The sisters Martha and Mary are mentioned in several places in the gospels. They lived in Bethany with their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus was to raise from the dead while he was on his last journey to Jerusalem. The home seems to have been quite wealthy, and Jesus seems to have become a regular guest there. It was a kind of oasis in the storm for him; he came to know these three people well and enjoyed their hospitality.
There are two stories in the gospels that bring out the differing temperaments of Martha and Mary. The first is our gospel for today, and it sounds as if this may have been the first time Jesus met the two sisters.
I don’t know about you, but I get the sense as I read between the lines that Jesus isn’t the first rabbi Martha has hosted at her house! And she knows how to do it well. She knows that the important thing is to create a space where the rabbi can meet with his disciples and others and discuss the scriptures. In this setting, in the culture of the day, the job of the women is to stay in the kitchen and help get the meal ready while the men debate theology in the living room!
But Martha’s sister Mary isn’t prepared to go along with this tradition. She goes right on into the living room and sits down at Jesus’ feet with the other disciples - almost certainly the only woman in the room. Not only is she leaving all the work to her sister; she’s also bringing disgrace on the house by stepping outside the accepted role for a woman. Eventually Martha loses her cool, comes in herself and asks Jesus to give her sister a good telling off. Jesus responds: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her”.
The other story is in the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel. It’s not long before the death of Jesus. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, and he stops for a visit in Bethany, where the family gives a dinner in his honour. John tells us that ‘Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him’. So far things are true to form; Martha is in her familiar, comfortable role, and Lazarus and the guys are at the table. But once again Mary does the unexpected. She takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet with it and lets her hair down to wipe them dry. Once again she is criticized, this time by Judas Iscariot. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” But Jesus replies, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:5, 7-8).
The character of the two sisters is consistent in these two stories. Martha is comfortable in the traditional role for a woman in her society. She’s a practical woman, good at getting things done, the kind of person you can ask to organise an event with confidence that it will be done well. Mary is more intuitive, and she exercises her love for Jesus in impulsive ways. On both occasions she is criticised by practical people - Martha and Judas - and on both occasions she is defended by Jesus. She reminds me of one of the ‘For Better and for Worse’ cartoons I read a few years ago: Elizabeth is criticizing the way her boyfriend looks after their bedroom, and she says, “How can you find anything in this room?” He replies, “The only thing I want to find in here is you!”
So what’s Jesus saying here - that practical organizers are bad and romantic artsy types are good? Is Mary better than Martha? Not at all. Jesus gives every indication in the gospels that he enjoyed the hospitality of their home, and his visits would have been impossible without Martha’s spirit of practical caring. Furthermore, in Luke chapter ten this story comes right after the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is all about how to be a neighbour by showing practical love to those who need it. So Jesus is definitely not against practical love!
Considering the passage in its context might give us a clue as to how we are to understand it. Last week’s reading needs to be taken together with this week’s. First we have the two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself. Then the lawyer asks Jesus for help in understanding the second commandment: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan, which tells us how to be a neighbour to those in need. The second commandment is important, but it’s vital to remember that it is the second, not the first. The first commandment - to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind - takes precedence over it. Can it be that Luke intends us to see the story of Mary and Martha as an illustration of how we obey the first commandment?
We Christians believe that God has come to us uniquely in Jesus. So in Jesus, God has come to visit the home of Mary and Martha, and here is Mary, sitting at his feet, showing the devotion of her heart, exercising her mind in trying to understand his teaching. Surely Luke intends us to understand her as an example of how to obey the first commandment. And the first commandment takes precedence over the second.
So when God comes to visit, how do you welcome him? How do you love him? Martha assumed that she knew how. Her culture told her how. When a rabbi comes to visit, your job as a woman is to make sure the house is clean, put food on the table and then stay out of the way so that the men can discuss theology.
Mary, on the other hand, did not assume that she already knew how to love God. She accepted the possibility that maybe her culture and preconceived ideas might be wrong. That being so, she realized that the most important thing was to sit at Jesus’ feet, listen carefully, and try your best to understand what he was saying. In other words, before you work at loving God, it’s a good idea to listen to God first to find out how he would like to be loved.
Perhaps you’ve heard the joke about the monk who was sent down into the cellar of his monastery to clean out a bunch of old manuscripts. While he was down there he discovered the original copy of the rule of his Order, written hundreds of years before in the handwriting of the founder. He began to read it with great interest, forgetting all about his work. A few hours later his fellow monks came to look for him, and they found him in tears. “What’s wrong?” they asked. He pointed at the manuscript: “He didn’t say ‘celibate’, he said ‘celebrate’”.
We’d better listen carefully to Jesus and make sure we know what he has in mind!
If we take the stories of the Good Samaritan and of Mary and Martha together, we might say that the way to obey the two great commandments is by keeping your eyes and your ears open. In the story of the Good Samaritan, a priest and a Levite walk past the injured man on the roadside and don’t notice him there. But the Samaritan has his eyes open; he sees the needy person by the road and does what he can to help. Loving your neighbour as yourself, Jesus is saying, means keeping your eyes open, noticing the needy people around you, and doing what you can to help.
In the story of Mary and Martha, Martha has her ears closed. She assumes she already knows all she needs to know about serving God; there’s nothing new for her in what Jesus is saying. But Mary on the other hand has her ears open, ready to listen. That’s how you love God with all your heart: by keeping your ears open, listening to what Jesus says, and then putting it into practice.
How do we do that today? Well, surely one of the major ways is by going back and reading the scriptures, especially the Gospels, with the prayer “Lord Jesus, teach me to see life as you see it and to live life as you taught it”.
In Becky Pippert’s wonderful book Out of the Saltshaker she tells the story of a university student named Sue, an agnostic who was interested in Christianity but had many intellectual questions about faith. So she came to Becky and said to her, “I’m plagued with doubts; what should I do?” Becky said, “Tell God - or the four walls if that’s who you think you are speaking to - that you want to try to find out if Jesus is truly God, and that if you could feel more certain you would follow him. Then begin to read the gospels, every day. Each day as you read, something will probably hit you and make sense. Whatever it is, do it as soon as you can”.
Sue gulped and replied, “That’s radical. But I’ll do it”. So she started having what she called ‘pagan quiet times’, praying to the four walls of her room and then reading her Bible. In her own words, this is what happened:
One day I read in the Bible, “If someone steals your coat, don’t let him have only that, but offer your cloak as well”. For whatever reason, that verse hit me between the eyes. So I said to the four walls, “Listen walls - or God if you’re there - I’m going to do what this verse says if the opportunity arises today. I want to remind you that I’m trying to do things your way in order to find out if you exist and if Jesus is really who he says he is. Amen”.
The day went by and I forgot the verse. Then I headed to the library to continue working on my senior thesis. Just as I sat down at my designated thesis desk this guy comes up and starts yelling at me. He told me the school hadn’t given him his thesis desk so he was going to take mine. I started yelling back and pretty soon we caused quite a ruckus. It was when he glared at me and said “Look, I’m stealing it from you whether you like it or not”, that it suddenly hit me.
I just looked at him and moaned: “Ohhhhh, no. I can’t believe it! Look, God, if you’re there, I do want to know if Jesus is God. But isn’t there some other way of finding out besides obeying that verse? I mean, couldn’t I tithe or get baptised or give up something else? But don’t take my thesis desk! I mean, with my luck I’ll give up the desk and then discover you don’t exist!”
But I couldn’t escape the fact that I had read the verse the very same day that someone tried to rob me. Before, I’d always been amused to see how Jesus aimed for the jugular vein in his conversations with people in the Bible. But now it didn’t seem so funny. I took a deep breath, tried not to swear and said, “OK, you can have the desk”.
He looked bewildered. He grabbed my arm and asked me why in the world I was going to let him have it. I told him I was trying to discover if Jesus was really who he claimed to be. And I was attempting to do the things he told us to do. “And today I read that if somebody tried to rip me off I was supposed to let them and even throw in something extra to boot. So I’m giving you the desk but don’t press your luck about the something extra”. Then he asked, “Why in the world would Jesus say such a crazy thing?” I said, “Hey, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading about Jesus and meeting some Christians, it’s that Jesus would give you a whole lot more than a thesis desk if you’d let him. I know Jesus would give it to you. So that desk is yours”.
As I said those words I just simply knew it was all true. I kinda felt like God was saying “Well done. That’s the way I want my children to behave”.
You see this is how we need to read the Gospels - with our ears open, ready to obey the things Jesus tells us there. This is the sort of thing Mary was doing when she sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to what he was saying.
Someone has said “Don’t work harder; work smarter!” Martha was a hard worker, but she needed to work smarter. Her mistake was in thinking she already knew how to love God. The lesson of this story is this: if you want to love God, first you find out how God wants to be loved. You do that by listening to the voice of Jesus, in the scriptures and in prayer, and by putting into practice what he tells you. May the Holy Spirit guide us as we listen to the teaching of Jesus, and may he give us wisdom and strength as we put it into practice.