Print Version July 22nd, 2001
This is a divisive little episode for we who hear it. Who are you rooting for? Let’s have a show of hands on that… Who’s to blame? Who’s the bad guy? Mary who’s sitting there like a lump neglecting her sister … or Martha who’s so full of her hospitality that she can’t be hospitable?
Now the preacher has this deep temptation to smooth things over, to balance out the blame, or find a way for them all to come out looking good, Jesus included with all his snippy rebukes. Look how the gospel brings out the urge to tidy up. It make Martha’s of us all. All the while it is urging that we get out of the kitchen and sit still but we end up trying to make it all fit and getting angry and irritated that Jesus doesn’t make it easy.
I may have lost one of my best friends this week. I said the wrong thing, or didn’t say the right thing when I should but then said it when I shouldn’t. Like Martha I set aside silence, I let out my feelings of irritation at being overlooked and did it just when it would be most annoying and hardest to handle. And the urge in me to go back and unsay “the said” is enormous and seductive, to seek silence now even at the cost of integrity, to tidy up the mess. But I can’t. Unsaying is an art beyond any of us. And the passion for tidiness has always eluded me. But how I want this tidied up, smoothed over, made neat!
The meeting between Abraham and his three strange guests seems very neat. A tale of hospitality. A tale of reward. For all that kneading of flour, slaughtering of steers, milking of goats Sarah will have a child. What we don’t hear today is what comes next. And it’s a serious omission. Sarah laughed. She was listening in and she laughed out loud—“What!? When I’m dried up and he’s past it”—and the mysterious visitors take offense.
The story is about more than entertaining angels unawares. Abraham has been full of his divine promise—remember it: flocks and riches and descendants as many as the stars and a name to be a blessing for all nations—but Sarah has heard none of it. Abraham has kept it to himself—as though it belonged to him—but today we ought to hear the surprise in Sarah’s voice that she too is part of God’s plan. Abraham has been doing whatever he can to get a son and heir for himself, stooping to adultery to win his prize, passing Sarah off as his sister when he thought he could use her body to bargain with kings and landowners along the way, and all the time—even this morning—she’s been hidden away out of sight, like a piece of property too valuable to put on show. It’s no wonder she laughs, blurts out her shock. She names her surprise with her body: “am I going to have some pleasure out of my dead stick of a husband?” Only when she is overheard laughing does she tidy up that thought and more piously wonder about children. But they all tell her not to laugh. She is forbidden to laugh. She is denied her emotions even while the men are discussing what they will do with her body. And here today she is forbidden again—the story we hear is trimmed neatly so we don’t hear her laugh—as though Abraham’s story is the important one and Sarah’s is not. We don’t get to hear her laugh. But her laugh is important. It breaks the silence. It just bursts out. It won’t let Sarah be ignored.
Meanwhile back in Bethany both sisters are being uppity in their own way. Both of them are pushing it, having a single man in their house. In contrast to Sarah, they are all too visible, somehow they have escaped being owned by men, and are owners of their own property so that Martha can offer her own house to Jesus. It is a much less conventional scene than it first appears. Martha is busy with kitchen things but Luke chooses to describe it as ministry—diakonia—deacon-work. And Mary is not just the silent and adoring listener but takes the place, forbidden to a woman, of a disciple sitting at the feet of a teacher asking to be taught.
But then there’s the outburst. And the very clear rebuke of the text: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things but only one thing is necessary and Mary has chosen it.” So there! And no matter how much you want to agree don’t you feel it’s a bit sharp? Don’t you want to know what’s going on? Don’t you want to smooth those rough edges a bit, tidy them up, make Jesus look less of a bully? I, anyway, found myself getting all busy and anxious trying to make it all alright.
But then it hit me. Look how Jesus shuts Martha up! Sarah mustn’t laugh and Martha must silence her anger. And I got annoyed.
Why does Luke want to shut us up? Isn’t there room for the outburst that tells the truth? And why is only one thing necessary? Why can’t there be two or three or more noble things? Why do the silenced voices never get a hearing?
Sarah’s laugh is important. Martha’s anger is important. Without them the stories we hear are too neat, too tidy, and too comfortable, especially to the ears of men. And even thousands of years of history, countless readings and re-tellings of the stories haven’t erased those awkward outbursts. And if we listened, if we resisted the urge to tidy them up … well God knows what we might learn to do.