Luke, Luke, only one thing is needful…

Sometimes the reading for the week really gets under a preacher's skin. We wonder, "How on earth can I communicate this?" It's tempting to take the easy route and dumb things down. I want to pay you the compliment of diving deeper into this reading that has fascinated us ever since Luke wrote it down.  Let's start here:

And at this point, in my congregations on Sunday, I will not read the Genesis reading about Sodom. As a male reading this hideous, disgusting and inflammatory reading (words from female colleagues) I would be way out of line. For the purposes of preaching I will point out that what happened in Sodom was about inhospitality, a grievous sin, and also exposes a terrible attitude towards women. For the reader here, I have left the text in place, alert those who do not know the story of Lot in Sodom, that this text uses appalling images of rape to make a teachable point about something else... because, well, women were expendable.

A terrible reading…

The Lord has sent two angels t

o Sodom, to see "whether [Sodom has] done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’" (18:21) Here is what happens in Genesis 19:

2He said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.’ They said, ‘No; we will spend the night in the square.’ 3But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. 4But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; 5and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’ 6Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, 7and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly.8Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’

We should pause here. The fact that a man would offer his daughters to a mob in order to protect his guest shows us how sacred the call to hospitality was in the ancient world. But there is something worse here: the fact that a man would offer his daughters to a mob shows us how expendable women were in the eyes of the men.  It's not that Lot did not love his daughters; I suspect he treasured them. But this was the reality of life.

When we look at the situation in our own culture—  remember #metoo—  and if we listen to the witness of our mothers and sisters, it is fair to ask how much we have changed. And when we come back to the story we see that the men of Sodom, many of them fathers, are unmoved.

 9But they replied, ‘Stand back!’ And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. 10But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. 11And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.

12 Then the [angels from God] said to Lot, ‘Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city—bring them out of the place. 13For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.’

Let us pray.
Lord heal us when we have been abused. Let us hear that to you,  we are holy. Let us know, deep in ourselves, that we are treasured in your sight.
And Lord forgive us our sins. Forgive us that we have used mothers and daughters and children as commodities. Have mercy on us we pray.  Amen

The Gospel: Luke 10:38-42

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

Luke, Luke, only one thing is needful…

Perhaps you've heard people say that it's not just the notes that make a piece of music; it's also the spaces between the notes. Something the same happens when we tell stories. It's not just the story. It's how we tell the story, and where we place the story, that can make all the difference.

Luke emphasises that hospitality across social barriers somehow enables the kingdom of God to come near to us. "Do this and you will live," Jesus said to the lawyer, last week. (Luke 10:28) There is a sense in which God comes to us through and in the person to whom we show hospitality, and God perhaps especially comes to us in the stranger to whom we show hospitality; the stranger is the person outside our normal social networks. Martha shows hospitality, but the telling and the placement of the story about her hospitality asks us some deep questions about what kind of church we will be.

In ancient thinking, to show hospitality, was to welcome a person into the protection of your house. It was a sacred obligation. In Sodom, rather than leave two men to camp in the town square, where, as strangers, they were open game, Lot took them into the protection of his house. And the men of the city were deeply inhospitable. They violated all the rules of hospitality by seeking to rape these visitors. Lot, on the other hand discovered that these same visitors were the angels of God, and because of his hospitality he and his family alone, heard God's warning to leave the city.

Ezekiel tells us that the sin of Sodom was its inhospitality: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." (16:49)

And that explains why, when a Samaritan village is inhospitable to Jesus, the disciples want to bring down fire upon it, just as God did at Sodom. (Luke 9:51-56) The village was repeating the great sin of inhospitality.

But when we are hospitable the kingdom comes near. Jesus says to the people who reject his messengers, in Chapter 10, " know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” And then he says to the disciples: "12I tell you, … it will be more tolerable [on the day of judgement] for Sodom than for that town." Why? Because they have been inhospitable.  In-hospitality damages us. It makes us distant from God. When we are inhospitable, we insulate ourselves from the Spirit of God.

Luke is building up to something in the way he is placing these stories together. Because next, he shows us the Samaritan: here is a man who is hospitable. Yes, the story calls him a neighbour, but to be neighbour is to take those around us, who need care, into the protection of our own house.  And the Samaritan does that. He finds a house for the wounded man and arranges for his care. 

And then we find Martha. And Martha is hospitable. She welcomes Jesus into her house. And so, of course, God comes near to her through the person of Jesus.

This is where, as Rev Professor Bill Loader puts it, things become "wildly ambiguous." What's going on?

Well let's look at the story. Martha "was distracted by her many tasks."  She was so distracted, and so stressed, that she complained about the behaviour of her sister, who was doing something altogether admirable— sitting at the feet of the Lord, no less. Martha had a bit of a meltdown, like we all do sometimes, and complained about her sister in front of an honoured guest. We all know how embarrassing that is, when someone has a whinge about their wife right in front of her when you've been invited to tea. And … far worse, Martha doesn't even speak to Mary about the problem; she tries to get Jesus to do it for her. To embroil the guest in an argument is rudeness and inhospitality at its worst. How do you think Jesus felt at this point?

Jesus is quite amazing. "He barely reproves her! 'Martha, Martha...' This is the language of care. His heart is going out to her; he is moved with pity. (10:33) He does not [even] correct her appalling behaviour, but simply points out the right choice or better part of Mary, for this will not be taken from a disciple." (Andrew Prior: One Man's Web)

This is the first good news in today's text. Even when we embarrass ourselves totally, even when we insult Jesus to his face; even when we fall far short in our hospitality, Jesus still loves us and shows us, again, what is important: Love one another. Serve one another. Listen to me. I won't abandon you.

In its own right, it's a beautiful story, and it's gospel. But what is Luke doing in the way he tells the story?

Here's the problem. Last week Luke told a story with a deep religious barb. It's about hospitality, about being a neighbour, and it's also about something else. It's a savage attack on the religious authorities of Jerusalem. When he makes up his story Jesus chooses two authorities on the law, a Priest and a Levite, who abandon someone they know they should help. They are not hospitable. They know better. But they disobey the law of God, and they are shown up by... who? By a heretic, a Samaritan. The story couldn't be more scathing if it tried. By making the heretic right, he is saying the priest and the Levite are the real heretics. Even today, the priest and the Levite are a byword for hypocrisy.

And the next story sounds like a companion piece. You see, when it says Martha "was distracted by her many tasks," the word for tasks is diakonia, which is the word which gives us Deacon.

So who was Martha? Was she just a woman who was busy with getting tea ready, and Mary wasn't helping? Or was she a deacon, a leader of a house church who had received Jesus into the house? The Greek text doesn't say a home; that's a modern gendered translation of the word house.

We don't know who or what Martha was. That's part of the ambiguity Bill Loader was talking about... But here are some interesting things. Women are often unnamed in the New Testament: Simon's mother in law, Jairus' daughter. Or they are called the wife or mother of somebody: Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, (Luke 8) or Mary the mother of Jesus.

Martha is not simply one more woman. She has a name. She is a person in her own right, not someone's wife or daughter. She welcomes Jesus into her house, not the house of her father or husband. She is an independent woman. Martha is the head of her own household, and Luke makes sure we get the message: Her name is Martha. Martha is the feminine form of the Aramaic word for master. And Martha "diakonias," she serves or... ministers. It is very easy to see this not as a cosy evening at home, but to see it as a story about the female leader of a church in a male world.

So, some people, reading this, will see a strong woman leader, an authority… who fails just as egregiously in her hospitality, just as badly, as those authorities the priest and the Levite.  And who shows her up? Mary. Mary who is sitting demurely at the feet of Jesus. And these readers might note that Mary is the name of the woman who said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." There was a woman, they will say, who knew her place instead of being one of these women who try to run the show.

Mary is shown as the woman who is truly hospitable, because she stays with the guest. It just so happens that she fulfills all the stereotypes of a woman who submits to male leadership and supremacy. Does Luke makes this story of Jesus love for all of us into a savage barb to control the women God has gifted for leadership?

This story is going to read us. Will we see a leader of the church who fails, but whom Jesus still loves? Or will we use their failure as an excuse to keep the women subordinate? Will we rejoice in the leadership of strong women chosen by God, or will the women find there is a sort of glass ceiling where their quiet prayers are encouraged but their ministry is always… not quite as valuable? And where the final decision is made by the men.

We have to confess that's largely the sort of church we have been since the time of Luke. We have pulled well back from neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. (Galatians 3:28) When we pretend that God has a lesser role for women, we are putting limits on our hospitality and being a neighbour and are insulating ourselves from the presence of God.

Our first calling as hosts to the strangers is to welcome them into a safe place.  And when we fail—  and I say when, because we will fail, we know that…  when we fail them, and when we fail God, God will still love us. God will still use us.  Only one thing is needful: that we love our neighbour as ourselves, all of our neighbours, for in this we love God. This is the better part. This will not be taken from us.  Amen.

Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

More background on this text: Controlling women - Luke 10:38-42



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