In Defense of Just Sitting and Listening for a While

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 16
July 17, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Sandwiched between the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus' teachings about prayer, the narrative about Mary listening while Martha works teaches us that study prepares us for our devotional life and for serving our neighbors. All of these things form a part of our struggle against evil.

What is at stake when we attend a Bible study or a lecture or Sunday school? We enjoy the fellowship and lively discussions. Yes, we sometimes generate an argument or two. We might gain some knowledge or come away with a few new insights.

Do we attach much importance to those things? A pastor friend of mine confided in me that he once had to move the time of a Sunday evening Bible study because the local NFL team had made the playoffs. The Bible study couldn't compete against the football game. Did the people at the church assume that nothing important would happen at the Bible study? Was nothing much at stake? Does studying the Bible not generate suspense or excitement?

Luke presents a scene with a woman who sits at Jesus' feet listening. Where might that lead? Why does that matter?

The context

Perhaps we can understand this scene with Mary and Martha in light of something that happens earlier in the chapter. Jesus makes a strange statement in response to the mission team he sends out. He had deployed 70 followers to prepare for his arrival in the towns where they went. He sent them out in vulnerability, with few provisions. They went out to announce that the kingdom of God had come near. The healing, the justice, the peace that will someday come in its fullness has broken into this world. In Jesus, the world could see some glimpses of what the reality of the kingdom would be like. The strange statement comes up when the 70 return. They bubble over telling Jesus how it went. Even the demons submitted to them. Jesus responds by saying, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning."1

We have to stop to talk about that one for a bit. The language of Satan, demons, unclean spirits and powers appears all through the New Testament. We in the contemporary church cannot come to one mind about what that language means. Some churches take the language quite literally. They hold exorcisms and talk about casting out something from people. At the other end of the spectrum, other Christians consider this to be outmoded language, prescientific explanations for certain conditions. Others try to hear the language in a serious way as speaking to the tenacity, ferociousness and callousness of evil. As a kind of middle ground, can we talk about a spiritual dimension to evil? Is that why we pray for the sick, and pray for an end to war? Do we struggle only against the human dimension of racism, greed, cruelty?

We will not decide that question today. For today, at least, I will leave you to ponder your position. We say only that the evil in the world seems strong and stubborn. If we don't know what to do with Satan to begin with, what do we make of Jesus' statement that at the work of the missionaries, Satan fell from heaven? That sounds like an apocalyptic statement for the end of time. Satan falling happens after a routine mission trip. History goes on. Does Jesus suggest that the work of the church saps some of the strength of evil? Satan falling from heaven doesn't mean that the church has defeated Satan, even though that's how it sounds on the surface. Evil continues. Does Jesus describe a temporary victory? Can we think of a boxing match where one fighter knocks the other down, but not out?

Luke follows this discussion-starting statement from Jesus with the familiar parable about the good Samaritan. We could all tell the basics of the story without notes. A distrusted Samaritan helps a Jewish man who has been beaten and robbed. The Samaritan takes risks to help the man, because the Samaritan does not know if the robbers lurk behind the next rock. When the two men arrive at a place of safety and recovery, the Samaritan puts no limits on the help he will offer. He trusts the innkeeper to give him the correct total for the man's care. The Samaritan will pay the full bill later, apparently with no questions.

Following the story of the Samaritan and our story for today, we read of the disciples asking Jesus for instruction on prayer. We often hear the advice to pray what's on our heart. Yet the disciples want to do prayer properly. Jesus teaches them what we call the Lord's Prayer -- or at least Luke's version of it. Jesus gave a model prayer, and then told creative stories about why we should pray, even when we have doubts about God hearing our prayers.

These two passages, the parable of the Samaritan and the teaching about prayer, make an interesting combination. Some parts of the church would put the emphasis on the parable of the Samaritan: The church should go out and take care of the wounded -- no matter where the wounds came from -- and should also concentrate on preventing what causes people to become wounded in the first place. Other parts of the church insist that we should concentrate on developing our prayer and devotional life: We should nourish our spirit and stay connected to God.

We should not quarrel with those who support either side of this question. The wisest approach comes from those who see the connection between our prayer life and our work to heal the world's wounds. We should pray and feed our spirit so that we can go out and fight for justice, bind up people's wounds and love our neighbors.

Choosing the better part

Nestled in amongst these words from Luke lies our vignette for today. On the surface, we may not see much. Two sisters display sibling rivalry. One sister, Martha, works hard to provide a meal and hospitality for Jesus, their guest. We value hospitality, as the biblical world did. The other, Mary, sits at Jesus' feet, never lifting a finger to help Martha. Martha thinks Jesus should take her side and tell Mary to get up off the floor and help out. Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part, to sit and listen.

Let's be clear: the church needs Marthas. The church has much work in front of it. Being the church means getting our hands dirty. Yet, Jesus praises Mary for listening. Jesus praises Mary for attending to teaching. Teaching matters. As much as we need Marthas, as much as Marthas accomplish, the most diligent Marthas need to feed their souls, and grow through Christian formation.

Why is the part Mary chose the better one? I will make the bold statement that listening, studying, Sunday School, Bible studies, lectures prepare us for everything else we do in the church. Do we want a better prayer life? In attending to our formation through listening and studying, we learn good ways to pray. We learn the difference between healthy, sound prayer and shallow, selfish prayer. We learn the different kinds of prayer: praise, confession, intercession, thanksgiving.

Do we want to get out there and make a difference? Study and formation teach us how to work effectively and faithfully. What strategies have worked before? How have people kept up their morale in the face of obstacles? How do we understand the causes of poverty and hunger? Study helps us with all of that. Study and prayer help those who work in the need of the world from burning out. Study and prayer keep us from self-righteousness.

Do we need motivation to attend Sunday School, Bible study, lectures? Do we not see any suspense, any excitement in study, listening or learning? Do we need motivation to read more, and to choose books that stretch us? Do we need a plan for how to approach teaching when our turn comes up? Maybe Jesus' words about Satan falling from heaven can give us some motivation. The disciples knock Satan down as if the scene were like a heavenly dunk tank. What happens if we understand study as preparing for a fight? What happens when we understand study as training to get in the ring with Satan? What if we see Sunday school as getting in shape, as toughening us up? What happens if we understand study as pushing back against the power of evil?

In the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, God has set in motion the ultimate defeat of the power of evil, however we understand it. Studying, listening, learning and reading prepare us for our part in that fight. Let's prepare ourselves for duking it out with Satan.

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