I sometimes wonder if we often really pay attention to what we’re saying in liturgical churches like ours. For the last two Sundays, we have had positively frightening Lessons from the Book of the Prophet Amos. Last week, the Reading ended with these words:
“Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.” (Amos 7:17) Then our lector said, “The Word of the Lord.” And we responded, “Thanks be to God.”
And today, we heard, “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.” (Amos 8:11-12)
And at the end of that Reading too, the lector said, “The Word of the Lord.” And we responded, “Thanks be to God!” Thanks be to God that Israel went into exile? Thanks be to God that they could no longer hear the Word of the Lord? What are we giving thanks for? Sometimes, maybe it’s just better to say, “Here endeth the Reading!”
Now, as a matter of fact, it’s perfectly possible to thank God for times of stress and stain, for times of judgment and failure. Because it may be in times like those that we actually draw closer to God. But I’m not sure we really ought to be giving thanks for other peoples’ stresses and strains, for other peoples’ failures and judgment! Because Amos is telling his people that their God is not pleased with them! Why? Because they were: trampling on the needy…bringing poor people to ruin…
They were neglecting the worship of God so that they could make a profit – not by honest labor – but by cheating in selling less than they advertised and overcharging for that! By using false balances, which were scales rigged in the merchant’s favor. They were engaged in the slave trade in at least two ways – by actually selling people into slavery, and by keeping people so much in debt that they were virtual slaves to those they owed money to. Sort of like Third World debt today in which it is mathematically impossible for some countries ever to get out of debt
So it was for that reason, for those reasons, that Amos was thundering God’s judgment upon his people. That’s why they were going into Exile. That’s why they were unable to hear the Word of God. Because they were too busy feathering their own nests to listen for God’s Word! (Pause)
But you know you don’t have to be a notorious sinner to be deaf to God’s Word. Sometimes, you can just be too busy…or too timid…like Martha in today’s famous Gospel story of Mary and Martha. Scholars tell us that this is actually a companion story to the one about the Good Samaritan that we had as our Gospel last week. In that story, the young lawyer had correctly identified that the two most important Commandments were loving God and loving neighbor, but he needed the Parable of the Good Samaritan to get clear about just who his neighbor was!
This morning, Martha is clear about serving her neighbor as she bustles about to make sure all is in readiness for Jesus and his disciples…but she was unable to see that it was she herself (and her sister Mary) whom Jesus was calling to listen and to follow, and to be disciples
Most of us, I know, feel a good deal of sympathy for poor Martha, but let’s see what’s really going on here! Jesus and his disciples are living out what he had told them previously about “whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you.” And Martha is working hard to see that happen. Her sister Mary, on the other hand, is sitting at Jesus feet, which is the place of a disciple! An old rabbinical teaching stated, “Let your house be a meeting-house for Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst…but do not talk much with women!”
By sitting at Jesus feet, Mary is pushing the envelope, acting like a disciple, and probably bringing shame on her family by neglecting her socially-mandated duty to help her sister in the preparation of the meal! So, Martha’s protest is probably justified by the standards of her day. But Jesus gentle rebuke to her is a reminder that nothing must “distract” us from hearing the Word of God. After all, “One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus had once said. Like the disciples, Mary had left everything – even her expected subservient role – to follow Jesus.
So neither the story of the Good Samaritan nor the story of Mary and Martha is complete without the other. Each makes its point – the Samaritan loves his neighbor and Mary loves her Lord. But the model of a good disciple is that we must do both. To the lawyer, Jesus had said “Go and do,” but he praises Mary for sitting and listening. The life of a disciple requires both.
In both stories, Jesus is protesting the rules and the boundaries set by the culture of his day. Both stories expose the social barriers that categorize and restrict and oppress various groups in any society – Samaritans, victims, women — you name it! To love God with all our hearts and all our souls and with all our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves means that, then as now, sometimes we have to reject society’s rules in favor of the code of the Kingdom – which is a society without distinctions and boundaries between its members. (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, page 232)
If the Prophet Amos’ original hearers had understood that, perhaps they would not have had to go into Exile. Perhaps they would not have had to experience a “famine” of hearing the Word of God.
If WE understand it, perhaps we can invite the Marthas of our day to join us…with Mary…where we all belong…at Jesus feet!