Over the next week the Brothers of Saint Gregory will be eating and drinking together in Convocation. We will do some other things as well, but eating and drinking – both at meal times and in the Eucharist – are central to our life 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. 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 after all!
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 that 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, to establish an atmosphere in which people will be able to have an enjoyable and relaxing time. That kind of pressure on the hosts of a gathering is multiplied as the number of people who need to be served increases, and as the notice given for the arrival of guests is shortened.
We do not 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 pressure. Whilst 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. 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. To sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be their student. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you did if you wanted to be an active disciple.
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, learning from him and his companions. 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. I wonder if we can stop for a moment and allow our minds to imagine what it would have been like to have been there, in the house with Jesus and his disciples and these two sisters.
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 parish house, or engage in social welfare projects, 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. 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; 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 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.
Are you a Mary or a Martha? To put it simply, without people like Martha there would be nothing to eat, nothing organised or prepared; but without people like Mary there would be no contemplation, no reflection on our lives with God, and no risk taking to seek after God wherever God may be found. Of course, despite whatever our personal preferences and natural inclinations are, every one of us who is a member of the Body of Christ is called – in the life of the Church – 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 that hold some aspects of both of those together. 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 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. We know that we are more fully ourselves, more fully who God desires us to be, when we are together as his Body, rather than alone – sharing together in his name the gifts and skills and hopes that he has given us; and believe that Jesus is as present here with us this morning as he was with Mary and Martha in the home of Lazarus. Yes, dear brothers and sisters, he is here by the Holy Spirit to teach us; he is here to transform us; and he is here to send us out, as his Body to love and serve his world.