Sermon: Mary and Martha

July 21, 2019
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
Amos 7:12-17; Luke 10:38-42
Pastor SeokCheol Shin

Mary and Martha

Yesterday, we held one of our planned summer fundraisers, a car wash. I was a little worried about how the weather would affect us as the temperature reached almost 100 degrees. Some of us met on Friday morning to prepare for the event, and we talked about whether to cancel it or proceed because we were afraid people would be sick in the heat. But we decided to proceed as planned. The weather turned out not as bad as we worried, and nobody was sick or damaged by the heat. In the end, the carwash was a lot of fun.  

Let me share what I saw and learned from our event: 

  1. there is no discrimination in our fellowship and ministry, just as there is no discrimination in God’s love – everybody, regardless of one’s social, racial, sexual, cultural background, is called to come and serve for our ministry
  2. we enjoy our service because we choose to do it on our own decision
  3. we are free souls because we listen to God’s words and follow Jesus Christ as our Savior, who sets us free from the worldly bondages
  4. as free souls or Jesus’ servants, we will use our freedom to fight against all the evil of the world 

“No discrimination,” “Our own decision,” “free souls, and “freedom,” those serious words are the keywords that I also found from the scriptures for this morning.

 Jesus’ Support for Mary
When Jesus and his disciples journeyed to Jerusalem, they stopped at Martha and Mary’s house (v. 38). While enjoying their hospitality, Jesus continued his teaching ministry. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet “just listening to what he was saying” (v. 39), but Martha worked in the kitchen, perhaps to prepare a meal for their guests – “busy Martha and quiet Mary.”

So who was doing a better service to Jesus, or who’s hospitality did Jesus appreciate more? We tend to show sympathy to Martha because she was working hard in the kitchen for Jesus and his company. How do you feel about Mary’s action in this story? We know people like Mary: just taking a piece of cake, sitting on the couch, watching the TV, and leaving all the work for someone else. It seems that Martha is respectful but Mary is rather selfish and shameless.

Yet, Jesus had a different viewpoint of their attitudes. When Martha asked Jesus to tell her sister to help her in the kitchen, Jesus refused her request, telling her that “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (v. 42). It sounds like Jesus respected Mary’s choice, that is, just to sit beside him and listen to his words. Some biblical scholars view Mary’s devotion in this story as more valuable than any other dedications to God.

However, Jesus didn’t tell Martha that she was doing the wrong thing. He never said that it is a shame to work in the kitchen. After all, Jesus and his company needed to eat. Thus, he should appreciate Martha’s hospitality rather than despise her chores in the kitchen.

Jesus taught us that we must show mercy to others if we truly love God: “Faith without deeds is dead” (Jam. 2:26). Jesus also taught his followers that if they only focus on their religious life in the temple but ignore others in need, they are just hypocrites. We need to combine faith and action, worship and fellowship. Listening to God’s word and serving others always combine. As much as Jesus appreciated Mary’s attending to his teaching, I believe that he also appreciated Martha’s hospitality for his mission trip. 

Then, how can we understand Jesus’s refusal to Martha and support for Mary? Jesus is concerned about Martha’s mind-set to identify herself and even judge her sister with her preconception. In ancient times, women were not included in such social events. This kind of religious discourse that Jesus had with his disciples was generally men’s business. 

When I meditated on this story, I was reminded of my mother’s story when she was young. She was a brilliant businesswoman by her late twenties. She started with a little convenient store and by her mid-thirties ran a factory. Back in the 1960s and 70s, it was very unusual that a woman ran her own business; my mother was kind of a pathfinder in my country. However, she had problems that her society couldn’t tolerate: she was the boss of a lot of men in her company, and she was still a single woman. In Korea, the family would take it as a shame if you were old enough to marry but remained a single person. My mother couldn’t overcome the cultural bias by herself, so she gave up her business, got married to my father, and just became a normal housewife. I see her as a cultural victim. 

In patriarchal societies, even today, there is a strict division between men and women – if you are a boy, you should be outgoing, but if you are a girl, you should be quiet, gentle, sweet, and well-behaved. According to the standard custom of Jesus’ day, Martha was right and Mary was wrong. Martha dutifully performed the so-called woman’s work, cooking and serving in the kitchen, while the men just sat in a room and had a friendly or serious chat together. In the daily routine that she was accustomed to, Martha was annoyed that her sister Mary didn’t act like a woman. Martha was completely submitted to her patriarchal society and accepted her destiny as nothing but a woman of her day.  

By contrast, Mary was the person out of line. She chose to sit close to Jesus by her own will; she didn’t care about how others would judge her. Listening to Jesus, being with him, and following him were the primary concerns that she wanted to focus on in her life. Unlike Martha, Mary wasn’t ruled by the customs of her day; she overcame them through her faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, Mary’s faith in Jesus made her bold enough to break the tradition of her day!

What about Jesus? How did he deal with the customs of his day? If he also remained as a typical man of his day, he would agree with Martha and direct Mary to move to the kitchen. Yet, Jesus was willing to allow Mary to sit at his feet with the men. He didn’t set any boundaries or discrimination between men and women. Jesus didn’t show any favoritism for his listeners or followers. “Whoever comes, come and learn from me,” that is what Jesus said to all people.

Jesus pointed out one’s own choice for one’s own life. Mary was willing to choose her place at Jesus’ feet by her own decision, but Martha allowed her culture to decide her place in the kitchen because she was a woman. As Jesus supported Mary’s decision, he tried to correct Martha’s preconception and give her freedom. “Be free,” and “Do whatever you want to do!” That is what Jesus tried to teach Martha and all of us today.

How can we stand bold enough to do things on our own will? Where can we receive this spirit of freedom? Through the symbol of Mary from today’s Gospel, we learn that we only receive freedom when we sit at Jesus’ feet to listen to God’s word. Even though we are physically living in this world, we are citizens of God and belong to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel Jesus proclaimed calls “to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to create a world where there is no sexism, racism, ageism, or classism. 

If we are the true disciples of Christ, we will not allow human culture to control our identity and social acts. We will no longer judge others by the way society sees them. We will no longer support social evils to oppress human freedom and dignity. Like the prophet Amos, we will be bold enough to fight for justice and break all kinds of artificial divisions, separations, and boundaries and spread God’s liberation and reconciliation with all humanity.

 In the Spirit of Liberation
 “Don’t tell me who I am,” “Don’t tell me what I can do…” Only free souls can say this and practice it. But as we are God’s servants, disciples of Jesus Christ, we will use our freedom for more than just our desires. We will use it for the sake of Jesus’ liberation and reconciliation ministry. So this is what we are going to say. “I belong to Jesus Christ who gives me freedom and I will use my freedom to serve others in need and help people free from their bondage of all kinds of the social evils in the world.” Amen.