maybe even an appreciative laugh. He liked her persistence. She’s like the widow in the story Jesus told who kept banging on the judge’s door until he gave her justice. This woman was not giving up until her daughter was healed. Jesus also recognized that this persistence was accompanied by genuine faith. This woman may not be a Jew, but she had no doubt about who Jesus was and what Jesus was capable of doing. She believed in him and trusted him in a way that many Jews did not. Jesus commended her for her faith and sent her home to a daughter who was already healed.
I wonder what the conversation was like the rest of that day with the disciples. I bet some heads were hanging. Maybe some were shaking. I wonder how long it took them to get it. The sad truth is many even in our own day still don’t get it. Jesus came for everyone, and Jesus didn’t put anyone down.
I wonder what the celebration was like when the woman got home. I can picture her telling her daughter about this wonderful teacher. Maybe she had fun sharing the conversation and the clever way she and the teacher had communicated. I know she went home with her head held higher, freed from the weight of worry and amazed that a Jewish man had listened to her and helped her.
I wonder what went through Jesus’ mind. I think a smile when he thought of the woman and her daughter. I think a sorrow that his disciples still didn’t understand and a determination to keep confronting them with their own inappropriate attitudes. Soon enough they would need to keep these teachings going, but they had to understand and live it themselves first.
We aren’t told the rest of the story. We just know the healing happened. We don’t get to sit in on the debriefing with the disciples. We don’t even know if one took place.
One teaching/coaching technique is to provide the lesson and let the students take away from it what they can, working out what it means in their own lives for themselves. Jesus may have done that with the disciples. That’s how my coach works with me. Mostly he listens to my stories, to my conclusions, then he may share just a snipet of his own experience or one brief outside observation or ask me one deep question, and then he lets me sit with it and work it through for myself.
There are lots of conclusions and lessons I could draw out from this story for you, but today I’m not going to do that. I want you to take it home, mull it over, talk with each other about the things that come to mind, maybe even come to the Adult Class today to hear a bit more and then share your thoughts, learn from each other. After all of that I hope you will consider what God is asking of you. What do you take away from this story that can change your life, your attitude, your behavior? That may depend on who you are in the story right now: whether you are the one who is hurting and coming to Jesus for help, whether you are the one sitting back holding perspectives that may need to change, whether you are the one hoping to help others and teach others a better way. Talk it over with God, and hear what God has for you today.