Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only Start Doing

Pentecost 8 – Year C

Martha and Mary were friends of Jesus. They were good friends, close friends, friends who supported him throughout his ministry. They loved Jesus and Jesus loved them. They traveled with Jesus, housed and fed Jesus, probably even funded Jesus’ ministry. The had a brother named Lazarus, a man Jesus also loved, a man Jesus wept over when he heard Lazarus had died, a man (John’s Gospel tells us) Jesus brought back from the dead.
I have heard many a sermon about Martha and Mary. Often their two different personality styles are held up for contrast and comparison. Mary is the intellectual, the contemplative, the bold woman who refuses to confine herself to the kitchen but instead sits with the men at Jesus’ feet and learns from the master. Martha, the doer, the servant minister, wants to get things done. She is a woman of action who believes the best way to follow Jesus is to serve Jesus with her hands and her feet. Mary listens, Martha works.
For my purposes this morning, I want to take the conversation in a slightly different direction. Instead of contrasting these two women, I want to talk about this passage in the context of our other lesson. We shouldn’t forget that our lectionary puts two lessons together for a reason. They are not meant to stand-alone. It is no accident that the words from the prophet Amos are paired with the story about Martha and Mary. They are meant to inform each other. They are intended to be read together.
Amos lived and worked near the end of the 8th century B.C. Jeroboam II was King and Israel had reached the height of its power. Times were good for this often-beleaguered nation. But while Israel was prosperous, there was at the same time a widening gap between the rich and the poor. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. Amos was called by God to remind the King and the people of Israel that God demands justice, especially justice for the poor. Amos proclaims, “The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.”
“A famine of hearing the words of the Lord . . .They shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” Amos was telling Israel that a time was coming when the people would be so busy with other things, so consumed with the details of their lives that they would no longer be able to hear God. It’s not that God would stop speaking, but they would be so busy they would stop listening. They would forget how to hear God and as a result they would spiritually starve.
Maybe this was Martha’s problem? Maybe this is what Jesus was pointing out when he said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” Perhaps Jesus was telling Martha that by allowing herself to be consumed with the details she was missing the bigger picture. Certainly she was working to serve Jesus, but was she forgetting to listen to Jesus? Was she allowing the details to crowd out things of greater importance?
Not long ago a professor at Harvard did a study about time management and the way people prioritize their work. Often people divide their tasks up into A, B, and C priorities – where A are the most important, B are less important, and C are least important. What he found is that people often spend too much time on the C priorities and very little on the A. Why do you think that is? The answer he discovered is that the C priorities are much easier to accomplish and they give you the impression that you are actually getting something done. In other words, you can keep busy with the C priorities all day and never get to the more important things. Could this have been Martha’s problem? Could this be our problem?
Sometimes I wonder if the details of our busy lives are in fact creating a famine of hearing the words of the Lord, just as Amos prophesied. Are we so busy with “good work,” the way Martha was, that we miss the most important things that God wants to speak to us about? Are we consumed with the C priorities and not paying attention to the A priorities?
For more than 10 years the Rev. Lynne Washington, who is currently the Director of the Peter Paul Development Center, has been offering a sort of tour of the housing projects in the East end of Richmond. I first took this trip with her almost 10 years ago. Since that time I have made the trip five or six other times. This so called tour lasts about 40 minutes. Lynne drives you through Mosby Court, Fairfield Court, Whitcomb Court, Creighton Court, and the like. They are all places that surround the Peter, Paul Development Center. People see first hand the drug dealers on the street corners, the gang members in their various colors, the poverty, the overcrowding, the despair, and all the folks trying to carve out lives for themselves under very difficult circumstances. What always amazes me is how surprised people are. This is a part of Richmond many have never seen. They may have lived here all their lives but riding on that bus is the first time they have ever actually witnessed the desperate poverty that consumes the lives of thousands of people in our very city. Now these are good folks riding this bus, they are not indifferent to the needs of the poor. If they were they wouldn’t have made the trip in the first place. But I tell you this story as a way to illustrate how easy it can be for all of us to get distracted by many things and miss some of the important things.
Do you remember last week we read the parable of the Good Samaritan? In Luke’s Gospel this parable is located right before the story of Martha and Mary. Luke puts these two stories side by side for a reason. In the Good Samaritan Jesus teaches his followers that being a good neighbor means showing compassion not just to the people you know but more importantly to the strangers you don’t. He teaches that we are not just to be compassionate when it is comfortable and safe but more importantly to show compassion when it is dangerous and risky. Maybe this parable was the story Jesus was telling his disciples that day when he went to visit Martha and Mary? Maybe Martha busied herself with the details of the visit because it would have been difficult for her to sit and listen to such a hard teaching? Maybe Jesus gently rebuked Martha and praised Mary because he knew that for all Martha’s good intentions, for all her running “to and fro,” as Amos puts it, she was failing to hear the word of the Lord?
We too live in a society where the gap between the rich and the poor seems to be widening. Amos speaks to us today as much as he did to his own people 2,800 years ago. Are we so busy that we fail to listen? Are we too busy to see the needs of the poor and the destitute right in our own community? Are we brave enough to sit at the feet of our master and learn what it really requires to be a good neighbor? Make no mistake about it, we can and do often fill our lives with busy work, but the demand for justice is still God’s “A” priority. Amen.