Friday, July 22, 2016

The One Who Serves

It is hard to overstate the importance of hospitality in the ancient mid-east, the cultural setting of the Bible. The arid, desert-like, conditions of the land made sharing food, water, and shelter with travelers a matter of life and death. There was also of course the danger of wild animals or bandits. It wasn’t as if travelers could stop at the Holiday Inn for a room for the night. Sparse populations in these regions made maintaining an Inn extremely impractical. The duty to welcome or care for travelers and visitors in the land was a deeply embedded social code, because it really needed to be! It was particularly so for the people of Israel. The Law of Moses reminded them that they were once strangers and sojourners in the land. They should remember this, and show hospitality to those who came to them.

 But there is another reason why showing hospitality is so important. The author of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” This was often the case throughout the Bible, including in the story we read from Genesis about Abraham being visited by Angelic messengers in our Old Testament reading this morning.

There nothing in the passage to suggest that Abraham knew it was Angels who were his guest, yet notice the reverence and lavish hospitality he shows them. He bows to the ground, he calls for water to wash their feet, he provides them with fresh baked bread, and even slaughters a calf. It only after they have eaten that they reveal themselves as divine messengers. Some commentators have even suggested that this event was a theophany or in other words that it was the Lord himself who visited Abraham that day. The reading seems to suggest as much when it says, “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre.”

What this means is that we should welcome guest as if we were welcoming the Lord himself! What sort of preparations do you make when you are expecting a special guest in your home? Just imagine what it might be like to have Jesus himself as your guest! You would be understandably anxious to see that everything goes just right. This is the situation in which Martha finds herself in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus and his disciples are passing through her village and she opens up her home to them. No doubt she has a lavish feast in mind. I can just picture her hard at work buzzing from pot to pot.

Again, it is hard to overstate the solemn duty of hospitality in that culture. This is why her sister Mary’s actions are so frustrating and shocking to Martha. They have guests! Not just any guest either, but very important guest.  Yet here is Mary just sitting in the living room while Martha is busy making the preparations.

There is something else shocking about Mary’s actions as well. It is not just what she is not doing—helping her sister in the kitchen—but what she is doing instead. She is sitting at the feet of Jesus! “What,” you ask, “is so shocking about this?” Saying someone is sitting at the feet of a rabbi is a way of  describing them as his disciple. Saint Paul, for instance, said that he studied, “at the feet” of Rabbi Gamaliel. This was a position absolutely forbidden a woman in that culture. Historical records indicate that women were even dismissed during the part of the liturgy devoted to teaching in the synagogue.

The Mishnah, or rabbinical commentary on Holy Scripture, speaks rather harshly on this manner. For instance it says, “Let the words of the Torah be burned rather than handed over to a woman!” And Rabbi Eliezer says, "If a man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law it is as though he taught her lechery.” 

Incidentally, Saint Paul’s instructions to, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness,” which sounds so sexist to modern ears, is actually a direct contradiction of this cultural consensus. The shocking thing in his time would have been the words, “Let a woman learn…”

Flying in the face of her culture’s gender norms, that is exactly what Mary is doing, she is learning at her master’s feet in quietness and submissiveness. Her actions are doubly scandalous. Not only is she failing to assist her sister in showing hospitality, but she is also behaving in a manner absolutely forbidden a woman, and Jesus doesn’t seem to care! This is why Martha, exasperated cries, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."

One might expect Jesus to say, “Mary, Mary, don’t you have work to do? Go to the kitchen with your sister, where you belong, this is not your place.” Instead Jesus surprises everyone, not least of all Martha, when he says, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

To many readers this seems like Jesus is insulting or devaluing the work that Martha is doing as if she were, “Only a homemaker.” This too can seem kind of sexist. The often invisible work of hospitality—traditionally associated with women—is frequently underappreciated or ignored while roles traditionally associated with men such as leadership and scholarship are praised. I don’t think this is Jesus’ intention. As we have already said, the work of hospitality was considered very important in Jesus’ culture, and there is no reason to suppose that Jesus felt differently. So what exactly is the point he is trying to make?

The Greek here is a bit obscure. This is one passage in the Gospels where we find a number of textual variants. Many commentators, Saint Augustine among them, suggests that his answer should be translated more like, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted about many dishes, but only one dish is needed.”

If this is true, it seems to suggest that it is Jesus who has prepared  the meal. He has food that she does not know about. Human beings do not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. He has prepared a rich table of wisdom and truth and all are invited to feed their souls at this table. Saint Augustine writes,

 But you, Martha, If I may say so, are blessed for your good service, and for your labors you seek the reward of peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveler to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarrelling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury?
No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. Thus what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness; she was gathering fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them

Do you remember what it was that Jesus told to his disciples? “The son of man came not to be served but to serve.” He is the one that offers hospitality to us. He is the one that bowed down to us, from heaven to earth. He is the one who stoops to wash our feet. He is the one who has prepared a meal for us. He is the one that was slaughtered for our sake. 

What he is telling us is this, “You are busy about many things, but one thing is needful.” Being Jesus’ disciple is not primarily about the service we offer him, the work we do for him, it is about allowing him to serve us. This is the one thing that is needful and it comes before all the many things that we are busy with. Please don’t misunderstand me, Jesus welcomes our service with joy, but he does so for our benefit. Because through serving him we grow in his likeness. But he doesn’t actually need anything from us! Indeed there is nothing that we can give to him that isn’t already his.

Why do you weary yourself with all your striving? Your work can wait! First, come and sit at Jesus’ feet. Allow him to serve you.

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