Ray-Thomas Memorial
Presbyterian Church

Sermons

The Right Thing

Luke 10:38-42                                The Rev. Dr. Carrie Benz Scott

Let me let you in on a little secret, one that language scholars have understood for a long time.

In Greek, there’s no clear way to differentiate from the right thing, that right thing or a right thing.

Those of us who speak English know there’s a big difference between “the,” “that” and “a.” For example, if a teacher said you gave the right answer, you would know there was only one answer, and you nailed it. If the teacher said you gave that right answer, then you know that that time, you were right. If the teacher said you gave a right answer, guess what? You know that there’s more than one right answer.

For years we have struggled over Mary and Martha because we’ve forgotten Jesus didn’t speak English, and the New Testament wasn’t written in English.  So, our nuances between the, that and a have prejudiced our reading.

Let’s look closely at what Luke describes.

Just before telling us about Mary and Martha, Luke recounts the time a lawyer went up to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him what the Scriptures teach, and the lawyer answered, “Love the Lord your good with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself,” and essentially Jesus said “Bingo!”  But that wasn’t enough for the lawyer, because he was so utterly human. The lawyer wanted to justify himself and his perspective – Luke says that straight out (10:29). So, the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

To be a neighbor is to help others, to serve others.

Immediately after that, Luke tells us about Martha and Mary. And Martha is being the Good Samaritan, right? She’s the one serving.

You know the story.  The disciples were traveling from here to there and Martha heard they were in town and welcomed them into her home. She was the matriarch of the family, the older sister. And then there was Mary. Martha was being a great Good Samaritan. She was taking care of all the needs, but there was so much to do to do it right. So, she did what so many of us might do. She got frustrated that Mary wasn’t helping.

Instead, Mary was hanging out sitting on the floor by Jesus, soaking in every word and giving no heed to her busy sister.

Martha went into Jesus, probably stopped the conversation, and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!”

If this was today, she might have said, “Can ya’ll take a break for a minute and help out?” But it wasn’t today, it was then, and her aim was straight at Mary. Mary was the one letting her down. Mary was the one making her do all the work. Mary was the one failing. Mary was the one doing the wrong thing. What business did Mary have in there with the men? Somehow we’ve forgotten that Mary and Martha had a brother, Lazarus. He’s not even mentioned here. Martha apparently wasn’t at all upset that Lazarus was in with the men; only Mary. Only Mary.

There are still to this day places in the Middle East where women cannot get an education. Who does Mary think she is?!

Jesus answered, “Martha, Martha. You’re so worried and troubled over so many things.” Indeed, she was. But let’s understand she was a real person. She wasn’t just distracted by the meal preparation. She was wrestling with her sister not doing what she expected her to be doing; she was wrestling with the right and proper roles of women; she was probably even wrestling with herself, wondering if it was okay for her to listen in.

Jesus told her, You just need to pick one thing. That she needed to pick one thing didn’t mean there was only one correct choice.

Here’s where the translation issue has thrown us.

Did Jesus say Mary has chosen THE right thing, THE good thing, THE better thing, as some translations read?

Or did Jesus say, “Mary has chosen A right thing, A good thing” and Mary wasn’t getting dinged by the Holy Score Keeper because her good choice wasn’t the same good choice Martha chose?

Do you see the difference?

If Jesus was saying Mary chose the better thing, then suddenly Jesus was implying that it would have been better had the Good Samaritan walked on by that guy on the side of the road and hurried off to a Bible study instead, because listening to Jesus is better than serving Jesus.

A lot of people have argued that’s exactly what Jesus was saying. They’ve insisted Martha only had that once precious chance to listen to Jesus, and instead she wasted her time in the kitchen. They’ve forgotten Martha only had that one precious chance to serve Jesus, to show him how much she loved and honored him, so she wanted to provide for him so he could go on to the next place strengthened by her meal, her hospitality, her attention, her love.

Did Mary chose THE right thing or A right thing?

Could it be there are two right answers: serving and listening?  Jesus preaches both throughout his ministry.

So, if this is not a story to say that Mary’s choice was right and holy and Martha’s choice was subpar, that Jesus is out there blessing all the ones who go to Bible study but not so much the ones distributing food and caring for people’s needs, which, by the way,  goes against everything Jesus said in Matthew, where when he separates the sheep from the goats, saying to the sheep, “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink, a stranger and you received me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me,” if Jesus is not saying Mary chose the BETTER part, as we have heard so many times, then what is Luke trying to tell us?

I stand with those who now realize the key to the Mary and Martha story is back when Luke noted that lawyer wanted to justify himself, and here, the key is Martha wanted to justify herself. What if this passage is not about some false dichotomy between serving and study, but is really about our unhelpful tendency to justify ourselves, our choices and our perspectives and criticize the ones who have chosen differently?

Is the crisis in the American church today, is the crisis in America today, over which is better – serving  or studying – or is the real problem our judgmentalism and rampant self-justification against those who think and choose differently? Conservative churches criticize liberal churches for too great a focus on serving in the ways of social justice, liberal churches criticize conservative churches for not spending enough time serving in the ways of social justice. Republicans criticize Democrats’ perspectives; Democrats criticize Republicans for their perspectives. And all of us justify our perspectives with enormous energy and passion.

Do you remember the story of the first sin, according to Genesis? Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, right? And then what did they do? They pointed fingers and energetically engaged in vehement self-justification.

When the lawyer asked a self-justifying question, Jesus shifted his focus from who is my neighbor to how are you a neighbor.

When Martha raised a self-justifying issue, Jesus responded by shifting her focus – are you sure Mary isn’t right too?

Just one thing is needed. Each of us to decide, every day of our lives, what is the one thing needed. Sometimes it will be study. Sometimes it will be service. The many distractions and worries that result in anger rather than perspective are not helpful. Just one thing is needed: to choose a right thing, that good thing, whatever we see needful in this moment, in this season of our lives, knowing our choice does not mean another person’s choice is wrong.

In this section of Luke, when folks are busy pointing fingers at the other guy, Jesus says, hey there, back up, let’s look at things another way.

Faithful discipleship is not about some false dichotomy between service and study. Faithful discipleship means taking the time and energy to try to look at things another way, a less self-centered way.

Martha, Mary has chosen a good thing, and it won’t be taken from her.

Who knows, maybe then Jesus smiled, picked up a piece of warm bread lovingly made, and whispered, “So have you.”

All with ears to hear, hear. Amen.

 

 



Love Your Enemies

Luke 6:27-38                    The Rev. Dr. Carrie Benz Scott

I’ve been thinking about the women, one formerly of British citizenship and one of American, who joined ISIS, and have now renounced ISIS and want to return to their former countries. Understandably, neither Britain nor America want them back. Once you’ve joined ISIS, no one can ever be sure you can be trusted again.

What do you think Jesus would say about this? How do you balance compassion for two people against protection of an entire community?

What does the “love your enemies” command mean in this context? In the name of Christ, should Britain and America take these women back, potentially risking the safety of its citizens if the women’s repentance is a mere ploy through which they can do more damage, or is it love enough simply to not kill them or  incarcerate them in retaliation and instead keep them forever in refugee camps where we lovingly send donations of food?  How does “love your enemy” work when our enemies are terrorists?

Scholars have tried to answer that, sort of.  Many have suggested that if we don’t retaliate, if we do not react in revenge, if we do not focus on getting even, then not doing those things qualifies as loving our enemies. Justice can still be love. It’s not a lack of love to ask someone to repent and make amends.

But, you know, it’s interesting, whereas the Ten Commandments phrase most of commands by “thou shalt not,” that’s not what Jesus’ emphasizes here. Yes, there are a few do nots, but for 10 verses before that there are on “do this” – things we can do.

And we can do more than we imagine.

Jesus never commands us to like our enemies or agree with them or agree with those who hate us. But he does call us to do good to them. He calls us to show them something that will surprise and amaze them that is not business as usual. That’s what turning the other cheek and giving up our shirts is about – doing something new and creative that will shift everything.

I know this may seem crazy and no government would ever do it, but imagine  if England and the US  decided to invite those former ISIS women to live among the nuns of Calcutta, or Doctors without Borders, or another group that knows something about grace and mercy and the ways to sacrifice your life that aren’t born out of hatred but out of love and self-giving. What if in time, being among those communities changed them, deeply and profoundly, the way Christ changed Saul, the Pharisee who dragged Christians out of their homes to murder them, into Paul, who brought the Gospel to us Gentiles and lived so eloquently in repentance, grace and love?

Jesus focuses on what we are to do, what we can do, what is possible for us to also do, that is not revenge or retaliation but is something entirely different.  In this shift in focus, it strikes me that Jesus is moving us away from a mentality of “this is the way it is forever and ever”, that whatever issue or hatred or divide we are facing is unchangeable, to a perspective of what else may be possible through God.

What if we approached our enemies with an eye towards what might be possible with God?  I wonder if one of the reasons we are afraid to employ Jesus’ commands is because we don’t quite trust that God will intervene and change hearts.  Might it be that implicit in Jesus’ challenge to love our enemies is a call to trust that with God all things are possible; a call to look to the future rather than simply the past?

There’s a story on Ted talks that captures this. Years ago, after 9-11 there was a man who was so distraught about that attack that he decided to take matters into his own hands. He started a killing spree. He wanted to kill Muslims, Iranians, Mid easterners, the way whoever it was killed so many of us. So one day he went out, targeted people, and shot them. One of those was a young man from Bangladesh. He was here legally, studying and working for a better life – the American dream. He was working in a gas station mini mart when the killer approached. Assuming this was a robbery, the man from Bangladesh opened his cash register drawer. But that didn’t stop the killer. He saw the look in the killer’s eyes. He saw him pull the trigger. And he felt the bullet hit him in the face. He felt the blood, the pain, and he knew if he didn’t fall as if dead the shooter would shoot again. When the shooter left, he ran for help. He survived but blinded in one eye. His family sent all the money they could to pay for his recovery. And he recovered. Two other men were killed that day. None of them were from the Mideast, none of them related to ISIS. But this man was Muslim.  Somehow, he understood the killer’s rage. Somehow, he did not respond to the hate with more hatred. So when the man was convicted and placed on death row, this man joined with others, with Christians, Jews and other Muslims, to try to save his life. The killer found out. Ultimately, the killer and this victim met and talked together. The killer shared how he’d been raised to hate, that he’d been raised with a fear of those who were different, and a desire to keep America pure. He told him that he’d been raised with a sense that he had to protect freedom, but somehow their version of how to protect freedom was a prison – a prison of fear, of anger, of hatred, a prison of revenge and retaliation. Ultimately, the victim and his group were not able to dissuade Texas from executing the killer, but the day the man died, the victim was there beside him. Praying together. It was the most incredible thing, because at the end, the killer, once so filled with hatred for Muslims, called this Muslim man “my brother,” and the last words from his lips were, “I love you.’

Surprising people by mercy, by grace, by love can do incredible things in the hands of God.

We think of these commands in the Sermon on the Plain as too hard for us to meet. But are they, really? Is it really impossible for us to find creative alternatives to revenge and anger? Is it impossible for us to find ways to surprise each other with kindness?

All of us as compassionate people want to forgive those who come to us in sorrow and repentance, with tears in their eyes, asking for mercy and help. It’s the ones who don’t come asking for forgiveness that makes all of this so hard.  

But Jesus never tells us to let ourselves be continually victimized by those who curse us, abuse us or humiliate us. Instead, Jesus tells us to pray for them. Just to pray for them. We may not be able to conjure up a lot of mercy for  some, but we can pray for them. Prayer does things. It changes the ones for whom we pray, and it also changes us.   It opens the door for God to work in our hearts.

Do you remember the parable where Jesus says someone went to a neighbor’s house at night seeking help, and pounded and pounded on the door, and it took practically forever to get the neighbor to get up and respond? Usually we read that and think it’s about how sometimes it feels like we pound on God’s door and it takes forever for God to respond. But the scholar Ken Bailey, who lived and worked in the Middle East and had that culture open his eyes to understand Jesus more profoundly, realized the parable is also about all the times God pounds on our doors, trying to get us to help God.

Jesus is asking us to help by being creative, by keeping doors open, by refusing to burn bridges or condemn each other forever. Just because someone is like this right now, just because right now this situation is like this, just because right now we feel such a such a way, doesn’t mean all those things will remain frozen like that or cannot change. God asks us to keep the door open for new possibilities. It’s not on us to change hearts. That’s what God does. But it is on us to try to protect the young seed God may be sowing, to keep others from trampling it, to not trample it ourselves.

Love your enemies.
Do good to those who hate you.
Bless those who curse you.
Pray for those who humiliate you.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.

Do this, Jesus urges. Help keep the door open to what is possible with God, who believes all of us, all of us, should get a second chance.

All with ears to hear, hear. Amen.

 



 

 

 

 

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