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"The Source: Mary not Martha" Sermon from Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Source: Mary not Martha

John 10:1-4, 17-27

Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking

Epworth UMC, Berkeley, CA

August 28, 2022


There are good sermons and not so good sermons. Fortunately, though, whatever the words of the preacher, the Holy Spirit intervenes delivering to the ears and heart of a worshipper a message enhanced by God’s voice. I always appreciate your feedback and thoughts about any particular sermon because I believe that preaching is really best understood as a dialogue, and ongoing conversation between pastor and people. In over 5 years at Epworth, perhaps the sermon that has received the most positive and excited feedback was one preached in the summer before the pandemic on the scripture from the 10th chapter of Luke, in which Jesus comes to visit Martha and Mary.

Without preaching the whole sermon again, as the scripture has been translated and interpreted, Jesus comes into the town where Mary and Martha live, goes back to their home, and gathers a group to him and begins to teach. The group includes Mary, while the other sister, Martha, does the cooking, serving and cleaning up. Martha addresses Jesus that Mary isn’t helping and Jesus tells her, essentially, stop being so dramatic, Mary is doing what is better.

It's a story that has rankled many, but what new scholarship has found is that in fact the original text says nothing about going to a home. The word “home” was inserted by a much late editor, and that Mary was likely out travelling as an evangelist, NOT EVEN THERE, when this story occurs. Though the word “better” is used by Jesus to describe Mary’s work as preferenced over Martha’s, in fact in the original work the connotation is more nuanced. Better is only in reference to the fact that being a travelling evangelist was better for Mary herself, more in keeping with her own call, and not meant as a superlative or comparison against Martha, who had her own call, which may or may not have actually been about cooking.

There is so much in the new scholarship of this story that is liberative and sounds a lot more like Jesus than the way it’s been told for centuries, so it’s not surprising to me that this sermon was received with excitement.

In today’s text from John, we also encounter Mary and Martha. The scripture begins “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.” For centuries, preachers have tied together this Mary and Martha with the Mary and Martha from Luke 10, that other story.

Cognitive psychologists tell us that our minds are predisposed to look for connections and to harmonize things. It helps with the millions of data points our brains are constantly processing, it can facilitate social relationships. But it is this same phenomenon that undergirds implicit bias so we need to be exceedingly careful about unconscious cognitive connections and try our best to bring them into consciousness.

We know that our Bible is not a book by a single author, and that editors over time attempted to make the text more readable and understandable by “harmonizing” aspects that didn’t seem to fit together, or to just make this multi-sourced book more coherent. Much of this harmonizing happened millenia ago when the sources were newer and what has been “harmonized” is invisible to us now.

This is Back to School weekend, so I want to share a story this morning about a student who was called to study, and through her answering of that call, has made something that was invisible, visible. This story was shared by Church History Scholar Diana Butler Bass at the Wild Goose Festival, an annual festival of progressive Christianity in North Carolina, this year. The student is Elizabeth Shrader. A few years ago, she was praying in the garden of a church in upper Manhattan when she heard the words “Follow Mary Magdalene.” An Episcopalian, Elizabeth called up the Episcopal seminary in New York City and said, “I need to learn more about Mary Magdalene. How do I do that?” and they told her she could enroll in a Master’s program in New Testament Studies which would include study on Mary Magdalene. And so she did.

When Elizabeth got to the point of picking a thesis topic, she told her advisor that she wanted to write on Mary Magdalene and John 11. And her advisor, as quoted by Bass said, “"Absolutely." And then she said, "Do you know that these texts have lately become available digitized? And so if you want to study Mary Magdalene, I want you to look at the earliest possible New Testament texts and try to say something new about them."

What is amazing about this point in history is that so much of learning has become democratized. Whole libraries are online, I have three major systems completely available to me just through my phone! And obscure primary sources in remote locations that were previously only available to scholars who had time and big research budgets, are now available to anyone with a device and an internet connection. These primary sources include the papyri on which the earliest copies of Christian and Hebrew sacred scripture were written. And one of these is Papyrus 66 which is the oldest and most complete version of we have of John 11.

So Elizabeth pulled up Papyrus 66 on her computer, and as she got into the text, she noticed something odd in the first sentence of the Greek. The text read, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and his sister Mary.” Huh? The scripture you heard read this morning said “the village of Mary and HER sister Martha.” What is going on here? What Elizabeth discovered was that the Greek letter iota, which is makes up the Greek spelling of Mary, had been changed to the Greek letter theta, thereby changing the name in the text from Mary to Martha. And the pronoun “his”referring to Lazarus, had been changed to “her” referring to the first named Mary, HER sister, which established two women in the story instead of one.

Elizabeth traced this thread through the whole text and found that in every instance in the rest of John 11 and 12 where our English text now says “Martha” the Papyrus, the original text, read, “Mary.” The story changed from being about Lazarus’ sister who was in dialogue with Jesus, to two sisters, Mary and Martha. But there weren’t two women in the original story. There was no Martha. So not only did this obscure the original story, the John 11 which we have today began to get conflated with Luke 10 which seemed to be about the same family—Mary, Martha and Lazarus. But as our scholarship has become more precise, we’ve learned that no Lazarus is mentioned in Luke 10 and no Martha is mentioned in John 11. Different families.

So of course this is interesting and accuracy matters. When we think about the amount of time we Christians and scholars have spent pouring over each word of the New Testament and Hebrew Scriptures, interpreting and patterning our lives over what we believe it says, accuracy matters.

But there is something even more important about what Elizabeth Shrader discovered. In John 11, the character who has been edited to be Martha and Jesus have a discourse about the resurrection of her brother Lazarus. Now we know this was actually a discourse between Mary and Jesus. And in this discourse, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And MARY responds, ““Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

This is one of two statements in scripture of what is known as a Christological confession—these are important declarations about the nature of Jesus and the testimony of a follower about their belief. The other Christological confession is declared by Peter when Jesus asks him “Who am I?” and Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” and Jesus responds, “You are Peter and up on this rock I will build my church.”

And until now we haven’t paid much attention to this other confession in John 11 because it was uttered by a minor character, Martha. But now we know this was actually Mary. Mary Magdalene. And here’s the kicker. Always we have understood the “Magdalene” part of Mary’s name to be a reference to her hometown—Magdala. But in separating the two stories of John 11 and Luke 10, and recovering the fullness of the Mary in John 11, we see that the village THIS Mary lived in was not Magdala, but Bethany, a village in a different part of Palestine. So what does Magdala refer to? Well, “Magdala” in Aramaic, Jesus’ language, means “Tower.” What is becoming clear is that Magdalene may very well be a title—Mary Magdalene means Mary the Tower. Just as Peter was proclaimed the rock upon which the church would be built, Mary was proclaimed the Tower from which we can see all heaven and earth. Diana Butler Bass said that when Elizabeth Shrader shared with her about this part of her research, Bass began to cry. It was as if a veil had lifted and a piece of the tradition she had devoted her life to, a piece that didn’t exactly fit or felt kind of off, suddenly became not just clear but truly life-giving and liberative.

This is, of course, an amazing discovery, so amazing that it was picked up by the Harvard Theological Review and sparked a global debate among New Testament scholars about whether or not John 11 should be fully changed or this discovery should exist in a footnote. I can tell you this morning my opinion about the matter is definite: CHANGE THE TEXT! Why? Because it matters not just in accuracy, but it matters to women and girls and female identified people all over the world now and forever. It challenges the norms of patriarchy and demonstrates a mutuality in Jesus’ relationship with those who followed him. It shows equal respect and gender inclusivity in those who were closest to him, upon whom he relied, and upon whom he bestowed the blessing of carrying the legacy of the church.

As Diana Butler Bass put it, “What if the other story of Mary hadn't been hidden? What if Mary in John 11 hadn't been split into two women [and Martha inserted]? What if we'd known about Mary the Tower all along? What kind of Christianity would we have if the faith hadn’t only been based upon, "Peter, you are the Rock and upon this Rock I will build my church"? But what if we’d always known, “Mary, you are the Tower, and by this Tower we shall all stand?”

My friends, had that happened, I believe we would be living in a different world. But it’s not too late! It’s never too late, as this discovery shows. And it remains up to us to make wise use of the findings of research and of scholarship. So students and teachers, do your work well! We need you to grow and to learn. We need you in order to live freely and to understand what God is truly saying to us. The truth is that we all need to continually be students as we open ourselves and intentionally pursue greater knowledge and understanding. May we recognize the opportunity to share what we know—parents are teachers, friends are teachers, even chance encounters can be teachers. May we recognize that we are all learners, all students, and all sharers of knowledge as we continue to receive the depth of God’s revelation in the world. May it be so. Amen.

Order of Worship


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