In the last paragraph of Luke 10 we find the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth once again on the move. Luke says that he entered a “certain village.” That’s a knowing express–“a certain village”–the sort of thing one says with a wink and a nudge. Except that we don’t quite get it, and as a result it’s hard to find our way into this little story. We’re disoriented. Nevertheless, it is in this village that Jesus is welcomed into the home of a woman named Martha. If we look back a couple of chapters in Luke’s biography we read how Jesus “went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women . . . .” Martha and her sister may well have been among those women.
So Martha welcomes Jesus. Yes she does. She throws open the door, ushers him in and heads off to the kitchen to prepare food as a good hostess would. And right here we trip over something. Our culture is so different from Martha’s that we probably overlook the bit of scandal at our feet. In Martha’s time it was uncommon for a man to eat alone with women, and Luke’s story gives no suggestion that there were even servants present.
In his two-volume commentary on Luke-Acts Robert Tannehill argues that Jesus goes out of his way to include women, even in ways that would have stretched the bounds of first-century decorum. For instance, many of Jesus teachings include examples from the lives of women as well as men. Jesus heals both women and men. The point seems to be that both women and men are capable of hearing and putting in to practice Jesus’ teaching. At the time, Tannehill tells us, this would have been a surprise.
Martha had invited her sister Mary over as well, to help prepare the food maybe or to lessen the sense of impropriety. Or perhaps Mary invited herself over; she seems anxious to talk with Jesus.
Martha has a lot to do, but Mary settles in in front of Jesus. It’s not hard to imagine that she asks him questions about the kingdom of God. Maybe it’s because she’s nervous about the whiff of scandal in the air that Martha is annoyed at Mary’s insensitivity. She turns to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
Suddenly we’re connected. Suddenly we know where we are. We might have no idea where the “certain village” is but this situation we recognize: the busy sister, the sense of impropriety, the frustration of having to tackle so much alone.
Martha is doing things the ‘right’ way. She’s doing the traditional work of a woman. Mary “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” is not. Now just so we don’t think that these sorts of distinctions were limited to ancient Judaism, think about Plato and Aristotle—any women sitting at their feet? Anyway, Jesus defends Mary’s choice. He says she chose “the better part.” Both women and men can walk the way of Jesus. In the preparation of a meal grace erupts and shakes things.
We do need to be reminded of that egalitarian thread in Scripture but I think this story shakes other things as well. Let me tell you a bit about an artist to show what I mean. This artist doesn’t have anything in particular to do with Jesus or with Mary or Martha but I think he has quite a bit to do with us. I’m thinking of the twentieth-century American painter Edward Hopper. I hope this doesn’t sound too airy-fairy, referring to an artist in a sermon. Edward Hopper was born in 1882 and died in 1967. He was morose and pensive. He was a tall man who didn’t talk much about himself or his art even though he lived in New York, a city filled with words. I find myself drawn to Hopper’s work because to my eye his realism captures something of our modern situation in a way few others do.
It’s been said that Hopper’s technical skill wasn’t actually all that great but that this mediocrity suited his view of modern life perfectly. Many of his paintings feel like snapshots of sparse urban scenes: a person working late in an office, a vacant street corner, a man looking out over the bleak tops of buildings, a woman glimpsed through an open window. The scenes hang in the air anonymously without stories. Many of them feel empty—the rooms, the streets, the houses even the people. In Hopper’s work the party is always somewhere else. One of his most famous pieces is Automat, done in 1927, and it features a woman seated alone at night in the equivalent of a fast-food restaurant. She is on the go; she hasn’t taken the time to remove her gloves. Her gaze is tilted down toward her coffee cup. She keeps her thoughts to herself. In fact there is nobody else around. Automat is a picture of modern, urbane isolation. The artificial lights and the big windows create a sense of being watched but not being known.
Imagine if we had gathered here this morning and the doors to the sanctuary were locked. You grabbed the handle and yanked it back, you pushed it forward. It rattled and clattered but refused to open. Or imagine that we didn’t gather at all. You stayed at home, read the Bible or listened to music just to feel a little spiritual. Or imagine that even if we did gather we shared nothing of ourselves and we ignored those who worshiped beside us: we each took what we wanted and went on our way. It’s not too hard to imagine. Artists like Hopper make loneliness visible but many of our hearts have been there already. Why must I do this by myself? We’ve probably asked that more than once.
When we think of faith today we often think of it in terms of what ‘I’ believe, what ‘I’ hold to be true or what God might be saying to ‘me’. We start at the same place as Edward Hopper—with the individual, behind glass, on display, in isolation. Hopper’s wife Josephine once said that talking to him was like dropping a stone into a well, except it never seemed to hit the bottom. There was never that clang that lets you know you’ve found something solid, something you know. It’s this detached loneliness, this frankness about the alienation that can arise even as we live alongside thousands of other people that surfaces in Hopper’s art. One gets the sense Hopper himself had a hard time making deep connections in an unscripted world.
If you’ve read the scriptures much you’ve probably noticed that this isn’t where things start in its worlds. In the Bible things start with rigorously scripted communities. In Genesis 18, the story of Abraham and Sarah hosting three visitors, there is the deeply ingrained Bedouin code that required Abraham and Sarah to show hospitality and to protect the visitors in their tent. The same code produced Sarah’s shame for not bearing children. It produced the frustration of Abraham, for whom being without an heir was hardly to be at all. In Luke a similar code produced the tension between Martha, engrossed in traditional women’s work, and Mary who related to the rabbi as a young man might have done. That rigorous social scripting, a culture where everyone knows where they fit—that is not our culture. Ours is the world depicted by artists like Edward Hopper. We have no inherent place in the modern city. We must forge each and every relationship on our own. We risk lives without deep connections.
If that is true, and I think it is, let’s notice that in both Luke 10 and Genesis 18 some serious spiritual work took place around shared food. While the three visitors ate they passed along news to Sarah, disruptive hope she had difficulty hearing.
Of the many paintings done by Edward Hopper the one catches my attention the most is his 1942 work Nighthawks. It depicts a brightly lit café or diner at night. The street is empty and the surrounding store windows are dark. The eatery is walled on its two street-facing sides with clear glass. In it are four people, a woman and man side-by-side, a lone man farther down the counter and the server. The male patrons wear dark suits and hats. The woman in a red dress stairs absentmindedly at her hands. Hopper has stripped the scene of any unnecessary details: the diner has no door, the glass windows have few seems, utensils and food are mostly gone.
In Nighthawks the diner itself is shorter than the surrounding buildings, and this fact combined with the glass and bright lights make us feel as though we are watching four random people being squeezed together It’s like we’re looking in on an ant farm where the ants have nothing to do. Though it is late, the patrons are not inclined to leave. The scene’s morose power comes from the fact that all the potential is there for genuine human connection: multiple people, a meal, enough time—but nothing happens.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that one of the things Scripture offers modern folks like us is a view of meals that contrasts sharply with Nighthawks. We could probably explain most of the faith through meals. Adam and Eve are offered the good garden as a source of food. Yet it is in their eating that they trespass their rightful place and make a go of being god-like. The Passover meal was eaten by slaves in imperial Egypt anticipating that God would break them out of there. Jesus fed his disciples basic food, bread and wine—his own self in fact—to undo the power of death. Jesus’ disciples, and we with them, share in his supper in memory of Jesus and in anticipation of the great banquet of reconciliation. And those are just the big meals. Tucked underneath these stories are smaller but still significant meals like the ones in Luke 10 and Genesis 18.
Why are meals so drenched in spiritual significance? A full answer would take quite a long time to develop, but the short answer is obvious enough: every meal we eat is an experience of grace. It is a gift. Grain that we did not grow, an animal whose life was not ours, water that we did not create, a curry that we could not have thought up in a hundred years. Whether we ‘pay’ for it or not, it’s part of our graced existence. In this combination of God’s creation and human culture we experience the goodness of life. At least we do if we give it enough time and attention.
I like what the philosopher Jamie Smith says when he suggests that a shared meal can be a “shadow Eucharist.” Many of the meals Jesus shares are like that. They’re made all the more significant because they’re a bit like the meal he shares with his disciples before his death and because they’re a bit like that great reunion feast for which we all hope.
If I could snap my fingers and do something for the congregation I pastor it would be that every one of us could share a meal with another member on a weekly basis. We would do that in defiance of the modern life Hopper so truthfully displays. We would say that these meals were shadows of Communion. We would do this in full awareness of the mysterious way that God takes everyday things, even bland things, like basic foodstuff and crams them full of grace and beauty. Instead of isolation and voyeurism there would be connection and investment, knowing that we are God’s blessed creatures.
Hopper’s art seems to suggest that modern people are voyeurs, that we watch each other for entertainment but never really connect. I wonder if his vision of urban alienation has space for a good meal. Could he depict a meal where dinners get to know each other? Could he depict a meal, like the one Abraham and Sarah hosted, where good news is shared and where trust is built? Could he depict a meal, like the one Martha prepared, where grace is experienced and where we become more human rather than less? I’m not sure. There are hints in Nighthawks that it might be possible, even though Hopper’s modern perspective seems allergic to a sacramental view of the world.
I need to draw these reflections to a close, but as I do let me suggest that Luke’s story of the itinerant rabbi offers us four things. First, there’s the hint that being in the presence of God will disrupt things. It will change things. Reconciliation doesn’t let us alone. It doesn’t let our hierarchies and divisions alone. It doesn’t let our alienation alone. Second, there’s the offer of genuine connection. Jesus ate with a whole host of people. His followers do too. In Hopper’s city, in our city, we need to know that this is possible. Third, there’s the suggestion that the mundane can be more that it appears. Underneath the frost of “eating” lies the gift of sustenance and the pleasure of tasting God’s goodness. This tasting is real and physical; it’s not just some vague spiritual notion. Finally, there’s the invitation to join Mary in sitting at the feet of Jesus. In joining her there, men with women, we are in position to receive the grace divine illumination. We find ourselves in a place where the ever-wise God can speak into the loneliness that too often marks our days.