Out of Gas
July 21, 2013 Luke 10: 38-42
Rev. Catherine Purves
Don’t you just want to kick yourself when you run out of gas? Because it’s not like you didn’t see it coming. Every car has a gas gauge, and you can see the needle dropping closer and closer to empty as you set off on just one more errand, one more quick trip to the post office or the food store. Sooner or later you push your luck too far and your engine sputters and dies, leaving you stuck in a very awkward place, blocking traffic, with no more gas in the tank. I once ran out of gas on the main road in front of the old airport. It was not a good situation.
It’s not just cars that run out of gas. People can run out of gas too. Right about now I feel like I’m running on fumes. It’s been, I think, 47 weeks since my last vacation, so I’m more than ready for a break when I can relax and re-fuel. People have something like an internal gas gauge too. We really should know when we are just about out of gas, and we should do something about it. But oftentimes we just go and go and go, as if we had an unlimited supply of ‘gas’ or energy to do all the things we want to do or think we should do. Then we’re surprised when our ‘engine’ sputters and dies, as if we didn’t see all of the signs that we were running on empty.
This is what happened to Martha when Jesus and the disciples dropped in for an unexpected visit. Martha, of course, welcomed them. She was happy to have them in her home. Immediately, she got to work in the kitchen trying to prepare a meal for a number of hungry men. Everyone else, including Martha’s sister, Mary, was relaxing in another part of the house listening to Jesus. Our text tells us that Martha became “distracted” by her many tasks. N.T. Wright in his translation of this verse is a little more expressive. He says that Martha was “frantic” with all of the work in the kitchen. I take that to mean that she was not just throwing together some crackers and cheese for her assembled guests. She was going all out. She wanted to produce an impressive spread of food, and I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she was doing this because she really loved Jesus and wanted to honor him. Perhaps you too are a person who demonstrates love by becoming a demon in the kitchen and producing mounds of wonderful food. But creative cooking can be quite demanding, and before Martha knew what was happening she found that she had run out of gas. That’s when she remembered Mary. Where was she, anyway, and why wasn’t she helping?
Mary, of course, was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening intently. While Martha was running on empty, Mary was busy filling her tank, soaking up everything that Jesus had to say and getting energized just by being in the Lord’s presence. While Martha was busy doing for Jesus, Mary was intent on being with Jesus. We don’t have to set up any kind of competition between the two sisters. Jesus in his response to Martha’s complaints isn’t saying that her efforts are unappreciated or unimportant. Again, I like N.T. Wright’s translation: “Martha, Martha…you are fretting and fussing about so many things.” Jesus certainly wants to commend Mary for her desire to listen and learn, but he isn’t dismissive of Martha’s efforts to provide for his needs. He is just gently chiding her for her “fretting and fussing.” And perhaps he is reminding her to remember her own needs. No one can run on empty for long. Everyone needs to stop for gas, to re-fuel and re-energize themselves, both physically and spiritually.
I find it interesting that this story follows immediately after the story of the Good Samaritan which we read last Sunday. If we ever needed proof that Martha’s active, hands-on, can-do spirit was a good thing, then we practically see her double in the person of the Good Samaritan who went all out to save the man who had been beaten and robbed and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Some commentators have wondered if Luke purposely placed these two accounts next to each other to show that both parts of the great commandment are equally important. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength – that is what Mary was doing. And you must love your neighbor as yourself – that is what Martha was doing. It’s never either/or; it’s always both/and. And the trick is to keep these two things in balance so that you don’t run out of gas, like Martha, or fail to address the needs of others, like Mary.
We do need to address the rather troublesome last verse of our reading, however. There it sounds as if Jesus was saying that Mary’s choice to sit at his feet and to spend time with Jesus rather than doing for Jesus was the better choice. I called this verse troublesome because there are at least five variant readings of it. That means that the ancient manuscripts that record this verse don’t agree with one another, so we’re not actually sure about what Jesus said. It does seem reasonable to assume that Jesus wouldn’t have contradicted his own story of the Good Samaritan by implying that the priest and the Levite had actually made the better choice. It seems more likely that this account of Jesus’ visit with Martha and Mary serves as a counter-balance to the Good Samaritan story to show that you can’t just be a Good Samaritan; you also must sit at the feet of the Lord, showing your love by spending time in his presence and by listening to his word.
That is the only way for us to re-fuel and to fill our empty tanks with the very power of God to do good. It is the only way for us to re-focus and get a clear sense of what we must do to fulfill God’s will in the world. It is the only way to stay connected to Jesus which really is our first calling. And perhaps that does make Mary’s choice ‘better’ since it is our relationship with Jesus that must come first. It is our love for Jesus that moves us to love our neighbor. If we try to love and serve our neighbors (like Martha) without first loving Jesus and spending time in his presence (like Mary), we will soon find ourselves running out of gas.
I was really lucky when I ran out of gas on that busy stretch of road in front of the old airport. I was blocking an entire lane of traffic, and that wasn’t good at all, but I could see a gas station from where I was stranded. All I had to do was walk about a block and fill a can with gas to get my engine started again. I was lucky. And we are all that fortunate in that we can easily find ways to sit at Jesus’ feet and fill up our empty lives. Prayer is possible anywhere and at any time. The Scriptures are always available to us. We can easily talk to one another about our faith and be encouraged and refreshed. And the Lord’s Table is always a place where we can be continually fed and where our first and fundamental relationship with Jesus can be strengthened. There is no need for us to drive on empty, and we never have to run out of gas. So be like Mary and Martha. That is the only way to fulfill both parts of the Great Commandment, to love God and your neighbor.