Two sisters: Mary and Martha. They are one of the most famous female duos in history. We’ve all heard the lesson “don’t be a Martha, be a Mary”, telling us that Martha was flapping about in a panic but Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, listening. Mary did the right thing. Martha on the other hand…
Actually, Martha has been the subject of quite a bit of sympathy. A theology website pointed me to a poem by Rudyard Kipling called “The Sons of Martha”. I quote certain verses here:
The sons of Martha… “do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose. They do not teach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand. Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren’s days may be long in the land.
And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessed — they know the angels are on their side. They know in them is the Grace confessed, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the Feet — they hear the Word — they see how truly the Promise Runs: They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and — the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons.”
Mr Kipling is making a point. It’s a point repeated by George Orwell and articulated by the journalist Richard Grenier: “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf”. We enjoy peace because the army and police are ready to physically protect us from bad people.
So why pick on Martha!? Mary can sit and learn and enjoy herself because Martha is feeding the disciples! Mary is neglecting her duty! Surely Jesus has this wrong!
We should always be aware of the context of passages, and the overall themes and concerns of an author. Luke gives us this story straight after the Good Samaritan, which basically says practical help is essential. The practical care you give to people in need is the proof that you really love God and your neighbour. In other words, in this context, Martha’s behaviour cannot be bad! She is not being condemned in this story.
We humans learn best when we are doing things. Actions speak to us in ways that abstract ideas do not. When we do something we learn far more than when we understand a concept. Indeed, reality is where many concepts (like communism) come undone. Thus when we serve, when we care, and when we give practical love, we grow and understand life and the compassion of God far better than when we sit and learn from a book.
For me, the experience of caring for sick and elderly people shaped me far more than anything I read about care. The experience of visiting the YMCA in my home town, and the Salvation Army in Moscow, taught me far more than reading websites or newspaper articles about poverty.
There really is no substitute for putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand their problems.
To summarise: Martha is not doing the wrong thing. She is serving, and practical action is praised by Jesus as evidence of loving God.
This week, a member of our church has been managing water engineers, lost keys and dealing with church security. We need people like her! People like Martha, and Jesus praises your hard work and commitment to serve.
So where is the problem?
May I suggest the problem comes from three areas. The first is attitude. Martha is judgemental and trying to control other people. She is jealous and frustrated. A humble person would look inwardly, asking “where is my frustration coming from?”, identify the source in judgementalism, and do a reset: thank you Lord that my sister Mary is having a rest!
Instead Martha is distracted, worried, anxious and troubled. This leads her to accuse Jesus of not caring that her sister has left her to do the work! She is bossing Jesus about, trying to manipulate him! She is ordering Jesus to tell her sister to help her! It’s very passive aggressive!
The second is Mary’s faith. Think about this: I’ve always seen Mary as a sweet delicate lady, but she is sitting at the feet of Jesus, like the men, in a culture where the women should not be doing that!
She is breaking social convention! Sure, Jesus is welcoming her, but she is also showing remarkable faith and determination to sit and be judged by those around her. I think Mary is the founder of ‘Girl Power’! She is showing faith and bravery, and Jesus commends her for being willing to endure social criticism for the sake of learning more from Christ.
And thirdly, Mary had recognised what our New Testament reading in Colossians was telling us. I don’t think the words can be said any better, do I’ll repeat Colossians: He – Jesus – is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Mary saw the image of the invisible God sitting before her. Martha was too busy in herself, too wrapped up in her own serving performance, and conforming to others, to see who was actually there.
There is a difference between being a good host because you care for the person visiting, and going through the motions of care, but your heart is elsewhere.
So, Mr Kipling, you got your dichotomy wrong. It’s not a choice between Mary and Martha, the spiritual life and the physical life, between head knowledge and serving. It’s both, and it’s balance.
Lives of service to God expressed as love for your neighbour begin in spending time with God. That’s why Mother Teresa and the nuns of Calcutta prayed in the morning and worshipped before ministering to the world’s poorest and sickest people. That’s why worshipping communities of Christian friars often opened and ran hospitals, pioneering health care across the world. Their service began in prayer, worship and commitment to Jesus.
The spiritual life of prayer and contemplation, of learning from Jesus and of worship, must lead his disciples to service. Mary simply got the order right: learn and worship, and then serve.