Gospel: Luke 10:38-42
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But 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.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘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.’
On Tuesday I retreated to the coffee shop behind the Art Gallery of South Australia, and worked on an article. It's quiet and sunny. On the way through the gallery I was struck by the century old portrait of a young woman. I spent several minutes looking at this image which had reached in through all my distraction, and stopped me.
This is good art. It resonates with what it means to be human. It speaks beyond what we can easily say in words, and connects us to deeper parts of ourselves, places where we don't normally go. Good religion functions in a similar way. It calls us beyond our every day into what we Christians sometimes call the Kingdom; a greater consciousness and depth and way of being human.
The art world is riddled with snobbery and pretentiousness, and rampant ego. There is also a lot of plain kitsch, including the “art work” of television home renovation shows, which seems to have no real sense of the purpose of art. Some people have excellent technique, but seem to lack a connection with something deeper. Others link us into something visceral.
Religion is the same. From pointy hats and dressups, and disputes over who will go last in the processional, through life and death power struggles over the keys to the good crockery in the church kitchen, to heart tearing arguments over bible translations, we often seem to miss the point about why we are together. And then a sermon, or a kindly visit by an elder, is balm to our soul in a manner with is beyond describing.
Religion is an art. It takes commitment. It takes practice. It needs judgement. And it lifts our spirits to see what humanity could become.
An aspect of this art is shown to us in Luke chapter 10. In the story of the Samaritan's kindness we see two committed religious people; the priest and the levite. Doing the business of the church, they hasten by on the other side. Religion, with its demand of ritual cleanliness, is allowed to bolster the usual human desire not to be involved with the other side.
There is debate, of course, about whether ritual cleanliness had anything to do with the response of those two men. It is an assumption that I make. But see how well the story works when we allow the assumption!
Two respectable men, good religionists, do not cross over to the other side. Victims of crime are on the other side of life. They must have done something to deserve it. This is part of our defence mechanism, the way we deal with the discomfort of injustice and savagery when it is thrust in our own face. It won't happen to me, because I am good. It is their own fault, God's punishment. They are on the other side. But the good person in the story also comes from the other side. He is a Samaritan. In terms of religion he is bad, a heretic. But he is the good person in the story because he does what is good and necessary. He alone fulfils the law.
The priest and the levite were excellently trained in the tradition. They knew the rules. As artists they were technically perfect, able to draw up the fine details of the religion, and act out the lines of the liturgy. But the pictures of their lives, and the performance of their art, lacked soul and depth. This is because art which does not cross to the other side of the road has nothing significant to say.
Then we come to the story of Martha and Mary. Notice how these two stories follow the Mission of the Seventy. They provide balance and reflection for travellers carrying the news of the Kingdom.
In this story it is the activist, the one who does the good deed, who has the problem. Martha is busy... I have begun to write, except... we know this story so well it is easy to not see the words. In fact, we are not told she is busy. We are told she “was distracted by her many tasks.” And Jesus says “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”
This is a key point. Busyness is not the problem. I can hear the snorts from some key people of our congregation if busyness is to be stopped. Just who will get the lunch, and put out the tea and coffee, and prepare the Sunday School lessons? Busyness must happen, but if Jesus and a whole bunch of people have arrived for lunch, and Martha is doing all the work, then there is a real issue of justice involved. There are too many Marthas in our churches, who week after week do all the work, and we take them for granted.
Martha's issue is that she has let the doing of religion get in the way of the listening and being. She has the opposite problem to our priest and levite. She has become so worried and distracted by the practical tasks that she has lost the good news. Perhaps the tasks have become ends in themselves, rather than expressions of the love of God for us, and our of longing for God.
Martha's distraction is treated gently, and yet severely. Jesus' name is not used. Instead, he is called Lord, three times in those four verses. This is serious stuff! She is twice described as distracted, and once as worried. Her complaint is discounted; there is need of only one thing. His addressing her as “Martha, Martha-” is an appeal, rather than a judgement; it is an invitation. But it is also clear that “Mary has chosen the better part.”
Martha is like an artist who paints and paints, but has not taken the lessons of perspective and space. She has been too busy. Perhaps her painting has even been an excuse to avoid the challenge and discipline of the lessons of her teacher. Good art connects with the history of the discipline. And it grows, and struggles with meaning and purpose. The good artist does not just do what she always did. She lets herself be confronted.
If we cross to the other side of the road from the comfortable footpath of narcissism and ego, what will sustain us? What will prevent us from simply saddling the poor and the lost with our desire to bignote ourselves, and using them to pander to our ego? What will prevent us from being buried under more injustice and pain and hopelessness, than we ever imagined existed?
We need to sit at the Lord's feet to survive. That may be more challenge and discipline that we imagine! We ought not to imagine Mary at Jesus feet as some filmy Pre-Raphaelite rendition. I can’t imagine Mary MacKillop or Roma Mitchell, or my grandmother for that matter, painted in that way. Conversion, justice, and joy are not sentimental. They are deep and profound. The listening to the Lord is difficult and challenging as much as it is freeing.
Justice is demanded of us in the story of Martha and Mary. In the children’s story we will use this Sunday, Martha is invited by Jesus to sit with Mary, after which all three of them will get lunch together. Community is implicit in living the kingdom. Or to put it in very simple terms, the guests should at least help wash the dishes.
The word artist Jennie Gordon says all the above in the following. And more.
lately I have welcomed
this creeping seeping quiet
as if time has kicked her shoes off by the fire
and I sit
in endless adoration, cross legged,
for the word to rest upon me
for the candles to be lit
I can sense my sister moving
through the paces of her longing
finding meaning in the making of a house
to call a home
sweeping up the dust of reason
working hard at keeping steady
cleaning, smiling, baking, taking
little time to call her own
and then Jesus comes to visit
so I settle down to listen
take my place as I imagined, lift my face,
ripe to receive,
yet her anger clouds my vision
I can feel her deep derision
for my sister is no stranger,
she’s the other part of me
© Jennie Gordon 2010
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.
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