on the way with Jesus: “it’s in the way we work for balance”

Luke 10: 25-42

So, a couple of questions for you.
How many of you all know
(and knew before we heard it read this morning),
the story of the Good Samaritan?
Uh huh, no surprise there.
How about the story of Jesus at the house of Martha and Mary?
Uh huh.
Two very familiar stories.

Now, again, before we heard them read this morning,
how many of you could have told me
that they’re consecutive stories—
one following right after the other?

That’s of particular interest to us this morning
as we look less particularly at either one story,
and more generally at both.

It was our friend Dorisanne Cooper,
pastor of Lakeshore Baptist Church,
who pointed out at preachers’ camp last year,
that here we have two
of possibly the most guilt-inducing stories
in the gospel of Luke.
You finish the one feeling bad
about not being as good a neighbor
as God would want you to be,
and you finish the other feeling bad
about not being as present to Jesus
as you even want to be.

But when you read them consecutively,
one right after the other,
something interesting happens.
And it starts to happen
when you notice something interesting—
if you notice something interesting—
something a little peculiar.

Because you read the first story (the Good Samaritan)
and get the clear message:
“Don’t cross by to the other side!”
“Don’t pass on by!”
“Don’t hurry on your way!”
“Don’t just stand there, do something!”
“Do something for someone else!”
“Do something for someone in need!”
Do something!”

But then you’re right into the second story
(Jesus at the house of Martha and Mary)
and get the equally clear message:
“Stop doing stuff, just sit there!”

Now some scholars will suggest
the two stories, together,
illustrate what Matthew’s gospel, in a parallel text,
names the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-40)—
illustrating both love of neighbor (the Good Samaritan),
and love of God (Jesus, Mary and Martha),
and stressing the necessity of both.
Now isn’t that nice?
Nice literary structure.
The lawyer—the expert in the law—
in the religious law—the Torah,
identifies the essence of faithfulness,
and then the next two stories illustrate that.

But it’s more than just that.
Come on! It’s got to be more than just that.
Two consecutive teaching stories teaching the exact opposite?!
“Do something!” And then right away, “Stop doing things!”
That’s enough to give anyone paying attention interpretive whiplash!

Now if nothing else,
it really messes with a prescriptive reading of Scripture!
Which really isn’t a bad thing—at all.
In fact, I really like messing with a prescriptive theology—
whenever I possibly can!

But let me be absolutely clear what I mean by that.
Because it’s not that I don’t think Scripture has truth to teach us.
I do.
And it’s not that I don’t think God works through Scripture
to guide us along God’s way in and through the world.
I do.
But far too often Scripture is read by far too many
as if it clearly and obviously tells us all
exactly what we need to do,
or exactly how we need to be,
in any and all circumstances and contexts—
each lesson—each Scripture text—
the same prescription for everyone.
“Do this!” “Don’t do this!” “Be like this! Not like that!”

So what do you do, our two consecutive stories ask—
what do you do, Scripture demands,
with the supposed universal and eternal relevance of Scripture
if one minute your sacred prescription is one thing
and the next another—and the opposite?

How would you think Luke could possibly put two such stories together
and not expect people to wrestle with them?
Especially when Jesus at the very outset
asks not just what does Scripture say,
but also (and our translation does us a disservice here)—
Jesus asks not just, “What does Scripture say?”
But also, “And how do you read it?”
How do you read it! Which is to say how do you interpret it?
Because obviously, there are different ways—
Jesus acknowledges!

And so we wrestle.
We ask if Scripture offers us situational truth here.
And the story of the Good Samaritan
is what some need to hear and what some need to do,
but that the next story is what others need to hear and do—
or not do! Right?

And you don’t have to push that idea very far at all,
to end up with the rather significant affirmation
that truth is not contained in any one piece of the Bible,
but in some understanding of how all the pieces fit together—
which throws a wonderfully huge monkey wrench into prooftexting—
the idea that you can abstract universal truth
from some particular verse.
Again, not that that’s a bad thing—at all—
to throw a monkey wrench into that idea!

But that’s still not enough for me.
Not with two teaching stories offering opposite instruction.
It would seem to me there has to be more
than well this one’s for y’all,
and that one’s for them.

There may be a clue for us
in tendencies to dismiss the priest and the Levite in the first story
and Martha in the second.
Part of the power of the story only comes through
if we identify with them and their concerns.
If we simply write them off, we’ve cheapened the story.
The one story’s not anti-clerical;
the other not anti-house chores.

So while the first story doesn’t mention the purity laws
so central to the life and calling of the priest and levite,
the fact is priests and levites lived and struggled with those expectations—
with their understanding of God’s expectation.
And let’s be charitable—lived and struggled
not with slavish obedience to rote rules,
but rather with the desire to maintain purity—
to honor God by living purely.

So while some would suggest, and I would in fact agree,
that to ignore someone in need, to pass by the man in the ditch
was to ignore the heart of the Torah,
that’s in no way to minimize the struggle.
“That’s a bloody body—maybe a corpse.
What are the expectations? How do I live purely?
What do I do here? The hard and complicated thing
with potentially hard and complicated implications?”
And it’s really not just that the alternative is easier.

And the struggle wasn’t just with religious purity laws either,
but with common sense.
Here I am on this road everyone knows is dangerous,
just wanting to safely arrive at my destination,
if I stop here—if I get off the road and into the ditch,
is that the safe thing to do? The rational wise thing to do?
No, absolutely not!

And let’s not cheapen the concerns of the other story either.
Parents may be able to identify with the critical question,
when is the house clean enough for a playdate?
How prepared do I need to be—does my house need to be
to invite someone over?
At what point does the chaos of living
(manifest in the need to clean and vacuum, pick up and straighten)
become what someone visiting notices instead of the hospitality?

When does the work I need to do need to be the absolute priority
and when does it need to be absolutely secondary?
When do I need to take care of others
and when do I need to take care of myself?

So may I suggest that our stories suggest
that you have to know yourself—
know yourself well enough—
accurately and honestly enough,
to discern what you need to hear and when.

And then it’s not just that Mary needs to hear this story,
and Martha needs to hear that one,
but that they both need to hear both
and figure out which one needs to be more clearly heard
at any given particular time.

And we’re looking for a balance—
looking to find and maintain a balance—
in which we balance purity expectations with compassion,
the legalism of purity expectations with their intent,
balance the work of hospitality with the gift of presence.
And it’s not that any of these concerns are unimportant.
It’s just knowing the moment—
recognizing what the moment has to offer,
and knowing how to identify what’s most important in that moment.

As Fred Craddock puts it, “If we censure Martha too harshly,
she may abandon serving altogether,
and if we commend Mary too profusely,
she may sit there forever.
There is a time to go and do;
there is a time to listen and reflect.
Knowing which and when
is a matter of spiritual discernment”
(Fred B. Craddock, “Luke” in Interpretation:
A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching

[Louisville: John Knox, 1990] 152).

So this balance is vitally important.
One commentary I read suggested
“neither the lawyer nor Martha understands Jesus”
(R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections”
in the New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary
in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX

[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 226).
The challenge, given these stories, is that
it’s almost impossible not to understand Jesus.

Remember last week
at the outset of Luke’s travel narrative,
how clear Jesus was that even important responsibilities
would fall by the wayside on the way of Jesus.
“Leave the dead to bury the dead,” he said.
“Don’t look back,” he said.
And we said then, too, that’s pretty clear.

In both our stories this morning—
important responsibilities
(important responsibilities of priests and scribes,
of passers-by, and of hosts)
are all reprioritized.

And purity codes and Scriptural interpretation
and theology and etiquette and social norms
and spiritual or societal expectations
are not to keep us from caring for others—
to keep us from being present to God.

At the same time, both stories clearly challenge prejudice.
Both stories challenge the accepted boundaries
of behavior and inclusivity.
Everyone knows that Samaritans were a despised people.
Everyone knows that women were an oppressed gender.

It’s all so very frighteningly clear.
To follow God is to care for the ones everyone hates.
Do we do that?
To follow God is to include the excluded.
Do we do that?
To follow God is to know when to set aside the important
that so often defines you—
so often defines you in your understanding of self
in your allocation of your time, your resources.
To follow God is to set aside the rationale that justifies you—
justifies your beliefs, actions, attitudes.
Do we do that?

To accept the balancing of God
is to embrace the unbalancing of life.
We know that.
And yet, we’re so very good
at finding reasons to not do
what God would have us do.
And we’re good at making those reasons sound good
sound important—
like our inaction is justified …
or our action!

We must always balance what we believe
what we think and feel and what we normally do
with the unbalancing challenge of the love of God.

Just before moving to Baltimore,
I went to a conference in Atlanta
to hear Cheryl Duvall!
She was there to talk to a group about a balanced living.
And she talked about the various important dimensions of life
and how important it was to balance them.
Physical (exercise), vocation, leisure, spiritual, charitable.
She’s actually done that presentation for us on a Wednesday night—
now several years ago, I guess.
Might be time to schedule that again.
Particularly living in the unbalanced culture in which we do.

But the question that’s intrigued me this week is
if we’re looking for balance—prioritizing balance,
what’s the center?
What’s the point of balance?

And again we know this
(whether we do it or not)
it’s what the lawyer names—
what Jesus teaches and models,
and it has to do with loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind;
it has to do with loving our neighbor as ourself.

And we know that whatever unbalances that balance
is not good.
Even though we like balancing our lives around our schedules,
around what we like,
around what’s convenient,
around what makes sense,
around what doesn’t rock the boat.

And we know (though we might prefer not to)—
we know when the lawyer asks, “Who’s my neighbor?”
as if there are those who are not—
as if we’re only to love some,
that it’s a rephrasing of that ancient question:
“Am I my brother’s keeper? Am I my sister’s keeper?”
And the answer is as it has been from creation. Yes.
And there is no one not your brother.
There is no one not your sister.

We also know it’s truly less a balance
than a balancing.
And we don’t much like that so much either!
If we have balance, it’s done.
We can relax.
But balancing involves changing, shifting, growing.
It’s not rigid, dogmatic, unchanging, inerrant.
It’s ongoing work.

Susie and I saw the musical “Pippin” in New York a few weeks ago.
The current Broadway staging involves a circus troupe,
and so, acrobats.
And when someone’s on top of someone on top of someone
on top of something, upside down, balancing on one arm,
well, you see just how much a struggle balancing is!
How much work—how much strength it takes.

When we’re standing on our own two feet,
we tend to forget. It was so long ago
that most of us toddled around—
tilting precariously, leaning, toppling.

Amos, Benjamin, Eli, Jocelynn, and Osanna
offer us the opportunity to revisit
what even Aidan, Gretchen, Hazel, Helene,
and Jillian all now know so well.

May we tune our ears to hear their voices:
“Don’t you get smug!
You think you’ve got this, standing there so easily.
But balancing’s a life-long lesson.
Don’t let your ease at standing and walking and running fool you.
And don’t let us get smug when we get better at all that!
Because it’s not about balance.
That’s just something you learn to do and then you get it.
No, it’s about balancing—
about always using the balance you’ve learned
to risk precariously—
to balance ever more
loving God with all you are,
and your every neighbor as yourself.”

That’s what we owe
Amos and Benjamin, Eli and Jocelynn and Osanna—
what we owe ourselves, our world, and our God.


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