There’s the object, and there’s our interpretation, and these two things are not the same. This is a common theme in philosophy and the study of how humans think and perceive. Consider today’s Gospel. The earliest interpreters felt that Mary and Martha each represented different ways of being Christian: Mary loved to hear the Word, Martha loved to serve. Both were important. It wasn’t long, though, before interpreters decided Mary was better. Martha was a “beginning” Christian who understood the mission trips and the potluck dinners, but Mary was an “advanced” Christian who understood Jesus. Monks and nuns seized on this. Mary sounds like someone pondering God all day long in a monastery. In the later middle ages, the Church put more emphasis on preaching as vital to Christian living, and accordingly held up Martha as the good Christian worker who just needed to listen a little better to the sermon, like Mary did. In the Reformation, Martha was obviously trying to earn her salvation through works, so Mary was the good girl listening to the Word of God. In the nineteenth century, with the increasing influence of charities came a view of Martha as a paragon of socially conscious Christians. These changes reflect different times and different understandings of Church. None of these interpretations are wrong or right. They show how as times change our interpretations change.
It’s true of this text; it’s true of the world. There’s the world, there’s our interpretation of it, and these two things are not the same. If we’re honest, we know our interpretations are provisional and subject to change. We’re likelier to change interpretations of some things than we are with others. For some, religious beliefs are the most deeply inculcated and hardest to change. Religion has had some interpretations of reality that had to come crashing down over the years. We made it an article of faith that the earth was the center of the universe. Don’t know why we thought that was vital to God’s love in Jesus Christ, but, man, we were mad when we realized the earth revolved around the sun. We’ve had interpretations that hurt people. We’ve claimed that the existence of slavery in the Bible means slavery in America is okay. We’ve claimed that Paul’s description of our new life in Christ meant acceptance of western ideas and European values, and then forced those on others. We’ve defined ourselves over against Judaism, calling ourselves everything from more mature in faith to biologically superior due to our beliefs, and calling Jews everything from hopelessly misguided to things I will not say here. These are interpretations that had to change (and if they have not, they really need to, now).
Religion is not always your most deeply inculcated belief. When I was growing up the most deeply inculcated belief among residents of Martinsburg, WV, was that the General Motors plant would always be there and always be hiring. That kind of belief influences everything in the lives of thousands. Where will I live, where will I shop, what will I eat, how will I dress, where will my kids go to school, what will determine my schedule? The General Motors plant closed years ago. Turns out it was not permanent. Belief in its permanence was a provisional interpretation. Your interpretation must be revisited. You still need food, fuel, clothing, and shelter. That’s reality. You cannot interpret that away. You must adjust your understanding of the world.
There are things we think of as always being there, things we think of as permanent which are transient, things we think of as real that are in fact stories we tell and interpretations we make. The recent hit show Chernobyl on HBO has returned to the spotlight the top Soviet scientist dealing with the disaster, Valery Legasov. Legasov criticized his country and his its whole system for creating the disaster. The whole system, he said, ignored the truth. In a quote now famous because of the show, he wonders, “What can we do [when we do not recognize the truth]? What else is left? To abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories! In these stories, it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we know is ‘Who is to blame.’… But the truth is always there whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants—it doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions—to lie in wait for all time.” The Soviet system rested comfortably in the story that something like the Chernobyl disaster was impossible. The engineers could not wreck the reactor, the scientists could not design a reactor that would explode, the Soviet Union could not have a problem like this. On the twentieth anniversary of the disaster, Mikhail Gorbachev—who had been the head of the Soviet Union on that day—credited the disaster with toppling the Soviet Union. It exposed the stories as stories.
It’s easy for us in the West to see this. The Soviet system was not our system, indeed, was the enemy. We can spot the flaws because we’re not embedded in them. But everybody’s systems are built on stories and interpretations. We tell ourselves stories about resources that’ll never run out and institutions that cannot crumble and crises that cannot touch us. We do that. Everybody does that.
People in the First Century Roman world did that. Our Second Reading, from Colossians, is from that world. Roman subjects were required to sacrifice in the Roman Imperial Cult, which taught that God ruled and ordered the cosmos in a manner embodied by the Roman system. The Roman Emperor was a manifestation of god. Your provincial governor was a manifestation of the Emperor. Leading families were manifestations of the government’s good order. This ran all the way down to mom and dad who embodied order in the home. Why can’t you go out tonight? Because Dad says the leading citizens say the governor says the emperor says God says you’re staying home tonight, young man.
The author of Colossians knows this is made up. It’s real—if you break the rules the system will hurt you—but it is all made up, an interpretation of reality. So, the author of Colossians writes what we think was a hymn he knew, and sings it against that worldview. Colossians argues that God reigns, and God is visible in Christ. God came to us in this human, who was crucified. The idea is that somehow deep in the cosmos there is Christ. Behind every black hole and star, in energy and dark matter, hangs a crucified man who is God. That’s going to be an opposing view to any interpretation of the world. In a negative sense, the hymn proclaims across all times: Whatever the situation is, it is not final. In a positive sense, the hymn proclaims: The God revealed in Jesus Christ is final.
We try to proclaim that in our worship. Our liturgy of holy communion is an extended Christ hymn with all of us as interpretive dancers and singers. We orient our time and space on a baptismal bath (God’s declaration of unconditional love) and on a table (the meal God keeps serving), and around hearing, singing, and living the word inside these walls and out. It’s all a challenge to the reigning interpretation of reality. We read holy texts written centuries ago and sometimes centuries apart, texts that sometimes agree and sometimes disagree. Then someone preaches about them. Then we sing about them. Then we join in a group confession about them and pray about them. There is no last word, at least not that we get to speak. What kind of religious organization does not claim to have the last word? One that proclaims that the crucified Christ is behind everything that is. The only last Word is Jesus, and he won’t let us fix his meaning.
Maybe that’s our challenging proclamation, today. We don’t have the last word. Our world today orders itself on the last word. It expects us to have fixed opinions on every topic, and we must never change. Indeed, we must ridicule and isolate anyone who disagrees with us. We must have a last word on asylum seekers, a last word on climate, a last word on Iran, a last word on Trump, a last word on all six hundred Democratic presidential candidates. Maybe our Christian proclamation to a world that says, “You must have a last word,” is, “No, we don’t.” I mean, what’s the last word on the gospel today? Who is “right”? Martha, working to distraction, or Mary, not working but listening? Who is doing more good, Martha serving or Mary learning? In the Greek, Jesus only says “Mary has chosen the good part.” Jesus isn’t deciding between them. Who is missing the point? Martha, lost in her cares, or Mary, who, seriously, get up and help with something? I don’t know that there is a last word. That is the gospel today, our proclamation today. Our interpretation of the text and of the world is not forever. Jesus, who keeps popping up in the text? He is forever.