Luke 10:38-42

17 July 2016

 

Someone once said, “The great man makes every man feel his equal.”  How can that be?  What makes a person great is that others are not equal.  The great person stands out!  But if we think about it, the essence of a great person’s greatness lies in the way that person makes others feel as if they are on the same level.  Jesus’ followers must have experienced him that way — not just great, but truly great in that way.

In today’s Gospel reading we see Jesus being, not just a good teacher, but a great teacher.  He was giving instruction concerning one of life’s defining challenges.  That is: finding a proper balance between freedom and responsibility.  It’s one all of us have struggled with.

Let me go back.  This wasn’t the only time Jesus had taught on the antithesis between freedom and responsibility, for it’s the central issue between a life well-lived and a life half-wasted.  Remember the parable that starts out, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me…’”?  Jesus went on to tell the story we call the “Prodigal Son.”  Jesus did not try to spell out how we should live — where responsibility should end and freedom begin or vice versa.  He just gave two examples, both extremes.  The younger son overindulged in freedom; the older son in responsibility.

As a great teacher, by telling this story Jesus called our attention to a matter of vital importance for us, but he did not try to instruct us.  He did not put himself on a level above us, in a teacher-student relationship.  He trusted us to be able to find our way between those two extremes, no doubt learning by trial and error.  Also, as a great teacher, he knew that if he tried to instruct us, we would only memorize his words.  That is, when we had to negotiate our way between freedom or responsibility, we would look outside of ourselves for the answer — look for some policy or law.  He knew that true learning has to arise from within, from our own inner struggle and the wisdom we acquire from that struggle.

The story in today’s Gospel reading speaks to that same matter: freedom vs. responsibility.  The difference is this.  The story about the two brothers dealt with living our external lives — our lives in the world.  The story of the two sisters deals with living our spiritual lives — we might say choices of the soul.  Martha feels her responsibility as Jesus’ hostess, and there’s a lot to do to serve a party of friends.  Mary feels her freedom to enjoy Jesus’ presence, and does not worry about how the work will get done.  If we read this parable as symbolizing two spiritual choices, the contrast is between being busy with religious duties or being silent and still, simply contemplating Jesus’ presence.

It has probably become clear by now that Jesus was not describing two sets of people — two brothers and two sisters — but he meant them to stand for desires we all experience within ourselves — the desire to be responsible and the desire to be free.  We can identify with each of the brothers and each of the sisters.  We have those tendencies within ourselves.

Both sisters are necessary.  It is a question of balance.  On the one hand, as followers of Jesus, like Martha, we have responsibilities that accrue to our faith.  For us these would include: keeping our worshiping community vital, which means church attendance at the very least.  Also, we need to maintain some form of spiritual study; it could be reading the Bible or a spiritual classic.  Lately I’ve gotten a lot of good out of reading Henri Nouwen’s books.  Also, we have the sick, the friendless, and the needy to care for.

On the other hand, as followers of Jesus, like Mary, we also have freedom.  I can choose to let my responsibilities go for a while and just indulge myself.  It’s as if my dear friend, Jesus, calls and says let’s go out for a cup of tea.  I think to myself: well, I’ve got a lot to do, but why not?  He’s such good company!  I’ll have such a good time!”  So I exercise my freedom to choose, and off I go.  Jesus knows how prone we are to busy ourselves with the responsibility-side of being his disciple; so in the parable he emphasizes the importance of quiet contemplation — the choice Mary made.

Why might he do that?  What makes the quiet, contemplative side of our spiritual life the better choice?  We live in a time when violence is on the rise exponentially — mass killings, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hate speech.  Shouldn’t we be like Martha and be doing something about it?  It may not be obvious what I as an individual could do, but shouldn’t I be doing something?  If I follow Mary’s example am I not burying my head in the sand?  If Jesus were here today, would he still say, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

I think Jesus would have stuck to what he said, and here’s the reason.  All of us must be agonizing over the attack in Nice.  It’s the most recent evidence that the world, as we have known it, is changing even as we watch, and in more ways than we can number.  We are asking ourselves, “What can I do to make this world a more just and safer place to live?”  The answer is not “nothing.”  None of us is helpless.  Let me suggest a four step process.

First, we might recall Jesus’ words, “…you always have the poor with you.”  In other words, he is asking us to distinguish between what is urgent and what is important.  To set to work to restore the world is highly important, but not urgent.  Sometimes we make the mistake of seeing something as urgent which is not, but we deal with that — the urgent — and short-change what is really important.  So we do not, for instance, run out blindly and join the Salvation Army.

Second, we want to act in a way that is effective.  Not a week goes by, at least recently, when we haven’t woken up to another mass killing.  Whatever we do to restore some safety and justice to the world, we want it to count.  So when am I at my most effective?  Isn’t it when I am acting from the whole of myself?  I’m less effective if I’m copying some role model, even Jesus himself.  What is my unique combination of aptitudes, strengths, resources, experiences, desires and concerns?  If I can center myself — not in a how-to book, not in someone else’s example — but in myself, then I have the best chance of making a difference.  The difference I make, plus the difference you make, plus the difference others like us make can add up.

Third, we do what Mary did.  We sit down face to face, so to speak, with Jesus.  Gradually we realize that what that paradoxical quotation said is true.  We are sitting with a great man and he is making us feel his equal.  Not his lieutenant, not his copycat, not his passive follower, but a fully empowered person in our own right.

Fourth, we make a plan and we act.  Do not be misled.  To “act” may mean finding a way to pray about it; or it may — if I’m prone to judgmental, punitive thoughts — mean changing the way I think.  I’ll close with something Mother Theresa said.  Mother Theresa is one of those rare persons in whom there is no distinction between the spiritual and the worldly — an inner stillness and an outer busyness.  She said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.  It is not how much we do… but how much love we put in that action.”

Let me sum up that process.  First we remind ourselves not to panic — the problem won’t go away.  Second we do a self-assessment so we can take effective action.  Third we turn away from our busy Martha side and do as Mary did to feel empowered.  Fourth, we turn back to our Martha side and we get busy.  Amen.

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