The Example of Saint Martha and Saint Mary

We are in danger of losing many things in our modern way of living, and the joy of eating together – with family and friends – is one of them.  I have been struck particularly by the reality of how good it is to eat with others over the last twenty four hours here in Wingham.

Yesterday afternoon I was invited to be with the men’s group here, as we shared food and discussed our lives together.  Yesterday evening Barry and Ashley and I enjoyed a meal together in the Rectory – an opportunity for us as friends simply to catch up and be in each other’s company.  And that lasted well into the night once the food had been consumed.  At both of those meals the food, whilst important, was at the same time merely the forum for the much more important task of being together.

However convenient it is to eat McDonalds on the run, or to throw something into the microwave and eat it in front of the television, eating with others – not just so that we will not be hungry, but so that we can be with each other, and share our lives with each other is a fundamental human activity for families and communities – and a primary activity for those of us who are members of the family of Jesus, we do after all gather this morning for a holy meal.

And so it should be no surprise to us that so many of the stories in which we encounter Jesus in the Gospels take place in the context of communal meals as well.

When Jesus has important things to say, when Jesus has important things to show people, he often does so in the forum of a meal.  We find ourselves in the midst of such a meal in the reading that we have just heard from the Gospel of Luke this morning.

We are drawn into the intimacy of a home visit to a family in Bethany.  When I read this story I imagine a small house just big enough for Lazarus (the one who will later die and be brought back to life by Jesus) and his two sisters Mary and Martha.  But the images conjured up in my mind are probably quite different from the actual event that is being described.

For a start Jesus has brought his disciples with him, so there are at least twelve others in the room, and given that we are never quite sure in the Gospel accounts how many people are travelling with Jesus at any one time, there could have been many more than the twelve with Jesus on that day.  Jesus is known to have dinner parties of 5,000 people!

No wonder Martha was distracted, and probably frantic with all that needed to be done.  We know for ourselves what it is like when people come to our homes for dinner.  There is on the one hand a real joy which comes from welcoming people into our place, as Martha has done for Jesus and those who are with him, but there is a corresponding pressure too, to be good hosts and to give people an enjoyable and relaxing time.  That kind of pressure on the hosts of a gathering is multiplied by as the number of people who need to be served increases, and as the notice given for the arrival of guests is shortened.

We don’t know whether Martha, and Mary and Lazarus were given any warning that Jesus and his disciples would be visiting.  We don’t know how many people Jesus has brought with him.  What we do know from the story is that Martha is under pressures.  And while she is out in the kitchen preparing all that needs to be prepared for the meal, so that it can truly be a gift to those who will receive it, her sister Mary is nowhere near all of the hard work.   Whilst Martha is in the kitchen, Mary is sitting with Jesus, (who is after all the reason why the meal is taking place), simply enjoying being with him and his companions.

For me this is a rare corrective glimpse into a moment in the life of Jesus.  Christians through the centuries have struggled with what it means for us to understand God as being both human and divine.  Generally, we often have an understanding of Jesus as being so different from us that we say very little about the possibility of him having real friends and attachments during his earthly ministry.  But this gathering with a family in Bethany helps us to see a glimpse for a moment of quite a different aspect of the life of Jesus.  We get the feeling that these are real friends, not just in this story but in the other times that we encounter them together.   It is after all, on hearing the news of the death of Mary and Martha’s brother later in the Gospel, that we will come face to face with Jesus as he weeps for them and for Lazarus.  So Jesus and his disciples are in the home of friends, and Mary is enjoying every moment of Jesus’ presence there.

But the tranquility of this setting – these friends gathered for a meal – doesn’t last for long.  Isn’t it true that when we are under pressure, all of the emotions that go with those feelings are magnified when we see other people around us not pulling their weight, and doing what they should be doing to help us out?  For Martha the moment comes when all of this is too much.  She is slaving away in the kitchen, Mary is doing nothing to help, and Jesus – who is supposed to be a friend of the whole family, and not just Mary – does not seem to notice or care.  So she bursts out of the kitchen and demands that Jesus tell her sister Mary to help her.

Are you a Mary or a Martha?  As Christians have read this story over many hundreds of years they have seen within it the contrast between those of us who are instinctively active, and those of us who are instinctively contemplative.   Martha is a champion for those of us who want to re-paint the Church hall, or hold an evangelistic rally, or start a new programme of parish visiting.  Mary is a champion for those of us who say that we need to be still to hear the voice of God.  To put is simply, without people like Martha there would be nothing to eat; but without people like Mary there would be no worship, no reflection on our lives with God.

Of  course, despite whatever our personal preferences are, every one of us who is a member of the Body of Christ is called to share in and support some aspects of both of those dimensions of living for God.  It can never be enough to simply do things without taking time to reflect on them, prayerfully and in the light of all that God has revealed to us about himself in Jesus.  It can never be enough to simply study and pray without that leading to action.  Some of us will be more naturally inclined to one mode of living or the other, but we are each called to share together in both, helped by the rest of the body of the Church.  So we may naturally be a Martha or a Mary, but regardless of our personal preferences or make-up, God calls us to live healthy lives, balanced lives which hold some aspects of both of those together.

But if we hear this story as simply a challenge to me to be more contemplative, or a challenge to you to be more active or vice versa, then I think that we will miss one of the fundamental elements in all that is going on in the story.  Because this account is not really about being one or the other.

Here, as is so often the case when we read the scriptures together, we need to remember that the context in which the stories of the Bible took place was very different to our own context.  Martha’s plea to Jesus to correct Mary is not only about her lack of help with the practical preparations for the meal, indeed that is the lesser concern in her mind.  Martha wants Mary to remember her place.

As we imagine this encounter, if we are thinking that it took place in a home like ours we will miss the point.  In the home of Lazarus there were two very clearly delineated areas, just like in all of the houses of that time.  In that culture, as in many parts of the world to this day, houses were divided into male ‘space’ and female ‘space’ – and male and female roles were strictly demarcated.   The women spent their time in the back of the house where things were prepared and cooked, whilst the men occupied the front of the house, where guests were received.  The public room was where the men would meet; the kitchen, and other quarters never seen by outsiders, belonged to the women.  Men and women were only together in the marital bedroom and in the garden area where the young children played.

Mary had crossed an invisible but very important boundary within the house – and another equally important boundary within her social world.  That is why Martha goes straight to Jesus (and not to Mary) to complain about what is going on.  It is, after all, Jesus who is allowing her sister to remain outside of her prescribed area in the house.

But Jesus’ response is clear.  No tradition or custom or social norm, however pervasive, will force Jesus to get in the way of disciples being with him.  The whole weight of the expectations of the culture of the time may be against Mary, but that will pale into insignificance in the presence of Jesus.  What if that were true for us today?  What if all of the customs and traditions and conventions counted for nothing, and being with Jesus counted for everything?

There is something else that is important for us to remember.  It might seem like Mary’s sitting at the feet of Jesus is a restful passivity, I think that that is often how we read the story.   But sitting at the feet of a rabbi was what disciples did when they wanted to learn, when they wanted to grow, when they wanted to be transformed into the rabbi themselves.  We hear about the Apostle Paul sitting at the feet of Gamaliel in Acts 22. He wasn’t gazing up adoringly and thinking how wonderful the great rabbi was; he was listening and learning, focusing on the teaching of his master and putting things together in his mind. To sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be their student.   To sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you did if you wanted to be an active disciple.

Martha is faithfully continuing her work in the place that custom and tradition has put her in.  But for Mary, the presence of Jesus means that that is no longer enough for her.  She knows that wherever Jesus is that is where she wants to be, no matter what the tradition or customs, or social norms are.  We are going through a journey like that in the life of the Church today.

Many of us were taught that to be members of the Church put us in a certain place, with certain responsibilities, normally to assist others who were the real ministers.  But we are increasingly realising in the life of the Church that the ministry which Christ has entrusted to us belongs to all of us and not just a few.  Our ministry team is a sign of the ministry of everyone, of all of us, no matter what we have been taught about our place.  Their role is to help all of us to live into the promises which God has for us, as people who are able to share the good news of God’s love, and build up the life of his Church with those who live around us.

We are here to participate in a holy meal this morning.  Meals are important for us, because just as it is in the Gospel, when there is a meal taking place Jesus is present.  And I believe that Jesus is as present here with us – albeit in a different way – as he was with Mary and Martha in the home of Lazarus.   No matter what we have been taught in the past, no matter what the customs and traditions of this place, Jesus is here by the Holy Spirit to teach us; he is here to transform us; and he is here to send us out.