Proper 11, Year C

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Genesis 18:1-10a (10b-14) - link to NRSV text
Luke 10:38-42 - link to NRSV text

This week's expanded Hebrew scripture reading provided the domain name (sarahlaughed.net) for this site, and it means a great deal to me personally. It's the source of the reminder in the Book of Occasional Service's liturgy for a house blessing, "Do not neglect to show hospitality, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (BOS, p. 150), and the source of the imagery for Rublev's icon of the Trinity, used in the banner for this site.

As a 21st-century feminist, though, there's something that rubs me the wrong way about the passage's treatment of Sarah, and it's epitomized by verse 13, in which God addresses Abraham, not Sarah, to ask why Sarah laughed. I suppose that, since the address seems to come through the three messengers, it could be viewed as unseemly for strange men to address Sarah directly rather than through her husband. The result is that in this passage the only voice Sarah has is through her provision of hospitality for the visitors, which is received graciously, and through her laughter, which seems to be portrayed as indicating a lack of faith.

The scene brings to my mind the book Like Water for Chocolate, in which Tita, a youngest daughter whose place in life and lack of voice is dictated by her gender and her position, pours her emotions so powerfully into her cooking that all who taste it share her feelings. The power that Sarah exercises is not insignificant, but I think one of the reasons the image of her laughter so grabs me is because of my sense that it is breaking through great suffering and subverting the conventions that would give her no voice.

So I'm glad that the story of Sarah laughing by the oaks of Mamre is paired with the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. I think the passage is too often used to criticize Martha, as if she should have known better than to hurry about the kitchen while Jesus was in her home. But I think the strength of Jesus' statement, with its "Martha, Martha" opening and declaration that Mary "has chosen the better part," doesn't serve to criticize Martha so much as it serves to defend Mary against the criticism she would have received for her inhospitable (sitting around rather than seeing to the comfort of her guests) and unseemly (behaving as only male disciples should behave by sitting at Jesus' feet) behavior.

In this sense, this Sunday's gospel is a continuation of a theme from Luke 9:59-62, which we read a few weeks ago. When Jesus said, "Let the dead bury the dead," he was releasing a man from the constraints of being a dutiful son. When Jesus said, "There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her," he was releasing women from the constraints of their role in the household.

In the household of God, there is only one who can claim the title "Father," only one who can claim a father's authority for men and women alike, and that's God. That word would have been received as profoundly shocking to most and profoundly liberating to some, both men and women. Both men and women in Jesus' culture were enmeshed in a network of relationships and obligations that -- so long as they were committed to being respectable -- would hold them back from following Jesus and living as he did. After all, a man is obligated to care for his wife and children and his aging parents -- how can he do that if he follows Jesus' command to "give to all who ask, without expectation of repayment" (Luke 6:33)? And a woman's honor lies in her care for her husband and children and home; good girls don't roam the countryside with men who aren't their husbands or fathers, as that awful Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna (Luke 8:1-2) do. So, Jesus, surely you don't mean this whole "follow me" thing literally, do you?

Call me a biblical literalist -- I think Jesus does mean it, and I think he meant it literally in the texts in which he says it. And I think he still does mean it. Jesus is now present wherever two or three are gathered, rather than in one specific place, so we may not need to start roaming around the countryside to follow him. We do, however, need to place the demands of the Good News ahead of the constraints of respectability. Some will call us loose women and irresponsible men because we are bound to our family in Christ and are responsible to our Lord. That's the radical freedom and the solemn and joyful obligation to which we are called, and that's the Good News of Jesus' word to Martha.

What have we held back from doing in following Jesus, in striving for justice, in providing for all of God's children, in proclaiming the Good News, because we felt obligated to someone or something else? What have we been doing not because we felt called by God to do it, but because we felt it was the best we could do within constraints? What would we do if Jesus said to us, "There is need of only one thing," and we took responsibility for that? What would our lives look like if we took to heart Paul's words in Galatians 5:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

I'm not preaching this Sunday, so I'll ask as a favor to those who are: please hit the "we're too busy with many things" point quickly, if at all, and leave room for the main point of the gospel. Our identity in Christ is the "one thing"; other identities are valuable only insofar as they deepen our maturity in Christ and empower us for Christ's mission in the world. The only constraints, the only obligations, are those of love. In Christ, Phoebe is free to journey from Cenchreae with Paul's letter, boldly preaching the Good News in all of the churches in Rome (Romans 16:1-2). In Christ, any daughter, sister, or mother can claim her voice, no longer straining to listen from outside the tent, but seated alongside the others at the table, feasting with any who will join such a company of loose women and prodigal sons. Sarah's laughter must be ringing throughout the heavens to see that.

Thanks be to God!

July 14, 2004 in About this site's name, Genesis, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)