Today’s readings offer us a contrast
between two people visited by the Lord.
The Lord comes to their homes, and we see two different reactions;
I’m not speaking here of Martha and Mary,
but of Martha and Abraham.
Now, there are definitely differences
between the way Martha responds to her encounter with Jesus,
and the way Mary responds.
But if we focus only on Martha and Mary,
we may get the mistaken idea that Mary’s contemplation
is superior to Martha’s service.
But by comparing and contrasting Martha and Abraham,
we can see the value of active service for God,
but also how that service
can take two very different paths.
The first reading and the gospel parallel each other:
In the first reading, the three men, representing the the Lord,
visit Abraham and Sarah at their tent, their home.
In the gospel Jesus visits Martha and Mary at their home.
And both Abraham and Martha work hard
to be hospitable to their guests.
But there’s a big difference
in the way they each of them provide that hospitality.
Abraham is eager to serve his guests.
In the heat of the day,
he runs out from his tent to greet the strangers.
He says, “Do me a favor and stay here and let me serve you.”
Abraham is eager to demonstrate his hospitality.
It’s a favor to him to serve them.
It’s a favor to him to be able to bring them water,
to bathe their feet.
It’s a favor to him to bring them food.
He’s so eager he can’t contain himself.
He runs everywhere.
He runs to greet them,
he runs to Sarah
and says, “Quick! Make some rolls!”
He runs out to the field and finds a tender, choice steer
and gives it to a servant who prepares it quickly.
Everything in the story happens quickly.
And finally Abraham himself waits on the strangers.
For Abraham, this encounter with the Lord
is a gift, a favor,
an opportunity to eagerly serve.
The encounter between Martha and the Lord
is very different.
In the gospel we see Martha
burdened with much serving.
For Martha, being hospitable to Jesus is not a favor,
but a source of anxiety.
She feels pressure
to make sure things are just so.
She needs help to do things the way she wants them done,
but instead of directly asking Mary to get up and help,
the way Abraham asked Sarah,
she takes a passive-aggressive approach.
She keeps working and working,
hoping that Jesus will notice and say something.
You can almost see her shooting dirty looks to Mary
behind Jesus’ back.
What Martha is doing is passing judgment on Mary.
She judges that Mary ought to be helping her,
and she’s upset when Jesus doesn’t notice.
So she asks, “Lord, don’t you care?”
But if she wanted a sympathetic ear,
she’s not getting it from Jesus.
It’s not the fact that Martha is serving instead of sitting
that Jesus is concerned about;
it’s that Martha’s anxious and worried about many things.
What is she worried about?
The gospel doesn’t say,
but we can imagine:
Is the food prepared properly?
Does everyone have enough to eat?
Does it taste ok?
Is the table clean enough?
In other words,
she wants things to be perfect for Jesus.
Part of it may be pride,
part of if may be worry
about what Jesus will think of her
if the dinner doesn’t come off well.
Anyone who’s ever put on an important dinner
can relate to Martha’s anxieties.
Two weeks ago our oldest son got married,
and as the parents of the groom
Brenda and I were responsible for the rehearsal dinner.
This was the first wedding in our family,
and we wanted the dinner to go perfectly.
So, of course, we worked hard on it,
and we worried.
Will there be something on the menu for everyone?
Will the food turn out ok?
Should we have a toast?
When do we play the slide show?
Will the two families get along and get to know each other?
We could easily relate to Martha’s anxieties.
But we could also relate to Abraham.
We were eager and excited.
Putting on the rehearsal dinner didn’t feel like a burden,
but a favor,
a privilege to do something for people we love and care about.
But we were still worried and anxious.
We wanted the dinner to be perfect
for our son Ryan and his soon-to-be wife Teresa.
It wasn’t perfect.
it was perfect.
It wasn’t perfect in the sense that one of the entrees came out cold
for everyone who ordered it
and had to be sent back.
The amplifier for the slide show kept crackling, so the sound was bad,
and the timing of the music with the pictures
didn’t work the way it was supposed to.
But at the same time,
the rehearsal dinner was perfect.
Because there was need of only thing:
Ryan and Teresa, gathered together with their friends and family.
It was the encounter that mattered, the gathering together in love.
This is what Jesus is trying to tell Martha.
There is need of only one thing: encounter with Jesus.
Could Mary have helped Martha without asking?
Would that have made the dinner perfect?
But the dinner was perfect anyway
because of the presence of Jesus, the one thing needed.
As we think about our own encounters with Jesus,
Abraham and Martha help us look at how we respond
to Jesus’ presence in our lives.
Both Abraham and Martha worked hard for their guests.
For Martha it was a burden.
For Abraham it was a pleasure.
Do we, like Martha, feel Jesus’ presence as a burden?
Is our encounter with Jesus like a weight that we have to carry,
a weight that seems heavier to us
than to the people around us,
a jealous kind of burden?
Are we worried that we won’t be able to please God?
Do we judge others and complain to God
about those who don’t seem to be serving God
or living out the faith as much as we do?
Do we cry out,
“Lord, don’t you care?”
Or do we respond with eagerness as Abraham did,
recognizing that serving God is a privilege,
a joyful encounter with the One who loves us?
I suspect that for most of us
there are times when we respond like Abraham,
eager and happy to serve;
and there are times when we respond like Martha,
angry and judgmental;
there are even times when we respond in both ways at the same time.
Luke doesn’t say what happened after Jesus spoke to Martha.
But based on what we hear of Martha in John’s gospel,
it’s likely that she listened to what Jesus said and grew from it,
taking it to heart.
Maybe she put the dishes down, sat next to Mary,
and really engaged with Jesus.
Or maybe she kept working,
but with a lighter heart,
letting her anxieties go,
realizing that Jesus would always love her,
regardless of how hard she worked,
or how well things turned out.
The more important question is:
How are we being called to grow as we leave here today?
Some of us may feel the need to sit with Mary at the foot of Jesus
and spend more time listening to him.
Others may sense that they need to keep serving, like Martha,
but with a renewed eagerness and joy.
And still others may feel the call to jump up like Abraham,
and run out to meet Jesus, ready to serve him and his people.
Whatever we are called to do as we leave,
we can be certain that Jesus visits us in our homes,
in our workplaces, on our vacations, wherever we are;
and that despite all our worries and anxieties,
he is the one thing needed.