Learning from Mary and Martha

“Learning from Mary and Martha”
July is Bible Month. A time when the Bible Society encourages a focus on the Word of God. As ‘people of the book’, as Presbyterians claim to be, it seemed to me to a chance to share a ‘proper’ sermon, unlike the reflections and such that I have done with you previously.
The readings today have been read and preached on for centuries, especially the story about Mary and Martha. In fact I am tempted to declare that this is one of the few stories where a tale about women has influenced men as well. The contrast between the service of Martha and the contemplation of Mary became the foundation of difference between the secular life and the ordained.
And we are still feeling the residue criticism from the days when those called to the secular life of marriage and children, ordinary work and part-time spirituality were seen as less than those called to the full-time ministry of priests and nuns.
Even though that divide was centuries ago, we still hear the awe when people feel called to overseas mission or commit to become a full-time church worker. That’s why I chose this version to be read today, because it doesn’t read as if Jesus is judging the work of Martha as less than Mary’s, which is often the interpretation.
This week some parts of the Christian church are celebrating St Benedict’s feast day. This gentle, humble monk would be mortified to think that his monastic rule was used to make the life in monasteries and convents seem much more holy than the life outside. His list of disciplines had copious prayer times – yes – but was also balanced by times of practical work.
But, as so often happens, his simple rule of life, became structured and redefines so that those who cloistered themselves away in constant prayer became more highly valued than those who washed the dishes or brewed the beer or healed the sick or herded the cows.
And as the monastic orders increased in power, those that didn’t live in them became even more devalued – their spirituality seen as second-class.
Those large Irish families didn’t just send their sons and daughters into the orders to ensure they were fed. They were also a way of adding more spiritual gloss. “See, our family has 10 nuns, 3 priests, 1 bishop and a friar. How much more holy are we than our neighbours”. All because these religious roles were seen as more pleasing to God than the everyday faith lived amid real life.
And so the story of Mary and Martha becomes a criticism of the practical work of caring for people. Even when most women, and lots of men were not even invited to take up positions of learning like Mary. And that’s frustrating when you are told you are doing the lesser job but you don’t even get the chance to aspire to the higher role.
I’ve been listening to the audio books of Michelle and Barak Obama and what has struck me is the casual racism of the United States. Neither of them focus on this but again and again I noticed how they had to fight through the barrier of not being a white or rich or in Michell’s case, not male. I also noticed that everyone who wasn’t white was black, even those we would define as slightly brown. It was jarring, and challenging as I contemplated the effort it took to even believe you could have what these white people had who simply thought it was their right.
In the same way I think we have been brainwashed in the church to accept a certain elite spirituality. There is the truly ‘holy’ – the missionary, the ordained minister, etc and then there is everyone else who are just wasting their time trying to get up to that spiritual level. And anyone who dares to think they could be a good disciple, has to work twice as hard to prove it.
As a fulltime minister I had the luxury of arguing that I needed prayer time and bible study time in order to do my job. (I didn’t always get it admittedly, but I could legitimately claim that time as work). Everyone else though had to fit it in round work and family responsibilities. I could call a presbytery retreat work and still be paid, other people had to take time off their work using holiday time or unpaid leave. I’m honestly not seeing how that made me any holier. In fact, I’d argue perhaps it is more the reverse.
As our world becomes less supportive of Christianity or any faith institution I’m starting to see the lesson of Mary and Martha in a whole new light. We have to assume that Mary normally worked with Martha doing the housework; but that night she stopped, to learn from Jesus. Perhaps this is the key; – to do what is needed but to also take the times God gives us to be close, to ‘smell the roses’ as the mindfulness gurus of today say.
Our Protestant work ethic, which may have been a rebellion against the high value the Roman Catholic church placed on contemplative spirituality, swung too far. And we are slowly reclaiming the contemplative side that Mary, seating at Jesus’ feet suggests. In fact, some recent bible scholarship presents Mary and Martha as two sides of the same coin. Asking us to balance the two pulls of discipleship – serving and being.
I was listening to a podcast from Diana Butler Bass (long trips over the Alps are great for this) where she explained the new biblical study coming from the digitisation of manuscripts. Instead of travelling around the world to compare ancient scraps of scripture scholars can upload them on their computers. One Ph.D student did this recently and noticed that texts before the 2nd century referred to a ‘Maria’ as the sister of Lazarus (‘Mary’ in most translations). Later texts had some of those names as ‘Marta’. One letter difference – a change from an ‘i’ to a ‘t’.
And thus we got ‘Martha’ and Mary, two sisters, who may have been one person with the varying responses of all of us. One person whose actions were divided into opposing ways of following Jesus which were, are, a construct rather than ordained by God.
Bible Month reminds us how important the bible is, but it should also awaken us to the probability that there is always more to learn. That what we thought was simple truth may be clouded by centuries of other people’s ideas and even mistakes.
And yet following Jesus is inherently simple; staying close no matter what. The issue is working out what that means in this day and age. Amos had to go from a solitary bloke looking after his flock to a fire and brimstone prophet of doom because the people of his time were totally missing the point. Mary had to defy the mores of her time in order to grasp a teachable moment with Jesus, and Martha had to learn to see that the expectations of society should be broken, at least occasionally.
Just as Mary realised what the “one thing” that was needful for a disciple of Jesus, what is ours?
A short meditation Just for a moment I invite you to imagine that you are at home and you are expecting a special visitor. (you may want to close your eyes)
The VIP arrives, and it is Jesus!…He takes a seat…
How does he greet you? How do you greet him?…
What do you want to do for him?…
What bits of your life don’t you want him to see?…
Imagine that Jesus says “come and sit here beside me”… What does it take in you to do that?… What pressures and realities are stopping you from being with him?…
What is your conversation with Jesus?… (Take a few moments to have that conversation in your mind.)
Introduction to Bible Reading 1
All the lectionary readings for today reflect on various images of discipleship. The first is Old Testament prophet Amos. A former herdsman, we are told, he is called here to push a message from God that the people do not want to hear.
Consider, as you listen, what sort of disciple you are called to share.
Reading 1 Amos 8:1-12
“The Basket of Fruit”
8 This is what the Lord GOD showed me: a basket of summer fruit. 2 He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the LORD said to me,
“The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will spare them no longer.
3 The songs of the temple shall become wailings on that day,”
says the Lord GOD;
“the dead bodies shall be many,
cast out in every place. Be silent!”
4 Hear this, you who trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5 saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah smaller and the shekel heavier
and practice deceit with false balances,
6 buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
8 Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
Introduction to Reading 2
The story of Mary and Martha that we are about to hear is an opportunity to honour the ministry of women. Think about the women who have served in the life of your congregation and the wider community in recent times. Now recall the women who are part of your tradition’s history and who have shaped how your church is a witness to God’s love and justice in the world.
Reading 2 ‘Mary and Martha’ (based on Luke 10:38–42)
Jesus and the disciples had been travelling for a while, and they stopped at the home of their friends Martha and Mary. The women were excited to see Jesus and the disciples and gave them a warm welcome.
This was a lot of guests all at once, but Martha knew that no matter what, you should give your visitors a good meal. Immediately she set about preparing some food for her guests. She made some bread mixture and put it in the oven, and was preparing some vegetables. She could have used some help and noticed Mary sitting with Jesus and the disciples in the other room.
Martha was exasperated. She turned to her sister, and with an angry face, said, “Mary, our guests have had a long journey, and they’re hungry. Here I am doing all the work while you’re just sitting there.” She turned to Jesus.
“Don’t you think she should be giving me a hand?”
Jesus smiled. “I appreciate your thoughtfulness, Martha,” he said, “and you are caring. You offer wonderful hospitality. But don’t get upset with Mary. She’s welcoming me by listening to my stories. I can’t fault her for that!
“I’ll tell you what,” Jesus continued, and turned to the disciples. “Why don’t we help Martha prepare the meal? Then after we’ve had our lunch, I’ll share some more stories.”
Martha heaved a sigh and broke into a smile.

17 July 2022, Rev Stephanie Wells