We have two beloved stories from Scripture this morning:
· the story of the Good Samaritan – the one who helps a man wounded and lying in the ditch, when others have passed him by; and
· the story of Martha and Mary – Martha working in the kitchen, preparing a meal for her guests, as Mary sits at the feet of Jesus.
These stories appear back-to-back in Scripture, one after the other, but as biblical scholar Justo González points out, we usually read them separately. González says – somewhat tongue in cheek – that preachers preach the Good Samaritan when they want to encourage folks to get up and do more, and preachers preach Mary and Martha when they want to encourage folks to do less – to break the cycle of busyness – to rest – to pray.
One or the other: Go and do. Stop, and listen.
When we read them separately, we may ignore the tension between the two stories – and so, Justo González suggests that we read them together – just as they appear in the Gospel of Luke. What do these stories have to say to us each, on their own – and then together?
The story of the Good Samaritan is prompted by a question from a lawyer. Jesus is on the road, teaching and healing. The lawyer comes to Jesus and says, “What must I do to have eternal life?” In response – as Jesus often does – Jesus changes the question. “What is written in the Law? What do you read there?” And the lawyer gives the answer that everyone would know: “Love your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says: “Correct. Do this, and you will live.”
Notice how Jesus has transformed the question. One way may not be as obvious: The lawyer asked what he must do – as if it were a one-time transaction – tell me what I must do to inherit eternal life; I will do it; I will check that box. But by the time Jesus is done – the answer has become – not one-and-done – but an ongoing command – “Go do this – and keep doing this – and you will find yourself living.” Love and love and love and love – love your way into life. And, of course, the lawyer did ask what he must do to inherit eternal life, but by the time he’s done, Jesus has set him on a course to live life now. Not some distant reward, but life now: Love God, love your neighbor, as you love yourself – right here, right now.
That’s more than the lawyer had asked – and probably more than he really wants to do – so the lawyer asks Jesus a second, clarifying question – perhaps to narrow the scope a bit: “Who then is my neighbor?” OK, love my neighbor – if that’s my duty, then tell me this – To whom do I owe this duty of love? And, to whom do I NOT?
And Jesus tells him a story: There was a man beset by robbers on the road to Jericho. They beat him, took all he had, and left him to die in a ditch by the road. A priest comes by – sees the man and his pain – and hurries on by. Then, a Levite (another religious leader) comes by – sees the man and his pain – and he, too, hurries on by.
And then, a Samaritan comes along. Now, at this point, the folks who first heard this story would have thought, “Oooh, a Samaritan...” The Samaritans were outsiders – a rival, perhaps enemy people – who would have been on the outside of every barrier that power erects – racial, ethnic, religious. In the world of this story, in the ears of the first listeners, the Samaritan would be the one of these three travelers they would least expect to help the man in the ditch.
But the Samaritan, Jesus says, is moved by compassion – he sees the man in the ditch – he sees his pain, he feels his pain – and he goes down into the ditch to help him. The Samaritan bandages the man’s wounds, pouring wine and oil on them. He carries the man up out of the ditch, puts the man on his own animal, and takes him to an inn, and cares for him there. The next day, the Samaritan gives the innkeeper money to continue the care, with the promise that he’ll come back and cover any other expenses. The Samaritan likely has little in common with the man in the ditch, save their shared humanity. He acts from that common ground.
And Jesus asks, “Now, which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers: “The one who showed mercy.” He can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan,” but he sees what the man has done. Notice: What the Samaritan does is more than a one-and-done good deed. He provides long-term care; he enters into a relationship of mutuality and care.
There are readings that try to justify the priest and the Levite – maybe they were worried about becoming unclean. Amy Jill-Levine, a Jewish scholar, rejects that, saying, they all know what the law requires – to render help to those in need. Martin Luther King, Jr. imagined that the first two men were likely scared – scared of what might happen to them if they helped. King said: “They asked, ‘What will happen to me if I stop and help?’ The Samaritan asked, ‘What will happen to that man in the ditch if I don’t?’”
Jesus tells the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” Once again, Jesus has transformed the question. The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and by the time Jesus is done, the question has become “What must we do to be a neighbor?” The lawyer asks for a box he can check, and Jesus assigns him – gives him – a lifetime of loving action that flows from our shared humanity, living life and loving as God loves. All the time, everyone. Jesus tells the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”
And then, Jesus and the disciples go on their way. They come to a village, where a woman named Martha invites them into her home as guests. Martha welcomes them in, maybe she washes their feet. She prepares places for them to sleep. She scurries around to find food enough to feed these weary travelers, and she cooks – she gets to work, preparing to meet their needs – kind of like... the Samaritan in the story Jesus just told. Martha is doing, likewise.
And then Martha looks out from the kitchen, and sees her sister Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him as he talks. And Martha wipes the sweat from her brow, slings the dish towel over her shoulder, and says to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all this work by myself?” And Jesus responds, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by so many things – there is need of only one thing.”
Now, at this point, I know, we tend to start thinking of Mary and Martha as archetypes – I do this too – Martha is the one who works with little thanks – Mary is the one who pauses and rests – who stops and listens to Jesus. We may identify with one or the other. And, we may get a little angry at the story – particularly if we identify with Martha. The story can seem a little unfair. Jesus just told the story of the Good Samaritan – who saw the needs of another human being, and acted – extending a healing and nourishing hospitality. The Samaritan got busy with the work of compassion and care. Isn’t Martha doing likewise?
And there is a feminist critique of this story. Martha is doing what her world expects of women. She is extending the hospitality of her household, and yet it feels like she is rebuked for doing what the world requires.
When we read these two stories together as we find them in the Gospel of Luke, the tension between them should give us pause. Go and do. Stop and listen. Which is it? But here they are together – one after the other – both part of one gospel. In that seeming tension, what holds these two stories together?
Justo González invites us to look first at all the barriers that are transcended in these two stories – to look at a world transformed. If we are the guy lying in the ditch, the Samaritan is perhaps the last person we would expect to help. The world has set up all manner of barrier – our politics, our ethnicity, our religion – all to keep us apart. But the Samaritan looks at the guy in the ditch – and what he sees... is a guy in a ditch... hurting, bleeding, left to die... and any barrier crumbles away.
With Martha and Mary, it may not be quite so clear at first, but Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus – a man, with authority – well it just wouldn’t be done – she would have known the place that society assigns her – and it wouldn’t have been one of access and mutuality. But Jesus says to both Mary and Martha (and us), “There is one thing that matters – Come, sit for a while – take your unfettered, unburdened place in the presence of what is holy and true.” Jesus invites them (and us) to sit and listen and rest for a while in God’s love and abiding presence. The world we see here... in these stories... it’s a new world breaking through. As González writes: “In the coming of Jesus, something radical has happened, and this radical new thing demands a radical obedience that breaks cultural, ethnic barriers” – everything that holds us down or keeps us apart.
What holds these two stories together? What do they have in common? Jesus. We are in the Gospel of Luke – and from beginning to end, Jesus is turning the world rightside up – this new world proclaimed by Mary, and birthed in Resurrection – a New Creation in which every barrier that holds people down is removed – a New Humanity in which we can live and embody God’s compassion, healing the deep need of the world, and our own.
What holds these two stories together is Jesus. It is Resurrection – life more expansive than we ever imagined. It is love: “Love your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do this, and you will live.” Stop and listen, there is only one thing that is needed.
Go and do. Stop and listen. What we find in these stories isn’t an either/or choice. What we find is a rhythm – a rhythm of a life centered and grounded in love of God, neighbor, and self – responding from a place of compassion to the needs of each other, and resting and replenishing in the presence of the God who has come to us – and who welcomes us – in Jesus Christ.
Go and do. Stop and listen. Go and do. Stop and listen.
We have been talking this summer about living an imperfect life well. For the past few years in particular, that has been even harder to do as we navigate and are beset by the problems of our day: The still-festering plague of American racism. A pandemic. Assaults on the dignity and freedom of women and LGBTQIA+ people. War. A world teetering on the verge of climate collapse. There’s so much to do. We’ve come up against the enormity of the world’s problems, and feel the limitations of life inside human bodies that grow weary and need rest. In activist circles, care of self has become an integral part of engagement with the world – caring for each other and ourselves – our own bodies, our spirits – as part of our care of the world.
There’s a Buddhist teacher Zenju Earthlyn Manuel who talks of balancing hours of activism with our own need to be nourished – what she describes as “a moment by moment effort of resting in order to engage in loving intimacy with others” – all of it connected, every bit of it needed. “A deeply nourished life can take the direction of liberation.” Go and do. Stop and listen. Go and do.
This rhythm... it’s not just the life we live in the bigger world. It’s our everyday lives. There’s this great story about Susannah Wesley – who was married to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Susannah Wesley had 19 children. 19. It’s said that, in a house of 19 children, when Susanna Wesley wanted to pray, she would pull up a chair in the middle of the kitchen, and pull her apron up over her head. I love that image – a house of 19 kids swirling around her, and Susannah Wesley sitting in the kitchen with her apron over her head. I think I have had days like that... maybe you have too.
Now, sometimes that story is presented with this, um, encouragement: See, even Susanna Wesley found time to pray. Now, I think if Susanna Wesley could hear that, she would laugh out loud. I’m pretty sure that when Susanna Wesley was sitting in the kitchen, 19 kids running around her, with her apron over her head, she wasn’t thinking, “This is winning.”
She was doing the best she could – faithfully, and lovingly – doing the best she could to live a full, complicated, imperfect life well. Go and do. Stop and listen. Go and do. Stop and listen. When Kate Bowler tells this story, she adds this encouragement: “Stop and notice. Are you worn out? What do you need?... Not everything has to be done. Not everything has to be done by you.” Not everything has to be done by you, right now.
Go and do. Stop and listen.
These stories invite us into this rhythm of sustaining this loving life of New Creation. Jesus and the Gospel of Luke set at the heart of these stories compassion and love and the ebb and flow of doing, of being, of life. As we seek to live these imperfect lives well, the invitation this week is into a practice that I’m going to call “Step Up/ Step Back.” I’m borrowing that phrase from another context, but this week, ground yourselves in love. Know that you are God’s own beloved, God’s New Creation. And as you move through your days, the invitation is ask these questions: Where do I need to step up? Where do I need to step back? In this moment, of this life, what do compassion, and love, and life require of me? And, where compassion says go and do: Step up. Where compassion says stop and listen: Step back. Step up. Step back.
I imagine that just after Jesus tells Martha that there is only one thing that is needed, he motions to her to draw near and have a seat. Jesus asks Martha about her day, and she asks him about his. Maybe Jesus tells them about this lawyer who came asking obvious questions – and maybe then Jesus tells them the story he shared about a Samaritan who was the only one loving enough to go down into the ditch. They chatter away, as the shadows lengthen, and evening falls, until dinnertime. And then Mary sets out the mats on which they will recline as they eat. Martha – ever in command of her kitchen – tells the disciples how to serve out the meal, and Jesus pours the wine, among them as one who serves. They eat until everyone is full and nourished – and then they all find someplace to lay their heads –all of them sheltered under Martha’s roof – an exhausted sleep – but a holy rest.
And as the new day dawns, they rise again – a bit of food to break the fast – and they head out again with Jesus – another day to go down into the ditch, to heal the hurting, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captive, to let the oppressed go free – ready to go and do, and to stop and listen – ready to meet every need with compassion and love – together, a New Creation moving into the rhythm of a new day, pulsing with new life.
© 2022 Scott Clark