Sermon: Martha and Mary

Sunday 5 August 2018
Commemoration of Mary and Martha

John 11:1-7, 17-44

imageFor the last two months we have been exploring a Summer of Saints. Rather than using the regular readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, we have been going to the less-used calendar of commemorations of saints. We’ve been taking the time to explore the biblical story from the perspective of one or two of its characters, rather than from the perspective of one particular passage of scripture. We have been studying biblical saints, and we will do that again today, though next Sunday we will begin getting to know some heroes of the faith from later in the Christian story.

Today we meet two well-known sisters, Mary and Martha. Just to be clear, this is not Mary Magdalene, though the two have often been confused with each other, often thought of as the same person. This is Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha.

They are known to us from just three passages of scripture. One of them is the gospel lesson we read this morning, and another comes shortly after it. But the best known story of Mary and Martha comes from Luke 10:38-42.

“While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest.” That right there is a little strange. It would be unusual for a woman to invite a man into her house. And there is no mention in Luke of the brother, Lazarus. It also seems like Martha and Mary are strangers to Jesus, whereas in Luke, we are told that they know each other very well.

In any case, as Martha is preparing hospitality for Jesus and his twelve disciples, her sister, Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his message. That is also strange. Again, it messes with gender norms. Women’s and men’s worlds were usually very separate. For Mary to be sitting at Jesus’s feet, the position of a disciple, is a violation of societal norms. She really should have been helping Martha with the meal preparations.

And Martha knows this. She is being pulled in many different directions trying to get the meal ready. She is overwhelmed. So she appeals to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”

In Greek, you can tell by the way someone asks a question whether they are expecting a positive answer or not. Martha expects Jesus to agree with her. “Lord, you do care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself, don’t you?”

Is Martha simply put out because Mary isn’t helping? Is she scandalized that Mary has taken the very provocative position at Jesus’s feet? Is it a bit of each? We don’t know. We know that she expects Jesus to agree, but we don’t know why.

Jesus doesn’t agree, though. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”

It’s not entirely clear what Jesus is try to say here. Our oldest Greek manuscripts don’t even agree about what words Jesus uses here, giving us at least four different options.

Is Jesus trying to say that the one thing that is necessary is the one thing that Mary has chosen? Is the one thing necessary to sit and listen to Jesus? Perhaps. Or is Jesus trying to tell Martha that she is overdoing things. The reason she is worried is that she’s trying to make too much of a fuss over Jesus. Don’t try to throw an elaborate feast; keep it simple? Maybe.

And what does he mean that Mary has chosen the better part? Does he mean that listening to Jesus, studying scripture, being contemplative is always better than getting work done, being in service? Possibly. Or is he just trying to affirm Mary’s choice to listen at the feet of Jesus, even though doing so would have seemed inappropriate for a woman at the time? That could be. If so, as Jesus is affirming the right of women to be disciples just like men, is he also degrading the kind of work that is usually associated with women, being a host? Hard to say.

This passage often gets used as a kind of personality test. What is your Myers-Briggs type; what number are you on the Enneagram; which Hogwarts house do you belong to; are you an Achiever, an Obliger, a Questioner, or a Rebel; and are you a Mary or a Martha? For me, it’s INFJ, 6, Ravenclaw, Questioner, and Mary.

Marys are contemplative while Marthas are active. Marthas focus on service while Marys focus on prayer and study. Marys are thinkers while Marthas are doers.

It can be a useful shorthand. Even the ancients used Mary and Martha as a way of talking about two essential aspects of faith; hearers of the word and doers of the word.

It’s most useful when we recognize that neither is complete without the other. If we follow the Mary stereotype to its logical end, then we find a person who may study and pray, but who not only never provides for their own livelihood, but also never puts their faith into practice. We find someone who is lazy and detached. If we follow the Martha stereotype to its logical end, then we find a person has nor spiritual grounding, who is constantly filling their life with business but without a sense of purpose. We find a person who is exhausted and resentful.

Neither of those is an adequate model of faith. It is not enough to say that the world needs both Marys and Marthas. Rather, each of us needs to be both Mary and Martha, finding time both for reflection and prayer and for work and service.

The second story of Mary and Martha, the one from John that we read this morning, characterizes the two sisters in a somewhat different light. John has never introduced these characters before, but we are meant to understand that they know Jesus very well. We are told that Jesus deeply loves them, along with their brother, Lazarus. The sisters send word to Jesus that Lazarus is ill, that he needs healing from Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus does not come to them immediately. He waits around for two days before leaving. By the time he makes it down to Bethany, Lazarus is four days dead.

This time, though, the sisters’ roles aren’t quite the same. We might expect Martha to stay in the house taking care of all of the guests and mourners, being occupied by all of the tasks that need to be done when someone dies. And we might expect Mary to run to Jesus, to spend all of her time with him, shirking her other responsibilities.

But that’s not what happens. This time Martha leaves behind her responsibilities and goes out to meet Jesus on the road. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died,” she says. “Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” Martha makes a rather extraordinary statement of faith, both in God and in Jesus. When Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again, Martha again gives a statement of faith about God’s resurrection at the end of time.

But Jesus says something shocking: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And then he asks her, “Do you believe this?”

And again she answers in faith, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.” An amazing statement of faith.

Martha then goes back to call Mary to come out and meet Jesus on the road. And Mary says the same thing that Martha did, if a bit less optimistically. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Jesus does not debate with her, but finds himself caught up in her emotion. As he approaches the tomb, he begins to cry along with Mary. He orders the tomb opened, he prays, and calls Lazarus out, alive and well.

The family is featured again not much later, as Jesus is beginning his last week. He comes to have dinner with them again. Again, we hear that Martha is the one serving. And again, Mary find herself at Jesus’s feet, though this time under different circumstances. She opens a container of expensive perfume and anoints Jesus’s feet, wiping them with her hair. She anoints him ahead of time for his impending burial.

So what are we to make of these sisters? They have become for many the archetypes of two different kinds of faith, one contemplative and the other active. So should we just choose our favorite and root for them: Team Mary or Team Martha? Or might we use them as a means of remembering that we are many different people with many different gifts? We do not all need to be the same. God needs us in our difference.

But you know, not everyone conforms to the distinction between Mary and Martha. In fact, Mary and Martha don’t even conform to it. Martha, who is known for being distracted by work, find the time to go and meet Jesus on the road, leaving her responsibility behind her. Mary, who is known for leaving the work to others, puts herself to the task of washing and anointing Jesus’s feet.

It is a false distinction, even if it can be a useful distinction. We are all both contemplative and active, both hearers and doers, both Mary and Martha. And we must each find our balance there. Faith without works is dead. Works without faith is empty and unsustainable.

We find in Mary and Martha role models who are not as one dimensional as they may seem. We find in them both women of faith who also answer the call to serve. They are not the same, but neither are they opposites. They are their distinctive selves, choosing in each circumstance how they will respond to presence of Jesus in their lives. They are not archetypes, they are complex individuals, just like each of us. May we, like them, each in our own way respond in faith to the presence of Jesus in our lives, without being conformed to the scripts that others put on our lives. May we be free, free to hear and to do as the Lord calls us.

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