Mary and Martha

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Question Mark by  Jean-Michel Folon, photo by Marco Bellucci

Question Mark by Jean-Michel Folon, photo by Marco Bellucci

The story we heard in our Gospel reading today is a familiar one. It presents us with two very different young women, and how they see themselves, how they see others and how they see Jesus. In essence, those are the most important questions for us, too, as we grow as disciples.

  • How do I see myself?
  • How do others see me?
  • How do I relate to Jesus

First, let’s explore a little of the context of this reading. St Luke just says that they were in ‘a village’, but we know that it must have been Bethany, because that’s where we know that Martha, her sister Mary, and their brother Lazarus lived. In fact, we also know that these siblings were really good friends with Jesus, and that Jesus visited them and it was somewhere where he could relax and enjoy their company.

So, let’s take a closer look at the two women characters involved: Mary and Martha. Although we are familiar with this story, let’s look at it with fresh eyes, because as with most things in the Bible, there are many ways to look at things.

First up, we have Mary. Now, there are so many Marys in the New Testament that it can get confusing, but what is clear is that this is not Mary the mother of Jesus. For hundreds of years she was thought to be Mary Magdalene, but it seems not. Most likely she is the woman who showed up in another Bible story, when Jesus was having dinner with Simon the Pharisee as the woman who burst in, fell at Jesus’ feet, weeping, and anointed him with perfumed oil, wiping his feet with her hair. We heard that story a few weeks ago.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone did that to me I might think that they were perhaps a tiny bit on the emotional side.

So, what can we conclude about Mary?

She wears all of her heart on her sleeve. She is a bit of a free spirit, she’s had a life of partying. She might also be the life and soul of the party. In fact, she probably parties like its 30AD. She’s one of those people who’s eternally optimistic, even when things don’t work out. She’s the sort of person who can burn all the food for dinner, but still find a way of making her guests have a great meal. She probably is a little disorganized and makes spontaneous decisions, and changes her mind all the time, and doesn’t clear up her stuff after her. After all, she believes that life is for living, and she lives every day like it was her last day. She loves new experiences, new people, new possibilities, but she maybe doesn’t think too much about the practical details, or how her actions might affect other people.

Her sister, Martha, could not be more different.

It is often said that in any group of siblings, there tends to be the one who is more carefree and gregarious, and there tends to be the one who is more serious and sensible. I don’t know if that is true in your families. But it seems to be a feature that regularly shows up.

Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary by Velázquez

Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary by Velázquez

Anyway, Martha is the serious, sensible one. She is detail-oriented, she is hard-working. She’s one of those people who stays behind and does all the clearing up, sometimes because no one else has thought to, but sometimes when she doesn’t really have to. She is sensitive to criticism and she finds joking around and fun rather self-indulgent. She is great at planning things, she thinks of all the things that might be needed, and takes care of it all. She’s probably not great at delegating – she knows that if something needs to be done then she will probably have to do it herself. Inevitably, this means that she often ends up disappointed in people letting her down, or not offering to help and maybe she ends up coming across as a martyr. See how she is pictured in Velázquez's painting (above) with a very pained expression as she looks upon a picture-within-a-picture of Jesus and her carefree sister Mary.

Martha and Mary could easily be a case study in a psychological test: those kinds of tests that you get in the magazines that inevitably end up in the waiting area of the dentist’s office, or in careers counseling at school.

And all of know both of them. We all know someone like Mary, don’t we? And we all know someone like Martha. They are, of course, caricatures.

In the story from Luke’s gospel, it seems like Jesus is recommending that Martha should be more like Mary, and so it is easy for us to conclude that Martha should just chill out, not worry about stuff and come have fun hanging out.

And, in this particular story, yes, this is probably what Jesus was saying.

But this is what Jesus was saying on that particular occasion.

And we can be sure that there were plenty of other days when Jesus advised Mary to get back down to earth, get planning, get preparing and think more about those around her rather than just herself.

Because here’s something central about this story: although some of us are more often like Mary, and some of us are more often like Martha, there’s a little bit of both of them in all of us – both the good qualities and the bad qualities. The world needs both Marthas and Marys. It wouldn’t function otherwise.

We can learn about how to behave as a 21st century person from the people in the Bible. Although they lived very different lives to us, the essential characteristics are the same. That’s why it’s so easy for us to think of people we know and say: “Oh, she’s definitely a Martha… and she’s definitely a Mary”.  Put together Mary’s good qualities with Martha’s good qualities and you have a great combination. Not just a role-model for women, but for men, too. In many ways, society still expects women to be a bit more like Martha: doing the practical organizing work in the background. So, if there’s too much Martha going on in your life, remember that Jesus is inviting you to be more like Mary. But remember also that Mary can only flourish when she’s more open to being more like Martha.

The most obvious time of great transition in life, and figuring out who you are: a time when your neural wiring is literally being finalized is in your mid-teens, and making that transition into adulthood is a time when you are working out who you are as a person, and how the world will see you. But throughout our lives believe that we have the opportunity to relearn behaviors. No matter what age we are, we can constantly be striving for the right blend of Mary and Martha in our own personalities.

Something, though, that I think one learns as the years go by, is how we can adapt ourselves to complement the strengths and weaknesses of another.

You know the nursery rhyme, Jack Sprat?

Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between the two of them,
They licked the platter clean.

Jack Sprat and his nameless wife have a great synergy going on there. They complement each other perfectly. They are not envious of what the other has; Jack Sprat’s wife is not full of passive aggressive mutterings about why it’s always her who gets the fatty bits of meat. They form a team, and everyone benefits. They become a single entity, as it were. Team Sprat.

Go Team Sprat!

A church congregation needs to be a bit like Team Sprat. A willingness to know that rather than being dissatisfied with the gifts and the abilities – and the deficiencies - we have been given, we can interlock them with everyone else’s gifts and abilities and deficiencies and become a single entity that works efficiently together for the common good.

Perhaps the most important point, as I was saying at the start of this sermon, is about how we relate to Jesus.

And as far as that is concerned, Jesus wants you to be the person that God created you to be. He wants you to be happy, to flourish and to use your gifts for good. And although he knows that you can recognize bits of Martha in you, and bits of Mary in you, ultimately he has made you as YOU - a unique and beloved child of God, a totally original creation!

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