|Calvary Episcopal Church, Rockdale
8th Sunday after Pentecost
July 22, 2007
The Rev. Robert C. Granfeldt
From the Parable of the Good Samaritan to dinner at the sisters’ house – Martha and Mary: an interesting
jump! Or maybe not.
This story is a bit of an oddity in a couple of ways. It’s one of those bits that come from Luke’s special source,
and aren’t shared by Matthew and Mark. You’ll recall that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are called
the Synoptic Gospels, because they share a common structure and a similar chronology, and if you were to
write a synopsis of each of them you could place them side-by-side and they’d look very similar: they’d tell
the same basic story. The Fourth Gospel, John, is very different. Some people think that the writer of the
Gospel of John was well acquainted with the Synoptics, which were widely known by his day, and wanted to
write about things he knew about Jesus that weren’t written by the other three – whether from his own
sources or by personal experience, we can never know. Whatever the explanation, John’s story is vastly
different from the other three – while still telling of the same Lord!
But, though they differ in details, the sisters, Mary and Martha, are one of the few things that Mark shares
only with John!
There’s one important thing about the story, though, that is shared by all the Gospels!
Food! One thing we know about Jesus is that he was into food. His ministry began, and his first miracle
performed, at a wedding feast. The last thing he did with his disciples before he was arrested and murdered
was to share supper with them. And after the Resurrection, he preceded the Apostles back to Galilee, and
when they returned to their fishing, he cooked breakfast for them!
And in between, he dined with everyone from the poor and outcast to the rich and powerful, while his
sayings and parables were filled with images of meals and feasts, and the growing, reaping and storing of
Here, he is staying at the home of the sisters, and people have gathered to meet Jesus, to speak with him,
and to hear him speak, while dinner is being prepared. Martha is busy cooking and getting supper ready,
while her sister, Mary, has sat in to hear the Master speak.
And Martha gets testy!
“Don’t you care,” she asks Jesus, “if Mary has left me to get supper served all by myself? Tell her to give me
“Martha, Martha,” he says – and we can just imagine him sort of shaking his head gently, with just the
slightest of gentle smiles – “you’re anxious and troubled about so many things. Only one thing is necessary!
Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
It’s a simple lesson in the midst of a simple scene. Martha has chosen to concern herself with the cooking
and preparing for the meal that will soon be taking place. Mary has chosen to sit at the feet of the Master
and to learn from him as he speaks to the people of things spiritual: she has chosen the better way, the
“higher” way. Very simple. Very straightforward.
Or not. It may actually be neither so simple nor so straightforward as it seems.
There’s some question about the text, you see, and the translation.
“Martha, Martha, Martha, you’re anxious and troubled about so many things. Only one thing is necessary!”
But what if the word, “things” is wrong? What if the word “thing” is not what Luke wrote?
It would be nice if the Gospels had been written in the 21st Century – with each author doing his writing,
sending it to his publisher to make suggestions about changes needed, and then on to the editor and so
one and so on, until finally each Gospel is published in 100’s of thousands of copies, and the text preserved,
forever, just as the writer wrote it.
But it didn’t happen that way. It happened 19 centuries and more, ago, written by hand on some sort of
parchment, perhaps, with every copy after the first made also by hand – again and again and again and again
– for another 13 centuries or so! The earliest fragment of the New Testament that exists, today, is verses 31
to 33 of the 18th chapter of John’s Gospel, and dates from between 115 and 120 CE, while the earliest
complete copy of the New Testament dates from between 330 and 350CE.
Scholars now have more than 5300 ancient Greek texts, and what with the hand-copying, it shouldn’t
surprise us to know that no two are alike!
And – getting back to the topic at hand – some versions seem to indicate that what we translate, in our story,
as “thing” should better be made “dish!” I.e., “dish” in the sense of a prepared food.
So what if the verse originally meant, “You’re anxious and troubled about so many dishes for supper. We
really only need one dish”?
And it may; it may, indeed. What then?
Well, if the text does say that, it doesn’t lose anything of what we’ve always thought and taught: that Mary
chose the better part, but it means more, as well, and makes the whole saying both deeper and broader.
What it would mean is that Jesus was not just extolling the piousness of Mary, and recommending it to
Martha! It means he was concerned for Martha, and on a whole different, a whole deeper and more human
“Martha, Martha, Martha; you’ve driven yourself to distraction trying to prepare a big, fancy meal with lots of
different dishes, fussing and fretting over every, little detail. One, simple dish is all we need. Your sister
Mary has chosen the good portion, and I won’t take that away from her. Come, stop fussing, sit with us and
Realizing that the Greek, here, translated simply as “distracted,” actually indicates an “(extreme state) of
inner agitation and misery – not just a bit of fussing,” what if Jesus is, as a friend of mine put it, “trying to
wake his friend to her self-imposed misery, not criticize her hostess skills or her devotion.” *
How real is that? How true to our own lives?
How many of us – and, I’m going to have to say, especially you women – how many of us have more than once
hosted a gathering, whether a party or a dinner, or any other kind, and worried and fussed so much to make
it a memorable occasion that we wound up missing the fun, ourselves – even made ourselves “agitated and
miserable” in the doing? How many of us have done that, and how often – even when we actually knew that
keeping it simple would be just as good, so much easier, and add so much not only to our own enjoyment but
to everybody else’s, as well, because we were able to join in, instead of being “distracted with much
Christians have a tendency to think that Jesus was all about spiritual things, but that couldn’t be farther from
the truth. Jesus was interested in all of who and what we are, and he addresses all parts of our humanness.
Jesus was interested in wholeness, and he includes our bodies (his involvement with food and drink), our
minds (his teaching), our emotions (as in his concern, today, with Martha’s state), and – certainly - our spirits.
And Jesus was all about challenging people and provoking them into the fullness of who they’re called to be,
provoking them to live into their wholeness! In last week’s Gospel – the story before this one – he
challenged his hearers to rise above the racism and religious hatred that had kept the Jews and the
Samaritans at each others throats for years, with a story and a moral calculated to shock and offend his
listeners into hearing what he was saying; provoking them into REALLY HEARING him!
In today’s lesson, he challenges Martha to open up and ease up – and how difficult is that for us moderns to
do – and provokes her to try to wake her up to the beauty of simplicity as well as to the value of the things of
the spirit she was missing out on!
It’s what Jesus did: challenge and provoke us and call us each to be the person God calls us to be; calls
each of us to incarnate the Spirit of God that dwells in each of us and in our lives! In His Name. Amen.
* From Provocative Grace, by Robert Corin Morris; Upper Room Books, 2006