July 21, 2019
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
AMOS 8:1-12, COLOSSIANS 1:15-28, LUKE 10:38-42
My goodness, what an embarrassment of riches in today’s texts! We have the second of a pair of readings from Amos with its clarion call for justice. In fact, beginning with last week’s reading, we have embarked on a series from the prophets – two from Amos, two from Hosea, and two from Isaiah, which will be followed by nine weeks from Jeremiah that will take us through to late October. These are in chronological order of their writing. We also have the second of four readings from the letter to the Colossians. And we have the story of Mary and Martha from the gospel of Luke. It’s hard for a preacher to know where to focus!
All of these readings are hard in some way. The words of Amos and the Psalm are not just hard, but harsh. The reading from Colossians is complex and difficult to interpret, with its plethora of images to talk about Christ. And the gospel story is hard because of the way it has been interpreted in the past, as if there are only two options for discipleship, especially women’s discipleship. Not only that, but it seems the traditional “women’s ministry” of service appears to be denigrated. But as I reflected on these readings, it seemed to me that they are connected by the idea or theme of worry.
This idea of worry comes through most clearly in the gospel story of Martha and Mary. Jesus and his disciples have arrived at “a certain village”. We read a few weeks ago about Jesus sending out the twelve and instructing them to accept whatever hospitality was offered to them. And we know from chapter 8 of Luke’s gospel that among Jesus’ followers were some women who supported the mission with their resources. Now, it is Martha who welcomes Jesus into her home. An essential part of discipleship is the “behind the scenes” service and support, without which Jesus’ mission will fizzle and die. The importance of hospitality in the ancient world cannot be understated. Hospitality is not just being nice and sharing. It creates a social bond between host and guest. Martha is acting according to the norms of her time and culture, and there is nothing wrong with that.
So, Jesus is not criticizing Martha for choosing the wrong activity. You can hear the affection in the repetition of her name, “Martha, Martha”. He does, however, observe and comment on her nervousness or worry. She is fussing, about preparing food and drink, “distracted by her many tasks”. She comes to Jesus and says, “Tell my sister to help me!” Service that is distracted and worried becomes a burden to both the giver and the recipient. There are other places in the gospel where Jesus criticizes worry, for instance in chapter 12: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing…Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? (As an aside, we know now that worry is likely to subtract from your lifespan)...Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink and do not keep worrying…Instead strive for the kingdom, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:22-31). This kind of anxiety suggests the idea that you can control life and what happens, and many of our most difficult struggles result when we come up against the hard reality that it’s not true.
This story has been interpreted as a sort of contrast or dichotomy between the active and contemplative ways of discipleship, with the contemplative, focussed on the monasteries, being judged more acceptable in the Middle Ages. Sometimes you might hear the question, “Are you a Martha or a Mary?” The problem with this interpretation is that it presents the alternatives as a zero-sum equation. One has to lose and the other to win. It forces people into one of two alternatives that seem mutually exclusive. In truth, the gospels present many models or pictures of discipleship. In our spiritual lives, we go through seasons of discipleship that are influenced by our immediate circumstances, our stage of life and many other factors. Sometimes we need to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen. Sometimes, that is all we can manage. At other times we find ourselves energized for ministries of service. It’s not a competition, and one is not better than the other. I think it’s more true to say that there is a lifelong spectrum of discipleship activity, and there is no one pure model of what that looks like.
The problem in this story is that Martha tries to draw Jesus into a triangle between herself and her sister, and triangulation is rarely helpful! Martha is demanding that Mary copy her service, do as she does, match her norm. Martha has stopped treating Jesus as her guest and is dumping her anxiety onto him. Her anxiety has the potential to undo the power of her hospitality. So many times in Scripture, the sharing of hospitality, especially around a meal, becomes a transformative occasion where something new comes into being, something new becomes known. A new norm is being established here. We need to remember the context: Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem and what awaits him there. There is a sense of urgency about everything that Jesus is now doing. There is not much more time to be in the presence of God’s anointed one. Jesus gently reminds Martha about priorities in the realm of God. As important as hospitality is in spreading the Christian message, it is even more important to have followers who will listen to the message. Mary has chosen the better part, and in an age and culture when women did not remain in the room with males to whom they were not related, her part will not be taken away from her. She is welcomed as an equal among disciples. Martha practices the conventional hospitality of her time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Mary embodies the truth that actions, even acts of Christian hospitality that support the work of sharing the good news of God’s love, need to be sustained by devotion to the word of God and to the one who speaks it. Service that is not rooted in the word will not last. Listening to the word is the lasting good that will not be taken away. This story is an important counterpart to the story of the Good Samaritan we heard last week, and it’s no accident that they come one right after the other in Luke’s gospel.
The idea of worry is also behind the reading from Colossians. The converts seem to be asking, “What more do I need to experience Christ fully? Am I missing something? Is there an extra blessing, some extra knowledge that will guarantee I am on the right path?” And the answer is, “No. Nothing”. If the Colossian Christians really knew who Christ is, they wouldn’t even ask those questions. But under the influence of outside teachers who seek to “improve” upon the original gospel message, the Colossians are falling for rules about extra practices, extra knowledge, extra forms of worship. In response, the writer assures them of Christ’s supremacy and sufficiency. He is the “image of the unseen God”. There are not many images, only one. He is the “firstborn of all creation”, not one among many. He brings all things together and holds them in unity. He alone embodies the fulness of divinity. “In him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell” – all of it. He is “the one thing that is needed”. Christ alone has reconciled us to God. Instead of worrying about their spiritual maturity, the believers are urged to remember and recognize what Christ has already done for them.
In contrast to the message that we should not worry about material things or even our spiritual status, the message of Amos says, “You’d better worry!” Amos is the oldest of what are called the “literary prophets”, in other words, those prophets whose words and writings have come down to us. A resident of the southern kingdom of Judah, he was sent by God to be a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel. Today’s reading is the fourth of a series of visions Amos received. To appreciate the message, we need to understand the play on words here. Amos sees a bowl of summer fruit or, in a twist, “a bowl of ripe fruit harvested at the end of summer”. God’s reply to Amos uses the same word: “the time is ripe” for God to harvest or cut off. The end is coming, after which God will no longer “pass by” or overlook Israel. Why? They have created a system which perpetrates and perpetuates injustice. Everything they do is aimed at how they can exploit one another for financial gain. The rich “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land”. Corrupt merchants cheat their customers with false balances and phony weights. They sell the “sweepings of the wheat” that were supposed to be reserved for the poor. Even their worship is false. Festivals and sabbaths are simply days to be endured so they can get back to the business of exploiting and cheating their fellow Israelites. This is more than individual wrongdoing; it is an entire system of oppression and injustice. The whole society is organized on domination rather than love of neighbour as intended by God.
Israel cannot hide what they are doing. God knows, and no religious observance can save the people when the only righteous response of religion is judgment. Israel may have been able to ignore God’s message leading up to Amos’s proclamation, but now God will withhold even that message in a “famine of hearing the word of the Lord”. They will undergo the worst kind of suffering – the lack of meaning and purpose in their destruction. The destruction is severe; suffering without any sense of meaning or purpose is worse. Although the people have failed, God will not fail and will bring about something new out of the destruction of the old. But we cannot take a quick and comforting shortcut around the message of judgement, not can we escape the obvious parallels with our own time and place.
Pretty bleak words. The positive in them is that God cares about the poor, the oppressed and the exploited. God calls God’s people into a covenant community where the weak are protected, the vulnerable are cared for, the oppressed are set free, and all are valued not as economic units but for who they are. And this brings us full circle back to Martha and Mary. In a culture that values people for what they contribute and what they possess, amid all of our doing, as important as that is, we need to stop and hear again the message that we are God’s beloved children and that there is nothing we can do to earn that love and nothing that will take it away from us.
That is what the church at its best is and does. In a world that bombards us with messages that we’re not good enough, not good-looking enough, not thin enough, not productive enough, we need “the one thing” that Jesus gives us – the promise that God loves us unconditionally, intimately, and passionately, not for what we do but simply because we are. When we hear and absorb this good news, all the things we do and need to do somehow go better. It is difficult to move from being a doer to a receiver of grace. It makes us vulnerable. It means we need to let go of control over what happens. Jesus comes to turn us away from important but secondary things to the supreme gift of himself. This is the “better part” and it will not be taken from us. Thanks be to God.