Print This Post

Sermon 7-21-2013 – “Better Part”

Sunday, July 21, 2013                                                           First Baptist Church of Lewisburg


Better Part

Amos 8:  1-12;   Psalm 15;   Luke 10:  38-42


We have to start with the Mary and Martha story because that always sticks in people’s craw.  It’s one of those gospel lessons, like the one about the laborers hired to work in the vineyard, which goes against our instincts about what’s fair.

Usually the Bible is with us on this.  There are all kinds of verses, especially from the Old Testament, which either say “if you do good, you will be blessed,” which is fair, or which say “O Lord, how come the wicked prosper?”, which is a way of being puzzled that things aren’t fair, which is another way to present the life given us by God as essentially just.

Martha is the woman who invites Jesus into her home.  Now we can use that to begin to fiddle with the story.  Martha invited him in– not Mary.  Martha wanted to have company: Not Mary.  Now that he’s here Mary’s glad to hear what he has to say– he’s a celebrated man of God– he’s famous.  He’s sharing important things.  She listens.

Her sister, of course, who invited the wonder worker, the prophet, the servant of God, finds herself overwhelmed, and thinks Mary should be scurrying around fixing food and wiping things off, too.  Now here Martha is just like lots of people Jesus encounters.  She has a question for Jesus that’s not about herself, but about someone else.

Have you ever noticed how often that’s the case?  If you remember the Rich Young Ruler, who does ask Jesus directly about what he can do to be especially useful to God, you can see why people avoid asking.  God needs a lot of help, and God doesn’t mind asking a lot of people.

So it’s safer– not really, but it seems safer–to stick to asking Jesus “why don’t you do something about this other person?”  In other words, people are spending less time feeling the need to offer themselves to God than they are annoyed by the way other people are, so when they get to ask Jesus something it’s usually about other people.  The person who felt the settlement of the inheritance wasn’t right asked Jesus about it.  Simon, the Pharisee who had him to lunch when the notorious woman showed up asked about her.  The man who knows he’s supposed to love his neighbor insists on asking the question about the hypothetical neighbor, and Jesus still turns it into a question about himself–“go and do likewise” is about you, not the other guy.

Martha, here, goes to Jesus and says, in effect, “Hey, you represent God, who is just, and cares for right behaviors–why haven’t you noticed that all the work of hospitality here is not being shared between the two sisters who live here, but has fallen on one of them, namely me?”

See, Martha knows what Jesus should think about that.  She knows that Jesus should suddenly realize he’s been so busy saying what he wants to say that he hasn’t really noticed the injustice represented by Mary listening in instead of coming and going and occupying herself with other things.  Martha knows that what she wants is the most important thing Jesus has to think about, so she knows that Jesus will tell Mary to get up and get busy helping out.

See, if people didn’t already think they knew that Jesus would agree with them– or at least be sure he should see things their way–they wouldn’t ask.  Their approaching Jesus this way is an affirmation that they get what he’s about.

But, see, that’s because they think they know how God sees things.  They think God sees things they way they do, and they call on Jesus for support.  This reminds me of people who write to advice columnists in the newspaper, all indignant about some personal matter.  They think that Carolyn Hax or whoever is going to back them up, and a lot of the time, that’s not what happens.  They get told they’re being self-centered, immature, unreasonable.  You’d think they’d never read the column and figured out how likely it was to get scolded instead of affirmed.

There’s a lesson there for us.  It’s a tough lesson, because most of us like to complain, and if you can’t bring your troubles to God, to whom can you turn?  I guess the thing here is that it’s okay to express frustration or disappointment, but it’s asking for trouble to identify somebody else as responsible.  God knows if they are, so you don’t really need to say it, anyway– but acting like someone else is in the wrong just looks like a bad strategy when you read the gospel.

There’s a harder lesson, and it has to do with the whole question of life and what’s fair.  Jesus doesn’t address the fairness issue with Martha.  He doesn’t say, “You’re the one who invited me, not her–why is hospitality her problem?”  He doesn’t say much of anything directly about Martha’s implication that he should, if he were to do what’s right, insist that Mary stop listening to teaching about God and get up and work.

What he says is that it is more important to listen to truth about what God wants than to do anything else.  It’s not just the hospitality and shared effort issue–he addresses Martha by saying, “Martha, you are concerned about many things–but only one thing is necessary– and that’s what Mary has got– and it won’t be taken from her.”  It’s not that it is not right to pitch in and help when guests arrive.  It’s that it’s so important to pay attention to what God has to say that other obligations get overridden.  The importance of God trumps other issues altogether.

That’s why the threat forecast by the prophet Amos in the Old Testament lesson today is so terrible.  God will send a famine of God’s word on Israel.  People’s faithlessness will be punished by that.  When they come to their senses and seek what God has to say, it won’t be there.  It is more important to life than rain, it is more important than food.  It’s the worst famine possible.  Purpose, confidence, sense, identity– all will be compromised, and undermined, without direction from God.

These two scriptures about the importance of what God has to tell us are paired with Psalm 15, which is just the sort of practical advice for life which people often say they wish the Bible would give them.  You know the people I’m talking about–they are bored with theology and left cold by the drama of Jesus’ portrayal in the gospels and indifferent, if not hostile, to the apostle Paul’s teaching.  They say they want the church to give them something practical for their everyday lives right now.  Well, Psalm 15 is it.

Here it is:  Don’t do anything anyone could blame you for.  Live a righteous life.  Tell the truth from your heart.  Don’t say anything negative about anyone else which could turn out to be unsubstantiated by anything except someone’s poor opinion of the person.  Don’t do anything wrong to a friend, and if there are criticisms of others going on, keep out of it.  Regard those who do wrong as not worth thinking about, but admire those who do what is good, and take the opportunity to show your respect for them by what you say or do.  If you say you’ll do something, do it, even if something better comes along in the meantime.  Don’t take advantage of your possession of material resources in order to get even more by exploiting your neighbor’s need, and don’t take a bribe against the innocent.

Those last two seem hard to apply.  The way the psalm says it is “don’t lend money at interest,” and there’s a sense in which almost any investment we make works that way.  I think my rendering is close to the spirit of the thing, which essentially is “don’t let the only motive for sharing your plenty be the hope of profiting by it.”  It’s a kind sentiment but it is under pressure from the undeniable value of the use of capital, and the calculation of some reward for risk in a circumstance in which one might lose one’s property.

The idea that any of us would take a bribe against the innocent seems far-fetched.  In that society it meant the possibility that someone might purchase perjury from you in order to get a judicial decision they wanted–in a culture in which “the testimony of two witnesses”

was considered true, justice must sometimes have been perverted that way.  It apparently was a real temptation.

For us that’s less of a temptation.  There may be other ways someone does us favors to get our effective cooperation, however.  Politicians may pass legislation which benefits our class or our trade, to get our support for other things they want to do which may not benefit our brothers and sisters in the world.  Corporations may hire public-relations firms to make us feel good about new technologies or changing approaches to business precisely because they expect to be challenged about what they’re doing without some spin being put upon it, and we may be mollified enough to let them go ahead without a murmur.  There’s lots of ways to read the risk that someone’s looking after our selfish interests will make us careless about other people’s interests.

What’s the reward for living the virtues commended by Psalm 15?  That we may approach God.  We’ll be who we claim to be.  Some of those scruples and habits are easier to possess than others, but all of them add up to taking God seriously, and despite all the other business of life, it is taking God seriously which matters most, not only in the long run, but in every moment of your life.



To read sermons from past years, hit the “View All” link beneath the “This Week’s Sermon” button, and then hit the “Archives” link in the sentence at the top of the page presenting recent sermons.