Jesus came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered: ‘Martha, Martha,’ he said ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.’
For a Gospel of only four verses, Martha and Mary can certainly create a debate. Enough to be sure that the sermon will not be of a similar length…
The Gospel is known as Martha and Mary, not Martha or Mary, yet the temptation is very much to take sides and certainly the most vocal supporters tend to be ‘Martha’s. There is often a great pride and justification in this – at least in the Martha we think we are – whilst at the back of our minds wishing that it could be our turn to sit and let someone else take the strain.
There is many a spiritual guru who will coin the term that we should be ‘human beings not human doings’ and defend hours spent in silence and stillness as opposed to attending to the busy demands of life. And most of us will raise our eyebrows and huff. After all, families and homes don’t look themselves; we don’t get paid for contemplating the universe.
It certainly touches a nerve in parish life too. Prayers are important but the stalls for the summer fair didn’t put themselves up, the flowers arrangements don’t grow out of the stonework, the grass in the churchyard does not limit itself to two and a half inches of growth. I’m sure I could go on.
The Gospel of Luke particularly calls us into service; the sending of the seventy two; the parable of the Good Samaritan – go and do – go and serve. It seems almost ironic that Jesus speaks in support of Mary. We follow Jesus, because Jesus, so rarely sits still. But even when he’s still – Jesus teaches.
Mary is a student sitting at the Rabbi’s feet; engaged in scriptural and spiritual enlightenment.
Whilst women were expected to understand the Torah enough to complete the rite and rituals to fulfil the Law, this was the limit of their necessary education. Mary’s choice is a life changing one. She is no longer the sister/servant sitting at the door welcoming visitors. She is the beloved in the presence of the Beloved. No longer a woman of little value or standing, Mary is a disciple. Even to her own sister, she has lost her name as she focuses on what really matters. She can’t be called away – she can’t move – for now – she is in the good place.
Martha’s resentments are echoed in the story of Abraham and the angels – making the invitation; providing the hospitality at great expense, standing by anxious and fretful, only to see Sarah as the one who is blessed. Only to see Mary as the one who is blessed.
Like Abraham, Martha is suffering – like Abraham it is not the act of service that is all wrong but the attitude that goes with it.
The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that there are different ways of serving – the obligation to serve the law that justified the priest and the Levite and the obligation – the commandment - to serve Love.
Martha’s invitation, we must believe, was made with love. When Jesus entered their lives he brought an open hearted desire of all that God has to offer. An invitation to a relationship of growing intimacy. An invitation that Mary grabs with both hands and that Martha allows to trail through her fingers.
One of the Salesian sisters that I work with told me – that Jesus comes into our door so that we can enter out through his. So what does this mean?
At some point in our Christian life, no matter who we are , we are offered God’s invitation. In Baptism we are assured, with an extravagance of signs and symbols, that we are precious children of God. In moments of revelation during our lives we are bathed in the knowing peace that before we are anything else, we are God’s.
They may be in quiet moments of prayer – but they could equally be in the midst of family and work life - preparing a meal, washing the dishes, caring for a patient, helping a child make their first steps, listening to the same old stories of an elderly relative, driving home after a hard days work, walking the dog, or fixing a washing machine.
As long as, unlike Martha, we haven’t left God somewhere else whilst we are doing it.
Why didn’t Martha invite Jesus into the kitchen?
Because that wasn’t the accepted thing to do?
Because she was the elder, the woman of the house, the host?
Because she was meant to be in control; it was her house, her kitchen, her life?
Because she thought she could do it all by herself?
The world tells us to grow up; to be responsible, to be adult. The world tempts us with achievements to aspire to, ambitions to fulfil. The world tells us we can have it all. It doesn’t tell us how to deal with the fact that we don’t and we can’t. Except to push us a little further.
We believe our lives divided between the spiritual and the mundane. So we become distracted.
We judge ourselves by what we could be doing if only… if only….So we become anxious.
We spiral into a fear of getting it wrong….So we become fretful.
So we stand in the doorway and bemoan that Jesus does not care and that he is clearly too busy with the ‘holy’ people to have time for people like us.
If this is being a Martha, then something is very, very wrong.
Fortunately, as the psalms and lamentations reassure us, even this is relationship. Even our fretful complaints and demands are enough for Jesus to reach us through the smallest crack of our heart’s door.
And guide us to our Good Place – where the Commandments are reversed – and we rest in the knowing that God loves us with all God’s might and strength. And that God loves us just as much as any of our neighbours.
This is the Martha and the Mary coming together in Christ. The contemplative in action; the freedom of service; the ministry of peace.
In Eucharist, Jesus offers the invitation. He doesn’t mind if you are distracted, if it is too hot to concentrate, if it’s too noisy to pray, if there are other things on your mind. As long as you are here.
For all of us who live with a sense of needing to be useful; of wanting to be worthy, I would make an appeal. Give Martha permission to sit with Mary - at the foot of the table, at the feet of Jesus.
Let the world wait.
Let the world wait.
Be here – where Jesus is – let him fill you with all that is good. Let him feed you for the journey and welcome him as he walks with you in all that you do.
May you be the wholeness of Mary and Martha.
May you be blessed and be a blessing to others.