July 18, 2010

“Don’t Worry”

Luke 10:38-42

Karl Barth, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, writes about question number one:

The first and second question in the Heidelberg Catechism stand under the sign of the word, “comfort.” Comfort means generally a provisional but effective and promising help  given to man (sic) in a difficult situation.  It is help which becomes good reason, despite the fact that he has serious and even urgent reasons to the contrary, nevertheless to endure, nevertheless to take courage, nevertheless to be joyful.  When one really comforts another,  he offers him help which becomes the ground for such a “nevertheless.”  When one lets himself be comforted, he accepts this help; he lets himself be given this ground.  Comfort in this sense is the content of the gospel.  And for this reason the gospel is good news.[1]

The texts today do their best to teach us this truth. The sketch of a faithful person runs with consistency from Mary in the gospel to the “holy and blameless” in the epistle to the “green olive tree” in Psalm 52. In each case, it is a life of wholeness and peace grounded in a single loyalty. The ‘dust up’ Amos offers is directed against those who have chosen the object of their devotion foolishly and, consequently, live destructively.

One of the things I like about Barth is the fact he is a realist.[2]  Notice that this “comfort in life and in death” recognizes the difficulties of our existence.  There are many things that we worry about.  Although more than a half century has passed since W. H. Auden penned the words to his poem “The Age of Anxiety,” it does not appear that we human beings have adapted to the pace of the times in which we live. In fact, technology has not made our lives simpler or easier, but rather seems to have given us more to worry about. 

Surprisingly, an ancient dinner parties speak to this concern. Let us put ourselves at this point in the gospel and not jump ahead for once.  Here Mary and Martha entertain their friend Jesus. They know that he is known as a personality, and even talk sometimes about whether or not their friend could be the Messiah promised to God’s people.

During the eating and the drinking around the table at Bethany, God’s word is shared. At dinner, Jesus shares the promises of God with Mary that the lowly will be lifted up, the dead will be raised, the blind will see and the hopeless given hope.

In the story of the dinner party at Mary and Martha’s place the issue of worry is dealt with directly. Martha offers immediate hospitality, welcoming Jesus and then busying herself with meal preparation, while Mary sits down with Jesus. One can imagine how the clatter of dishes in the kitchen grows steadily louder until Martha’s exasperation at working alone is audible to Mary, who is engrossed in what Jesus is saying. Who is to say that passive-aggressive behavior didn’t exist in New Testament households?  Did you notice that Mary hasn’t been ‘pitching in?’

Finally Martha can’t bear working alone anymore and comes to where Jesus and her sister are talking. Pulled in all directions by a dozen tasks, she can no longer contain her frustration. She confronts the guest himself, challenging his care for her and asking him to send Mary into the kitchen. In an astounding breach of etiquette, Martha embarrasses her sister, and her Lord and no doubt herself as well.

Jesus doesn’t mince words in his response. Calling her by name not just once but twice, in a manner that sounds more like a parent than a friend, he describes the situation.
41 … “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things;
42 but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

~ Luke 10:41-42 NASB

Consider the way that St. Paul fleshes out the “don’t worry” advice Jesus gives to Martha. “Do not be anxious,” he writes to Christians who are misunderstood, reviled, and even persecuted for their faith. He writes to men and women who try to work out the practicalities of living the faith in a hostile world, among, for the most part, gentiles, to whom religion is rather like crossing one’s fingers or not walking under ladders. Some folks in Colossae have combined church with the worldly elements of heathen superstition with legal and other external observances. These folk looked askance at these members of the congregation whose comfort rested in Christ alone.

Still, I do not for one minute believe that Jesus is chastising Martha for her own self established code of activity.  This story, coming as it does, on the heels of the parable of the “good Samaritan,” could not be solely in support of some kind of otherworldly spirituality without attention to the tasks of this life, like, say, being a good neighbor.

In the 4th century, one of the desert monastics, Abba Silvanus said, “Martha is necessary to Mary, for it was because Martha worked that Mary was able to be praised.” That whole notion of the balance and inter-play between action and contemplation, between putting ourselves forward in service and then at times being passive and receptive, available to God’s deep emotions within us, is all part of the rhythm of life, is all part of our being fully human.

And yet, so is the peace of Christ.  It is, as St. Paul proclaims, available when we make Christ “pre-eminent.”  I want you to notice that Martha’s complaint is full of ‘Me’ talk.  Reception of the ‘peace of Christ’ does not dispense with necessary tasks, or the difficulties of life, nor the struggles of this life.  Martha wants Jesus to assist with her plans, not participate in his.  Speaking just for myself, it is always my plans, my objects of devotion, that I worry about.  See worry never originates from outside ourselves.  It comes from the inside.  So let’s not glorify Mary.  Let’s not berate Martha.  Each of us can get so busy doing important things that we miss God’s word to us.  We start off in the wrong place, you see.  If we begin with a God who loves us and seeks to save us, well, then, what’s to worry about?

This ‘one needful thing’ really isn’t about what we do or don’t do.  It’s about where we begin. Look, if we were to ask Jesus which of the stories applies to us, the Good Samaritian or Mary ‘n’ Martha, he’d just say yes.

[1] Barth, Karl Learning Jesus Christ Through The Heidelberg Catechism, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1964, p. 28

[2] McCormack, Bruce L. Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, Oxford, 1997