Seen but not Heard

Last night I preached the following sermon in honor of Mother’s day. The text was Luke 10:38-42. I hope you enjoy!

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The other day I was reading a book Stricken by God?  and I came across this story about Alba. Alba is from a small town in Honduras near Tegucigalpa, the capital. The second daughter of fourteen children, she had a hard life. Her father was an alcoholic, and he drank until they didn’t have a home to live in. Her mom began working as a maid, but her drunk of a husband believed that she was seeing other men. If mom brought food home he would throw it out. If she brought money he would beat her, take the money, and go drinking.

As you can see, from her childhood, Alba learned her place. She had to keep quiet, seen but not heard. She learned that it was safer not to speak than to say the wrong thing and to have to face derision, or even worse, abuse.

When she was in third grade, some relative invited her to live with them. They told her that they could give her food and clothing and that they could pay for her studies. It was all a lie. Instead of rescuing her they made her a slave. The only food she got was that which was left over when everyone else finished. She had to work all day; without pay, without respect. Alba learned how to survive, and it was the same lesson from her earlier childhood. A woman survived by staying quiet, seen but not heard.

After escaping this life, she went to the city of Tegucigalpa, married a poor man, and began attending church, but even there she did not feel free to be herself. One time she shared something during a meeting and someone looked at her with displeasure; so she returned to her childhood practice: to be quiet, seen but not heard.

The world always tries to tell us where we belong. Go there; get away from here; don’t do that, it’s not your place. Our world tries to control us; it tries to make us less than we are; it tries to take away our freedom. Sadly, our churches, at times, have not been able to rise above this. The very place where we proclaim freedom in Christ can, at times, become a place where we try to practice the same control tactics the world uses. The fact that we are products of our culture impedes us from living a life of freedom, the life that the Bible proclaims.

Many of us have experienced this, but I believe women have experienced this oppression more than the rest of us. While I was studying the passage, Luke 10:38-42, I found sources saying that in first century Palestine women were not seen as equal to men nor were they considered complete Jews. Because of this women were expected to complete certain domestic chores, nothing else.Some think that women occupied the same class as slaves and children. We have teaching from that time saying that it is not good that a man talk too much with a woman, even with his own wife. In regards to the religious life of the people, women had no place. They could go to the temple but only so far as the court of women. It was closer to the Holy place than the Gentiles’ court, but still outside of the place called “The Court of the Israelites.” Women occupied a second class.

When we take this knowledge to our passage, according to the culture of that time, Martha was doing right. She was doing what she was supposed to; she was serving her guests and she was doing so well, but while she was busy with her chores, look at Mary. How lazy! She is in the wrong. She’s just sitting around with the men listening to Jesus.

She wasn’t just being lazy; she was breaking every cultural norm there was. Instead of acting like a servant, she was sharing in the men’s religious life. She was listening to the teachings of Jesus, the one they called Rabbi. She occupied a place that, according to her culture, did not belong to her.

She wanted to spend time with Jesus, wanted to learn from his stories.

Her culture wanted her to keep quiet, seen but not heard.

Martha understood this all very well. She was doing her expected tasks, and seeing Mary was just too much. Many of us have been in Martha’s place. We were working so very hard when, all of a sudden, we see someone else who is doing nothing. Even worse, that person was expected, by everyone present, to be helping us. Our frustration grows and grows until we nearly explode. Maybe we confront the person or maybe not, be we are angry because we are doing everything ourselves.

We don’t know why, but Martha decided to speak with Jesus. I think she expected to hear him say, “I know Martha. You are doing everything that a woman ought to do, and your sister is being lazy. She’s acting as if she were a man. Mary, get up and help her like a good woman.” This response would have been the norm. I suppose that many Rabbis from that time would have responded in this manner. I also suppose that when Mary heard her sister’s complaints she probably started to get up and get ready to go to work.

But that didn’t happen.

Instead Jesus says, “Martha, Martha. You’re so worked up and worried about many different things. Only one thing is necessary, and Mary has chosen that one thing. It will not be taken from her.” Jesus, rising above the culture of his day, says that Mary has chosen what was best, and even though she broke every cultural norm, Jesus said that she had chosen well and that it would not be taken from her. Jesus is being very radical. In a culture where a woman was less than human, Jesus is saying that she can occupy the same place as a man.

By way of this story we can see that God elevates women to a very high place. Everyone can come to Jesus. It doesn’t matter if we are man or woman, Jew or Gentile. God loves us and wants us to be able to do whatever is necessary for us to be a part of God’s family. It doesn’t matter what the world, or our culture, says; we are loved by God.

Alba, the woman from Honduras, learned this too. At times, she still wants to hide to avoid pain, but she is learning how to receive love. She shares in her church and visits those in need. She even has the courage to go against her culture and help her husband in his shoe-making business. Her husband has to confront hostility also. Many think that he is less a man for letting his wife work; they say he can’t provide for his family, but he knows the truth. Masculinity and femininity don’t come from what the world teaches us but from what Jesus our savior tells us.

So, why would I preach these things on Mother’s day? For this reason: The world always tries to keep us in our place to control us, and no one knows this better than women. But, if we follow the example of Jesus, our churches can become unique places where women and men, mothers and fathers, girls and boys share in the life of Christ in order to break the chains that bind us and to make free all those who are seeking freedom in Christ.

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The story about Alba can be found in the great article “Freed to be Human and Restored to Family: The Saving Significance of the Cross in a Honduran Barrio,” by Mark Baker. It is published in Stricken by God?: Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ

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