Proximity

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
–Luke 10:38-42

Each week, we are exploring what different persons from the faith have either said the “gospel” is or witnessed to what they mean by “gospel” through how they live their lives. Initially, we considered the origins of the term “gospel,” recalling that the term derives from a claim of victory. So, this derivation leads us to ask each week: Victory over what? What kind of victory does this person’s life or writing claim has occurred through the person of Jesus Christ? Here, we turn to a person rather prominently placed in the narrative of Jesus’ life, Mary of Bethany.

Now, most often, we do not refer to Mary as “Mary of Bethany,” but such a descriptor is essential here because of the potentially confusing number of Marys in scripture. To distinguish our Mary for the others, we reference Mary’s hometown. Moreover, focusing on where Mary is from is helpful because it is that location that lends so much detail and import to our understanding Mary’s particular expression of the “gospel.” To understand the gospel for Mary, we must understand the proximity of Bethany to the Jericho Road. And, the importance of proximity does not limit itself to the town of Mary’s origin, but Mary’s proximity to Jesus and this story’s proximity to other story’s in Luke’s gospel supply very useful insights into Mary’s unique witness to the “good news of Jesus Christ.”

First, several clues at the outset of this story from Luke’s gospel link it to the larger narrative section in which we find it. The story begins with the description of Jesus “entering a certain village.” This expression is interesting and helpful because it ties our hearing of this story with the story of the Good Samaritan that immediately precedes our encounter of Mary and Martha with the visiting Jesus. The other clue to the link between this story with the preceding story is the fact that the story of the Good Samaritan takes place along the Road to Jericho. Likewise, the town of Bethany is located just off that road, using a geographic link to create a literary and theological link between what was described in the Good Samaritan story with what is about to unfold, here, in our story with Mary and her sister.

The Good Samaritan story emerges out of a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee—a scholar of the Jewish religious system. The Pharisee was attempting to entrap Jesus in a theological snare by asking him to choose the “greatest commandment” out of the hundreds of commandments within the Jewish tradition. In answering the Pharisee’s question, Jesus does not provide a commandment but a prayer, stating that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. Then adding to that prayer, Jesus appends the command to love one’s neighbor. This addition leads the Pharisee to set another trap for Jesus by asking “Who is my neighbor?,” seeking to determine what level of obligation he—as a Pharisee being a person of certain elevated standing in the community—was required to perform. Rather than answering the man’s question directly, Jesus tells a story.

In the Good Samaritan story, “a certain man” is attacked on the Road to Jericho. In turn, religious authorities walk past the man, ignoring the man’s needs in favor of keeping to their religious obligations both to avoid seeing someone’s nakedness and touching another’s blood—both eventualities that would lead to their being ritually unable to perform their religious duties. So, by doing what they are supposed to do as faithful followers of “God’s law,” we assume that they will be commended as the heroes in the story. Yet, the Samaritan comes along, challenging all our assumptions.

Samaritans were cousins of the Jews, “corrupted” by inter-mixing with their Assyrian conquerors and diluting the purity of the faith. Their neighbors to the south automatically despised these law-breakers. The very name “Samaritan” became a synonym within Israel for all that is wrong with those that do not quite get it, religiously. Yet, in the story, the Samaritan is the one that Jesus and the Pharisee affirm as the proper neighbor and the one whose life we should emulate. The expected roles and barriers of God’s kingdom are being challenged at their very core. In the Samaritan story, those that do what they are supposed to do are judged to have acted wrongly and the one who is the very embodiment of impurity and unseemliness becomes the epitome of commendable action and faith.

The outside is now inside. Barriers are down. The impossible seems all too possible.

The story of the Good Samaritan becomes the example of true love of neighbor. Yet, as mentioned before, the story of the Good Samaritan emerges from a conversation following Jesus’ exchange with a Pharisee over two commandments: (1) the love of neighbor and (2) the love of God. If the story of the Good Samaritan is about the love of neighbor, then that story leaves us expecting another, partner story to present itself, helping to illustrate what true love of God means, too. Fulfilling that expectation, we have just such a story offered to us in the story of Mary of Bethany.

Beginning like the story of the Good Samaritan, the story of Jesus’ visit to Mary and her sister Martha’s house is introduced by saying that Jesus entered a “certain village,” as mentioned before a village that happens to be a short distance from the Road to Jericho. This natural, geographical link solidifies the link between the last story that exemplified the love of neighbor and this present story that we assume will exemplify the love of God. Here, in this certain village, a woman named Martha—like the two religious leaders before her—does what she is expected to do as a woman showing hospitality to her guest. Martha, fulfilling her cultural role, is preparing a meal for a guest and is disturbed that her sister is not sharing in the work. Martha goes to Jesus looking for some support, yet—surprisingly—Jesus supports the actions of her sister, Mary.

Just like the story of the Good Samaritan, in the Mary and Martha story someone does what they are expected to do only to turn out to be the one judged to be wrong by doing what she presumed was right. In the Good Samaritan story, the Samaritan is the unjust one who turns out to be the most just in his actions. Similarly, Mary is violating two social norms. First, she is not preparing the meal, a responsibility of women in the household. And, second, she is sitting at Jesus’ feet, a euphemism for taking the position of a disciple and a position generally reserved for men.

By taking this action, Mary is directly challenging the religious and social structures of her day, threatening the established gender norms and religious protocols with her actions. Yet, when asked to affirm those norms, Jesus does the exact opposite. Jesus affirms Mary’s rebellion much like he affirmed the Samaritan’s righteousness in the face of Jesus’ rejection of the “righteous” religious leaders. If the Samaritan becomes the embodiment of the love of neighbor, then Mary’s proximity to Jesus establishes a new norm for the love of God, a norm that denies any gender divisions between who might love God as a disciple and leader in the God’s kingdom. Moreover, Jesus celebrates a love that shows an undivided attention and devotion to God, resisting the distractions of everyday social pressures, conventions, and expectations.

Therefore, Mary’s actions are a declaration of victory over any kind of marginalization from leadership for women in God’s kingdom. That kingdom lets in the outsider, tells the insider they might need to reevaluate their centrality, and dissolves barriers to leadership and our expectations of who those leaders should be. Scripture is mixed on this conclusion of gender equality, but that confusion endears scripture—at least for me—as an honest expression of the faithful struggling to understand their experience of a liberating God in the face of social structures that resist change, let alone liberation. Maybe such an honest appraisal of the faith and the faith’s inconsistencies in and uncertainty about how to integrate our religious experiences with our daily lives is a kind of proclamation of a victory in itself, a victory of our faith over our own totalitarian claims to possess and dispense divine truth. Just like the two religious leaders and Martha, each thought they were certain they knew what was right. But, in the end, those leaders and Martha go from being right to being wrong on a quick turn of phrase. Maybe such a realization that our claims to absolute certainty might not be so absolute will bring us a little closer to the feet of Jesus, too.

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