Sunday, December 14, 2008

Choose Your Martha

My church, like many, has a sign out front with removable letters. A new message is posted regularly (I think weekly, but I don't always remember to check).

Most of the messages are a bit too cutesy for my liking ("God accepts knee-mail"), but I'm not the target audience. I'm there every week anyway. The signs are for the unchurched folks driving by, and if a message may work for them on any level (amusement, thought provocation, etc.), then I'm all for it. My personal favourite was "Sign broken - come inside for information."

Last week the sign said, "Have a Mary Christmas, not a Martha one."

That one's not bad. I thought at first that it might suffer a bit for requiring a certain level of Biblical literacy, but I found out otherwise at work on Friday. Some of my co-workers, who know I attend "that church with the funny signs", mentioned to me that they liked that one.

However, a bit of discussion showed that they didn't really get it.

They thought, reasonably enough, that "Mary" referred to the mother of Jesus. That's a reasonable assumption. A large majority of people in my area are nominally Roman Catholic. Most of them only attend church once or twice a year, and certainly haven't cracked the cover on a copy of the Catechism since they were thirteen (if then), but they hold dearly to that nominal tie. They're well trained in that when they hear the word "Mary" they automatically think of the mother of Jesus, usually adding a mental "hail" in front of it (although very few of them agree with or are even aware of the specifically Catholic Marian doctrines). Most of the women around here, especially if they were the firstborn girl in their family, have Mary as either their first or middle name. It doesn't matter which, since any of them who have Mary for their first name use their middle name on a day-to-day basis. That includes my wife. We'd been dating for quite a while before I found out that the name by which I knew her wasn't actually her first name.

The really interesting part came with their interpretation of "Martha". That had already been discussed and a consensus reached before I joined the conversation.

They thought that the sign was referring to Martha Stewart.

The great thing about this, the fact that shows the movement of the Holy Spirit, is that the sign actually works with that interpretation. Taken that way - and this is exactly how my co-workers took it - the sign meant, "Focus on Jesus this Christmas, instead of getting preoccupied with decorating, cooking and entertaining."

I commended my co-workers on their interpretive work, and endorsed that message. However, I also felt it important that they understand the original intention of the sign.

I took my Bible out of the backpack under my desk. This didn't startle anybody, because they already know it's always down there; I try not to pound it recklessly. I skimmed through until I found the relevant passage, Luke 10:38-42 (NIV):

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
As I showed them this passage (it's short enough that no one objected to taking a look), it occurred to me that the point of the actual Scripture was exactly the same as the conclusion they had reached: focus on Jesus, not busywork. That's God's directing hand. They went down the wrong road, but wound up at the correct destination.

As a postscript, one of my co-workers asked how I found the passage so quickly (it took me maybe fifteen seconds of flipping). At first I just smiled and said, "Practice."

However, I then told them the real reason. I knew that passage was in Luke, because I remember Bruce Kuhn performing it when I saw him many years ago. Bruce is an actor who performs the Gospel of Luke as a one-man play. If you ever get a chance to see him do it, don't pass it up. I saw him over fifteen years ago, and it (obviously) still resonates with me today.

Knowing that it was in Luke and that it logically falls somewhere between the birth narrative and the Crucifixion was enough to narrow it down pretty closely. My Bible has pretty good section headings, so it was easy from there.

That lead to a couple of digressions. My co-workers were intrigued by the one-man play; they had no idea that the Gospel of Luke was composed as a letter between friends (and certainly didn't know who Theophilus was), so I got to present a little "Biblical composition and history" lesson.

Less encouraging was realizing, during my first attempts to explain who Mary and Martha were, that none of my co-workers had the slightest clue who Lazarus was. I certainly wouldn't expect Theophilus to be a household name, but I thought Lazarus was a pretty safe reference. Biblical literacy among the general public - even the at-least-nominally Christian public - is a thing of the past.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of alligators. I think. There may be a crocodile or two mixed in there as well.

1 comment:

RebelAngel said...

I certainly would have picked that one as a "general cultural knowledge" tidbit (Lazarus) That's what I get for A.) going to Sunday School all during my childhood and B.) hanging out with goths in college, who, though many are not Christian, they are preoccupied with death enough to know most of the "general references."