Readings: Amos 8:1–12, Colossians 1:15–29 & Luke 10:38–42
In my sermon at St Andrew’s last Sunday on the Good Samaritan, I focussed on the fact that the dialogue which took place between Jesus and the lawyer, was really an issue of interpretation of Jewish law (the Torah). Through the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was challenging people that obedience to the law, without compassion for other human beings, was not an expression of God’s will. Jesus concluded his dialogue with the lawyer by issuing a directive to him.
Just as the Samaritan had put the needs of a stranger ahead of any concern for the cultural norms of the day, so Jesus now directed the lawyer to put the needs of others ahead of any perceived obligation to the law. He was to not just THINK differently, that is interpret the law differently, he was to also ACT differently in relation to the law based on this revelation of God’s will.
Today’s gospel passage, which follows on immediately from the parable of the Good Samaritan, is another story about breaking a cultural tradition in order to satisfy God’s will. In this story we hear that Jesus is welcomed into the home of Martha and her sister Mary. Martha is clearly the host and, in accordance with the laws of hospitality in the ancient Middle East tradition, she takes this responsibility very seriously.
She obviously has many tasks that she needs to complete so as to provide Jesus with the highest level of hospitality she can. Mary, on the other hand, is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to his teaching. In so doing, Mary is showing herself to be a student or disciple of Jesus, because in Jewish culture, to sit at someone’s feet meant to be their student. Take for example this passage from the Acts of the Apostles in relation to the Apostle Paul, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today.” (Acts 22:3 NRSV)
Martha is annoyed that Mary isn’t helping with the preparations of hospitality, and she asks Jesus if he in fact does not care that Mary is not fulfilling her responsibilities under the prevailing cultural tradition relating to hospitality. But Jesus, is a bit ‘non-plussed’ and says, “Martha, Martha . . .”, as though he is feeling a little frustrated, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” That one thing, is to pay attention to his word, to listen to his teaching about God’s will, which is exactly what Mary is doing.
It’s not as though Jesus doesn’t appreciate all the trouble that Martha is going to in order to make him feel welcome, according to the cultural tradition of hospitality, but what he is saying is that what is even more important is to understand what God’s will is, and His will is revealed through the teaching of Jesus.
God’s will had previously been communicated through the prophets of Ancient Israel. And in our first reading this morning, from the prophet Amos, we hear God declare, through Amos, that He will send a famine upon Israel. But this will not be a famine of food, instead it will be a famine of His word.
God is angry with the behaviour of the people, especially those who oppress the poor, whom Amos depicts as greedy merchants who impatiently longed for religious holy days to end so they could resume their dishonest business practices (vv. 5–6).
Two of their favourite tricks were “skimping the measure” and “boosting the price” (literally, “making the ephah small and making the shekel large”). When measuring out grain, they used a less than standard ephah (a unit of dry measure) so that the customer received less than he thought he was buying. At the same time they used a heavier than standard shekel-weight to measure the purchase price so that the customer actually paid more than he should. To top it off, these merchants used rigged scales and mixed some chaff in with the grain they sold. Their consciences were so dark that they even sold and traded people.
So God’s prophetic word, which Israel had rejected, would cease. Comparing God’s silence to a famine, Amos pictured the idolatrous people desperately searching for a word from God, as one would food or water. But their search would prove futile, and even the strongest would fall dead from starvation and thirst.
God finally sent Jesus to reveal His will, first to the people of Israel, and then to the Gentiles. But there were some Gentiles in the early Church who were dissatisfied with what they considered the unsophisticated simplicity of Christianity, and who wanted to turn it into a philosophy. These people were known as Gnostics, which more or less means the intellectual ones.
The Gnosticsbasically believed that all matter was essentially evil and that spirit was essentially good. They also believed that the world was created out of evil matter. In their thinking, God was spirit and therefore good, so it was not possible for God to be the agent of creation. As they saw it, God put forth a series of beings or forces, each a little further from God, until finally one was distant enough from God to be capable of handling matter and creating the world.
The Gnostics believed that Jesus was merely one of these beings or forces. And because they believed that matter was evil, it then followed that the body was evil, which raised another issue in regards to Jesus. If Jesus was the revelation of God, then he could obviously not have a real body. They saw Jesus as a spiritual phantom in bodily form.
It is really against the Gnostics and their beliefs, that Paul is writing in today’s passage from the Letter to the Colossians when he says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Paul had to correct these misconceptions of both God and Jesus, so that people understood that Jesus was the revelation of God in the world, and that God’s will for the world was in turn revealed through Jesus. And Jesus himself, had to break through the barriers of cultural tradition so that people could understand what God’s will was for them.
I wonder what traditions there are today, that might get in the way of us understanding what God’s will is for us and our world today?
As I leave you to ponder that question, let me quickly turn now to the topic of our parish Mission Action Plan, or MAP as we’ll call it for short. Several weeks ago we made available a short questionnaire that we were inviting parishioners to complete in relation to certain aspects of our ministry here at St Aidan’s and also to our engagement with the local community.
We are very interested to get feedback from people so that we can factor that into thinking as we begin the process of developing our MAP, a process which might actually see us having to break down the barriers of certain traditions of our own which might be preventing us from fulfilling God’s will and purpose for our parish.
The questionnaires are due to be returned by next Sunday (28 July), so I would like to encourage you, if you haven’t already taken a questionnaire and filled it in, to take one today and return it next Sunday morning.