Friday, July 22, 2022

Distracted by Service

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'Distracted by Service'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fifth Sunday after Trinity 2022

Reading: Luke 10:38-42

Our reading from St Luke’s Gospel this week follows on immediately from our reading for last week, which described how a lawyer asked Jesus two questions. To begin with, the lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer wasn’t asking this question of Jesus, however, because the lawyer didn’t know the answer but to test Jesus to see whether he did. Jesus answered the question by getting the lawyer to answer it for himself from God’s Law, of which the lawyer was an expert. As God’s Law says, if the lawyer loved God completely and his neighbour as himself, he would live.

The lawyer asked his second question in response to Jesus’ answer because he was embarrassed at having been shown up by Jesus. The lawyer asked Jesus who his neighbour was. In answering this question, Jesus told the story of a Samaritan who comes to the aid of a man beaten up by robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus’ point in telling the story is that we are not to worry about who is or who is not our neighbour, but, instead, we are to become a neighbour to anyone in need.

In this week’s reading, St Luke writes that as Jesus and his disciples continue their journey, Jesus enters a ‘certain village’, where a woman named Martha welcomes him into her home. St Luke tells us that Martha has a sister called Mary.

‘Mary’ was the most popular female name at the time; ‘Martha’ was the fourth most popular. These are names that are familiar to us not just because they were very popular names, but because of the part the women play in the well-known story in St John’s Gospel of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. While he is not mentioned here in St Luke’s Gospel, Lazarus is Martha and Mary’s brother. Although he is the subject of one of Jesus’ most famous miracles, Lazarus never speaks in the Gospels, and the only time Mary speaks is to reproach Jesus for not being there when her brother died (John 11:32). It is only Martha who speaks words of faith in Jesus. This will be important to remember as we consider Martha’s words of complaint to Jesus in this passage.

St Luke refers to the village simply as a ‘certain village’, but St John tells us the village where the sisters and their brother live is Bethany on the Mount of Olives, just two miles from Jerusalem. St Luke may have known this and deliberately have decided not to reveal it to his readers, as it would mean that Jesus had already reached Jerusalem on the journey he began in chapter 9. There is still much that St Luke wants to tell us about before he brings the journey an end. As I said in the sermon last week for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, the journey to Jerusalem in St Luke’s Gospel is a real journey, but it is also a literary device that St Luke uses to structure this section of his Gospel. St Luke tells us that he set out to write an ‘orderly account’ (Luke 1:3), and this is one of the ways he orders it!

Bethany will be where Jesus stays in the days leading up to his crucifixion (Matthew 21:17; Mark 11:11), and it is from Bethany that St Luke tells us that Jesus ascended to heaven after the resurrection (Luke 24:50), although he doesn’t mention Martha and Mary again after our reading. St John describes Bethany as the village of Mary and her sister Martha (John 11:1). St John also tells us that the anonymous woman at Bethany that St Matthew and St Mark describe anointing Jesus in the week leading up to his crucifixion is Mary (John 11:2; Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9). St Luke, however, makes no mention at all of this incident.

The incident itself, though, was clearly well-known in the early Church. Our Lord said that wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in the world, what she did would be told ‘in remembrance of her’ (Matthew 26:13; Mark 14:9). St John, when he comes to relate the raising of Lazarus from the dead, assumes that his readers will already know about Mary, even if they don’t know her name, and how she anointed our Lord and wiped his feet with her hair, even though he is yet to relate the event itself. Interestingly, when St John does relate it, he tells us that Martha served on this occasion too (John 12:2). Mary’s act of anointing Jesus and Jesus’ response to it will be what triggers Judas to betray Jesus to the Jerusalem authorities (John 12:4-5; Matthew 26:14; Mark 14:10).

Putting all this together, it is clear that this family is important to Jesus. Jesus is described as loving the three of them (John 11:5). This strongly suggests that there was lot more contact between them than what we have recorded in the Gospels. This is an important reminder to us of just how much we don’t know about our Lord’s earthly life. When did the four of them first meet, for example?

St Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit also confirms incidentally St John’s account of our Lord’s ministry in Jerusalem. The first three Gospels only describe Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem during the last week leading up to the crucifixion. But if Jesus knew a family well who lived just two miles outside of Jerusalem, it suggests Jesus had spent sufficient time in Jerusalem to make friends there and to get to know them before his final trip to Jerusalem.

What the Gospels tells us about Martha, Mary, and Lazarus also gives us another important insight into Jesus’ ministry. Jesus loved them, and they are obviously committed to him. There is, however, no suggestion that they followed Jesus in the way disciples such as Peter, James, and John followed him or that they journeyed with him, supporting him, in the way St Luke describes female patrons such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna supporting and journeying with him (Luke 8:1-3).

As we have seen, Jesus did call some people to leave all they had to follow him, even telling one man, whose father had died, to leave the dead to bury their dead and to follow him (Luke 9:57-62). Jesus did not, however, call everyone to follow him in this way. There is no suggestion that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are anything other than fully committed believers. They are not considered second class believers because they stay at home and provide hospitality for Jesus when he needs it. It is an important reminder to us that there are different ways of serving Jesus. Regardless of what service we are called to, however, there are priorities we need to observe in our service. It is this that our reading teaches us.

I should confess right away to having a great deal of sympathy for Martha. I think she has a somewhat hard time of it. Her brother, Lazarus, gets a starring role in one of Jesus’ greatest miracles. Her sister, Mary, is praised for listening to Jesus and receives a promise that she will be remembered wherever the Gospel is preached. Martha, however, is remembered for caring too much about housework! Mary is seen as an example for us to follow, while Martha is held up as a warning of a danger that Jesus’ followers need to be aware of and avoid. And yet when her brother dies, it is Martha who goes out to meet Jesus after he deliberately waits for Lazarus to die before responding to the sisters’ plea for help. Mary stays ‘seated’ in the house and only goes to Jesus when Jesus sends for her. Each sister says the same thing to Jesus:

‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (John 11:32)

But Martha adds:

‘But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ (John 11:22)

It is Martha who, while talking with Jesus when he arrives, makes a confession of faith as profound as that of Peter when Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was (Luke 9:20). Even before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Martha says to Jesus:

‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (John 11:27)

My point is not to criticize Mary or Lazarus, but to observe that Martha is herself very much a person of faith. It is Martha who is described by St Luke in our reading as the one who welcomes Jesus.

So, what is the problem, for clearly there is one?

We need to be very clear that what Martha is doing is not wrong. Jesus cares for people’s physical needs. It was this that led him to feed the five thousand who had come to hear him (Luke 9:10-17). He tells the 70 (or 72), whom he sends out ahead of him, that they are to accept whatever hospitality is offered to them, eating and drinking whatever is set before them (Luke 10:7-8).

Hospitality offered in this way was to become important as the Church grew. St Luke will record in the book of Acts how, at Philippi, Lydia provides such hospitality for Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy (Acts 16:15). St Paul, in his letter to the Church at Rome, commends to the Roman believers a woman called Phoebe, who is a deacon in the Church at Cenchreae (Cenchreae was a port of Corinth). Phoebe, St Paul writes, has been a benefactor to many, himself included (Romans 16:2).

St Luke tells us that Jesus and his disciples depended for support on a group of women of means who travelled with them. This group, St Luke writes, included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and ‘many others’ (Luke 8:1-3). Women, it should be noted, played a key role in the Church from the very beginning.

Martha, a woman who also supported our Lord, was, St Luke writes, ‘distracted with much serving’. In criticizing Martha, our Lord is not criticizing the work she is doing. Looking forward to another Meal, the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples, when they argue over who among them is the greatest, that their leader must be one who ‘serves’. Jesus describes himself as being ‘the one who serves’ (Luke 22:26-27). (It is the same word group.) Martha is modelling the service that Jesus expects of his disciples.

This makes Jesus’ criticism of Martha all the more shocking. Martha is not distracted by things that are wrong in and of themselves or by things such as money and possessions that Jesus elsewhere warns against. Martha is distracted by her service of the Lord. This is an important warning to even the most devoted of Jesus’ followers.

In the book of Acts, St Luke tells us that, as the Church grew, it sought to look after those who were widows and lacked any other source of material support (Acts 6:1). An argument broke out among the believers over the distribution of this aid. The apostles’ reaction is interesting. They say:

‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.’ (Acts 6:2)

The apostles are not saying that the distribution to the widows is wrong or that it should be stopped. The point they are making is that it is wrong for them to be responsible for it, as it distracts from what they should be doing. The distribution of aid to the widows is a good and important part of the Church’s work. The apostles make sure it can continue by appointing seven people to be responsible for it, while they devote themselves to ‘serving’ the Word. Again, it’s not that this work of distributing aid is unimportant; those who undertake it have themselves to be ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’ (Acts 6:3). The appointment of the seven, however, not only enables the distribution of aid to be done properly and fairly, it also enables the apostles to continue their service of the word undistracted.

The words St Luke uses for ‘service’ and ‘serving’ are the same words that he uses to describe what Martha is ‘distracted by’ and that he records Jesus as using to describe himself at the Last Supper. It is from these words that we get the word ‘deacon’, that is, one who serves.

The seven chosen for this work, whom some churches refer to as deacons, go on to make an impact beyond supervising the distribution. For example, one of them, Stephen, becomes the first church martyr and is indirectly responsible for the conversion of St Paul.

The apostles, who would have been there with Jesus when Martha served, had to decide what serving the Lord meant and what it didn’t, and to be aware when some forms of service were becoming a distraction for them from the work that they should be doing. What Mary got right was that she prioritized listening to Jesus’ teaching. St Luke writes that Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. The apostles realized that if they neglected ‘serving the word’, even for legitimate activity such as the distribution of aid to those in need, people wouldn’t get to hear the teaching of Jesus.

Sitting at Jesus’ feet was the position of one who wanted to learn from a respected teacher. Whenever Mary of Bethany is mentioned in the Gospels, she is at Jesus’ feet. Here, she sits at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching; when her brother Lazarus dies, she kneels at Jesus’ feet (John 11:32); and then, in the week of Jesus’ crucifixion, she anoints and wipes his feet with her hair (John 12:3). Mary, at our Lord’s feet, is a role model for us of receptiveness, humility, submission, and devotion.

Not being distracted as a Church

In the book of Revelation, in the letters to the seven churches of Asia, St John writes:

‘Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’ (Revelation 2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22)

This command is repeated in each of the letters. The letters are from Jesus to the Churches. The way Jesus speaks to the churches is through the Spirit. In the letters, the Spirit prioritizes the need for sound teaching. Listening to Jesus as he speaks to us today through the Spirit and hearing his teaching should be an absolute priority for the Church.

Like Martha, we all too easily become distracted by our serving. The apostles and the distribution of aid to the widows is an example of how it is not necessarily that what we are doing is wrong in itself or that it is not needed, but that it can distract us from what we should be prioritizing in ministry. Again, as with the early church in Acts chapter 6, it is not that we should stop doing what we are doing, but that we should find a way to do it that doesn’t detract from listening to the teaching of Jesus.

The sad reality is that we do not prioritize listening to Jesus. All too often, it is not even that we are distracted by our serving but that we have abandoned bothering to listen. There are all sorts of reasons for this. We prefer activism, as it feels like we are doing something rather than sitting around doing nothing. We like the praise we get from others for being seen for our good works (see Matthew 6:1-4). We also know that the world will accept our charity in a way it won’t accept our Lord’s teaching, and we like the popularity and power that comes with such acceptance.

It is to the clergy and leaders of the Church that the responsibility for the teaching ministry of the Church is entrusted. Clergy, in particular, are all too easily distracted from ‘serving the word’. Clergy are under a great deal of pressure to do other things. It is not just that we are distracted, but that we are expected to take on so many other tasks. The problem, however, is not that the Church expects too much of its clergy, but that it doesn’t expect enough. Churches all too easily settle for sermons that are ill-prepared, devoid of content, and badly delivered. This is because the clergy are often distracted by other things that earn them more praise and recognition rather than taking time to study and prepare better sermons.

It is hard to put a precise number on it, but I would estimate that 90% of my time is spent on things that it doesn’t need for me to be ordained to do and which could be done by lay members of the Church, and often done better. Ironically, I am employed by the Church for what only I as a priest can do; once ordained, however, I am then expected or choose to spend most of my time not doing them.

Like Martha, clergy allow serving to get in the way of listening. Before any of us can serve, we must listen; and to listen, we must encourage and support those whom God has given to speak the word to us.

Not being distracted as individuals

This presents a challenge to us as individuals as well as to us as a Church. It is all too easy in our own relationship with the Lord to be distracted by legitimate activities. There are so many demands and pressures on us in our daily lives. It can be a real strain just to keep going. It is perhaps, then, no surprise that we too get distracted from listening to Jesus.

In all honesty, however, it has to be said that we too don’t just get distracted by things that need doing. We also get distracted by things that, yet again, are not necessarily wrong in themselves, but which don’t need doing. If we are to avoid being distracted by the things that we need to do, we may have to sacrifice some of the things we would like to do.

Do we really need, for example, to spend so much time on social media or following links online? Do we need to watch so much TV; go to clubs and restaurants; or engage in other social activities? There is, of course, nothing wrong with doing any of these things, if they don’t distract from listening to Jesus. There is everything wrong with them if they do. Like Mary, we need to choose ‘the better part’, which shall not be taken away from us. Mary challenges us to put listening to Jesus before all else. Martha shows us how easy it is not to.

Varieties of Service

Finally, Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. St Paul writes that there are ‘varieties of service’ (1 Corinthians 12:5). While all of us should always put listening to Jesus first, we need also to remember that we are not all called to serve in the same way. Some, such as the clergy, are called to help us to listen to Jesus, but even if this is not our calling, we still have work to do for Jesus, and this means not despising or devaluing anyone’s work.

For example, in the past Martha and Mary have been seen as representative of two types of service in the Church: the active and the contemplative. For much of church history, the church has valued the contemplative over the active. The contemplative, as seen in the monastic tradition, has been a highly regarded and important part of the Church’s life. Now, not so much!

Now, those who serve our Lord in the monastic tradition tend only to be valued if they also do something else we consider ‘useful’, such as teaching, nursing, or social work. Praying and worshipping God alone does not fall into the category of useful activities. If you think that I am being unfair in saying that, ask yourself how you would feel if your daughter said she was inspired by Mary’s example and wanted to become a nun. And then ask yourself how you would feel if she also said she wanted to join a silent order shut off from all contact with the world.

I personally thank God for those monks and nuns who devote their life to praying in a way that I don’t have time for. I respect and value them and hope in the future there will be more of them. Most of us aren’t called to be monks or nuns, but, thank God, some are.

In other words, we need varieties of service. We need Martha and Mary, but, in whatever service, we are engaged in, we all need just one thing. Mary shows us what that is.

May we be devoted to service like Martha while listening like Mary.

St Martha and St Mary, pray for us.


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