There’s always something new to learn.
As many times as I’ve either heard or read the parable of The Good Samaritan and the story of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha, I’d never thought about the two being connected until Ginger mentioned it in her sermon last Sunday. Both are stories about people stopping along the way and, I suppose, about people who don’t stop.
The parable has always been the easier story for me to take because I can more easily put myself in the role of the guy who stops. I’ve always been attracted to the people at the edges, the ones who feel left out; they are the ones I gravitated to as a youth minister, as a teacher, and in just about any other situation. But Jesus’ visit to the sisters is more problematic. When our house fills up with company, I’m the one in the kitchen while most folks are on the couch talking. I’m not necessarily alone in the kitchen, but I’m working hard to make sure everyone is fed. And I love it. I like swirling around making sure bowls stay filled, food is served hot, and people don’t go away hungry. When I do stop to talk, I always have one ear listening for the timer so I don’t burn whatever is coming out next.
I’m also not much of a meditator. (Is that a word?) If I sit quiet and still for twenty minutes, I fall asleep. I’m thoughtful and reflective, intentional and focused, but I’m not particularly quiet. I think if Jesus stopped by here, I’d be most likely to say, “Come talk to me in the kitchen while I finish the crab dip.” (That’s Ginger’s favorite; I figure he’d like it, too.) So the way I read Jesus’ admonition to Martha is less about her doing and more about her complaining that Mary was just sitting around. Martha doesn’t sound particularly joyful in her hospitality, I must say, in the same way that the religious leaders in the parable were so consumed with duty or privilege that they couldn’t afford to be compassionate. It wasn’t on the schedule.
Garrison Keillor is hitting home runs over at The Writer’s Almanac this week. Today’s poem was by one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye, whom I’ve quoted before. It sounds like something Jesus might have quoted right alongside of his words in Luke 10.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
I looked back at the two stories in Luke and noticed that both are somewhat unfinished. We never hear from the lawyer after Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”; we never hear what Martha says or does after Jesus tells her, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
At Vacation Bible Camp, Ginger was taking prayer requests from the kids one day when one girl asked that we pray for homeless children. Ginger agreed and talked about how some children live on the streets or in cars. Another little girl said, “People live in their cars?” She was incredulous, so Ginger talked about it some more with the hope that the seed planted in our prayer time would grow kindness in her heart. Certainly, the lawyer original question was intended to be more quiz than conversation. What I hope is he realized he was the guy in the ditch who needed a neighbor as much as anyone. Naomi is right: kindness grows out of sorrow.
My image of how the day was going for Martha when Jesus arrived is she had to improvise. I don’t think they were expecting him, since I don’t imagine he was on a specific itinerary. Based on the tone of her comment about her sister, I also imagine whatever she was preparing to feed Jesus wasn’t going well. Maybe she burned the pita bread or the hummus was runny. Maybe she cut her finger or burned her arm pulling something out of the oven. Maybe she was pissed because she was the only one who knew she was having a hard day. Maybe Jesus was saying, “Why are you taking your stuff out on your sister?” Martha had not yet been able to see, as Naomi says, “the size of the cloth” of kindness.
Jesus counted Mary, Martha, and Lazarus as friends, so I have to believe the conversation didn’t end at the height of the tension where Luke stopped his story. Jesus touched a raw sibling nerve with his words; there was more to be said.
I tried writing a couple of endings and everything I came up with felt forced or trite. What I see as I write is I have a lot at stake in Martha finding some redemption. I know her well; I need for her to come off better than she does. No, it’s not so much about how she appears as needing her to find some healing in the story because I think Jesus’ words must have hurt. She was trying hard and came up short. Somehow, I think that feeling was not unfamiliar to her. Whatever happened, I know Jesus was kind and found a way to say she was the one he was looking for and he needed her to stop just long enough to understand.