He won’t eat it, he hates everything.
Oh what a relief it is.
Perhaps these bring back memories of television commercials from several decades ago. I grew up in the television generation, before there was a concern about too much television dulling our children’s minds. In fact, I often muse that is why my sermons tend to be concise and on the brief side. I have an attention span of about 11 minutes, then I expect a commercial break.
I watched a great deal of television growing up. Because of this I saw a lot of ads. Some of them I remember quite well. Of course, the most effective ads are when we remember the tag line and which product it was promoting. Mikey liked Life cereal even though he hated every other kind of food. Alka Seltzer came to the rescue when you over indulged in rich, spicy foods. Juan Valdez was clearly the most famous name in coffee farming ever.
This week I was reminded of one ad even though I can’t recall the product it promoted. As the ad unfolded there were two young girls who decided to make breakfast one morning to surprise their parents. The older of the two girls took the lead and was reading a recipe. At one point she reads, “Add two tbls flour.” The younger girl puzzles, “How do you know how much a tbl is?” With an air of mild disdain and clear superiority the elder replied, “You just know,” as she heaped a whopping mound of flour into the bowl.
It seems to me that we may hear today’s Gospel reading and use that phrase to understand it. You just know what this passage is about. Yet I have a surprise for you: no one really knows what this passage is about. Some have taken it to warn against being overly active while ignoring our need for contemplation from time to time. This is so prominent an interpretation that, in the Roman Catholic church, Martha is the patron of housewives and cooks. But look closely. There is no indication that Martha was preparing a meal. Martha could have been paying the bills and balancing the checkbook. Some read this passage as a reminder that we should seek Jesus’ teaching diligently. But look closely. There is no indication Jesus was teaching anything. For all we know Jesus could have been telling Mary a limerick. Some interpret this passage as highlighting the role of women in the early church with Martha welcoming Jesus into her home. But many ancient manuscripts do not actually note that the house belonged to Martha.
So what does this passage mean? No one knows. But while that may puzzle us it actually brings us a deeper opportunity to engage this passage.
My favorite professor in seminary was my Old Testament professor. Her name was Vicky Garvey. She was a bundle of energy and had a passion for the Scriptures. She taught me a great deal academically but she also impacted my spiritual life deeply. One thing she used to tell us regularly has become a hallmark of my life of faith as well as my ministry of teaching. She told us frequently, “You must let the Scriptures read you as much as you read the Scriptures.”
From her I learned to question why a passage spoke to me, troubled me, puzzled me or even bored me. I learned that reading the Scriptures was more than just an academic practice. In fact, if it was just an academic practice we were in trouble. Instead, reading and studying the Scriptures should be a practice when our spirits intersect with God’s Spirit. Sometimes such encounters are profound. Sometimes we walk away with deep insights. Sometimes we walk away with clarity and conviction. Other times we walk away with more questions than when we first began. In any case we are called to engage the Bible with integrity which means asking questions, delving deeper and seeking wisdom. We should let the Scriptures read us as much as we read them.
This morning we read a passage that seems to have no real focus. But that provides us each with a place to find God’s voice speaking to us. How do we know what this passage means? We just know. Do you take comfort in the annoyance of Martha? Do you find solace in the attentiveness of Mary? Are you inspired by Jesus who breaks the norms of society to speak the truth to all? Maybe you are excited simply to find a passage that, upon deep consideration, may be widely open to any number of interpretations.
If this passage intrigues you, challenges you, annoys you, consider why. Let this passage read you as much as you are reading it. How do you know what this passage means? You just know.
© 2019, Tom Thoeni