Sermon Pentecost 7 (Ordinary Sunday 16) Year C [RCL Resources Index]

Mary and Martha

Are you a Mary or a Martha? That's not a question only for women. Indeed, taking the Martha excuse may be more of a temptation for men, who are traditionally expected to be active doers rather than passive listeners. That is a fairly provocative statement about excuses that both men and women can use. I hope you feel slightly annoyed, or at least puzzled, at the idea that it is a temptation to prefer the practical role of Martha who was slaving away in the kitchen while her sister sat a the feet of Jesus. I said it was an excuse, and it is really an excuse, this attitude of "I'm more of a Martha than a Mary; I do practical things; and what's more you couldn't get by with out me": it is an excuse because it avoids the challenge of a more demanding role shown to us in the example of Mary of Bethany whom Jesus praised saying Mary has chosen the better part (Luke 10:42). I have also contrasted "active doers" with "passive listeners", but that is not quite right, and it is part of the problem, for it is better to be an active listener than entirely passive whether you are listening or doing. Indeed you could say that the part Mary chose is not a way of avoiding work so much as another kind of work, quite demanding work - the Opus Dei, 'the work of God' -- an ancient expression derived from the description that monks of the Benedictine order gave to their regular responsibility of prayer.

The value of Martha's work

If Mary's work is better and talking up the value of Martha's work is an excuse, it will help in understanding what Jesus was saying if we first see that what Jesus said was probably a surprise to those who were with him. Practical work by women assisting in the mission of Jesus was a significant contribution that the disciples must have valued highly. Valuable service was given by a group of women who travelled with them from Galilee and provided for their daily needs -- as Luke records a few chapters earlier:

The value of the service these women gave, though not very much is said about it in gospels, was nevertheless brought out at the end when the same group followed faithfully the body of Jesus when it was taken from the cross. They saw it laid in the tomb:

They were continuing in their serving role when they went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning with spices to anoint the body of Jesus. There they became the first witnesses to evidence for his resurrection. They passed on to the disciples the message from the angel in the empty tomb that he had risen:

Did you notice that Joanna was there, at the empty tomb, just as she had been among those who served the apostles on their travels? No one seems to remember Joanna! Perhaps it is because Mary Magdalene was the first to actually see Jesus alive that Sunday morning, but Joanna was with Mary Magdalene and the others who told the apostles what they had seen at the tomb. Now, is there not some significance in the fact that it was those who had taken the humble practical serving role who had the great honour of being there on that great day, at the very centre of the drama.

So the Martha type of service did not go unrewarded. Jesus often promised his faithful followers that they would be rewarded for their service. What they did was good. The greater value if Mary's devotion is seen in comparison with something that was very good even if not the best.

Martha's faith

Nor is it a matter of faith versus works. Martha was a woman of faith, in so far as that was possible before the resurrection. That is brought out by a different writer, John, when he tells of Martha and Mary on the occasion of the raising of their brother, Lazarus. Though it is Mary who, characteristically, comes and throws herself at the feet of Jesus, Martha had already met him as he approached the town:

If you are in danger of glorifying works rather than faith it may be important to recognize that Martha was a person of unusual faith. She was one of the few followers of Jesus who openly confessed faith in him as the Christ during his earthly ministry. Yet she remained the practical Martha: when they came to the tomb where Lazarus had been buried:

The danger of distractions

There is nothing wrong with being practical and it can be combined with faith, as it was for Martha, but she was in danger of missing out on the things of greatest value, or the one thing of truly great value. Martha's vision was distracted by too many concerns to see the one thing that was really necessary.

That one thing that was needed was, of course, listening to the teaching of Jesus, which meant being close to him and paying attention, not as a servant might attend to his needs, but as a disciple who was learning the hidden truth about God and his purpose for the world. I will come back to this great secret, the one thing needed, in a moment but there are a few more things to note in the words of Jesus on this occasion that can help to guide us in our discipleship.

There is a degree of subtlety in the delicate ambiguity of what Jesus said to Martha. "There is need of only one thing" could have meant that one simple dish was sufficient for hospitality. It is understandable that if Jesus the Lord, your much esteemed teacher, is coming, you would wish to prepare the best possible meal. That would honour him. Just as Mary - this Mary or another - anointed him with expensive perfume, so a well-prepared meal for a large group would show her love and her respect for him.

You might think I am being unnecessarily critical and not as appreciative as I ought to be of the value of practical household help in the ministry of the church. Many women who serve the church faithfully in many practical ways, not least in preparing food to be shared in the fellowship, do so in true devotion to Christ. We should be thankful for that; and I am sure that we are. And we do know that it does not need to be elaborate; but few of us givers or receivers of hospitality would expect quite the same simplicity as Jesus was happy with - he who spoke of simple things like a loaf of bread and a drink of water. He used it here as a parable. Too much of the kind of honour that the world gives could obscure the purpose of doing him honour at all. He was not the sort of person who could really be honoured in that way. To recognize truly who he was meant more than anything else being ready to learn from him, receiving what he had to give rather than trying to give him more than he needed.

One thing that strikes me sometimes is how well new Christians know this. Those who have recently come to know Christ or who have had their faith revived do not want to be distracted from Christ himself. They are keen to learn all they can. Their attitude is different from some, too many in fact, people who have been around the church for a long time and who are in many ways the backbone of its ongoing life always working tirelessly. The faithful work of the long term members is appreciated by newcomers, those fresh to the faith who in this respect have their priorities right. It is also true of course that some of the best practical workers are also among those with the most to share about the deep riches of an intimate faith relationship, and they too know what is most important. What Jesus said to Martha is what all his devout followers know, whether they be newborn or mature in the faith. It is a warning we all need to heed.

Women as disciples

Then there is the affect of this on those who serve and listen to him. This is important to women and in our regard for the status of women in the church. When Jesus approved Mary's preference for listening to him he accepted her as a disciple, a member of the inner circle sharing in the most important things, in contrast to the serving or secondary supportive role that women then as now often find themselves taking. The male disciples might well have been surprised at this inclusion of a women as listeners to their esteemed teacher, just as were when they found him talking with the woman at the well in Samaria:

I wonder if Martha too thought it was not quite right for her sister to be acting as if she were one of the chosen disciples? You do see the danger of distraction, of being worried about many things - Jesus can be more accepting of us than we might have expected; and he might accept people we had never considered worthy, and we might miss that if we are too busy to notice how accepted Mary.

The great secret

Mary was commended for listening. What do you think she was learning? Of course we don't know exacting what Jesus was saying and it would be fanciful to try to imagine it, though it might not do any harm to try. Indeed one of the devotional methods of Bible study, that has a strong tradition behind it and which some people find helpful, is to read a passage over a several times and try to put yourself in the picture. Imagine you were there. What would you have seen if you had been in that house at Bethany? .. What do you hear? .. Who is there with you? .. Are you one of the bystanders in the crowd watching? .. What are people saying? .. What do you think? .. Do you meet Jesus? . Do you speak to him? .. What does he say to you? -- Try it in your own quiet time.

While we can only imagine the words that Mary heard, we do know the central message he brought. He came to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God and to make it possible for it be realized in the lives of people who were ready to receive him. His purpose was to bring people again close to God. Before this time, God's purpose in his dealings with humanity had been a great mystery or secret, hidden for long ages. Now with Jesus it was revealed. The epistle for today sums it up in the words of Paul as he says of the message the apostles proclaimed:

Or in Ephesians,

Through our relationship to Christ, so close a relationship that Paul can say "Christ in you", and Jesus could speak of our dwelling in him, we have hope of that glory in which God's purpose for us is fulfilled, that all things in heaven and on earth might be brought into a unity in him. It begins with listening, the kind of devotion Mary demonstrated in her home at Bethany. It is too great a pearl to be thrown away, or to be missed through any distractions, no matter how good those distractions might be in themselves.

Amen. So may it be with us; and to Christ alone be the glory for ever.

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1. Ephesians 1:9: See word notes on mystery and will re purpose; and Ephes 3:2-3,5-6,9.

"MYSTERY": Mystery of his will = NEB his hidden purpose. HG Dict: 3466. musterion, moos-tay'-ree-on; from a der. of muo (to shut the mouth); a secret or "mystery" (through the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites):--mystery. See note on`will' re meaning ref choice and purpose.

"WILL": Mystery of his will = NEB his hidden purpose +see note on `mystery': HG Dict: 2307. thelema, thel'-ay-mah; from the prol. form of G2309; a determination (prop. the thing), i.e. (act.) choice (spec. purpose, decree; abstr. volition) or (pass.) inclination:--desire, pleasure, will.

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