Mary and Martha
A Sermon by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Readings for this Service: Luke 10:38-42
Have you ever felt like you are putting a lot of time and effort into working for God and not feeling like you’re getting much back?
Have you ever felt annoyed that folk who seem to do very little even though they blatantly could do more, get just as much if not more recognition and seem to have blissful and fulfilled lives of faith while you, bust a gut to hold life together for everyone else with little acknowledgement and feeling like God barely knows you are there?
If that has ever been you or if you have friends who have felt this, then this sermon is for you.
An old wizard walks through a small gate and up a small path to a small door in a hill.
On the front of the door is a sign saying “No entrance except on party business”.
The wizard knocks.
From inside a voice shouts “No Thank you! I don’t want any more visitors, well-wishers or distant relations!”
“And what about very old friends” responds the wizard.
The door bursts open.“Gandalf?”
“Bilbo Baggins,” says Gandalf.
“My dear Gandalf!” says Bilbo
the wizard and the hobbit embrace.
“Come in come in! Welcome, welcome!”
Bilbo takes Gandalf’s hat and staff “Tea? or maybe something a little stronger… I’ve got a few bottles of the old winiard left. 1296, very good year. It was laid down by my father. What’s say we open one, eh?”
“Just tea, thank you” responds Gandalf as he start to wonder into the study trying to discover what is really going on in his old friend’s life…
Bilbo however is now in the kitchen “You’ve caught me a bit unprepared I’m afraid, I’ve got cold chicken, though it’s not very good. There’s some cheese here. Erm, we’ve got raspberry jam, maybe I could do something with that… Oh no, we’re alright… I’ve got a pork pie… I can make you some eggs if you like.” he says as he wonders back into the hallway to find Gandalf isn’t there anymore.
“Just tea, thank you” says Gandalf as he pops up behind him.
This is the image, familiar to many of us from The Lord of the Rings, that I think we should have in our heads as we come to today’s gospel. Martha invites Jesus into her home. An unusual step in first-century Palestine. Respectable women did not invite respectable men, much less religious teachers into their homes. But she valued friendship with him more than respectability so here we are. Perhaps it was the first time this had happened, perhaps she hadn’t seen him a while, whatever the reason she goes into hyperdrive. Dish after dish after dish is started. Her focus shifts to the impromptu preparation of an elaborate meal.
This is where we leave Bilbo and the Shire…
Martha is so busy she initially didn’t notice Mary, her sister has stopped her preparation and is sitting with Jesus, at his feet as if she is one of his disciples.
When she did notice, perhaps Martha tried to hint to Mary to come and help. Evidently Mary either didn’t get the hint or decided she didn’t agree that she should leave Jesus’s side.
Anyway, somewhere around the time the first pot boils over Martha loses it. She snaps at Jesus to make Mary get up and come to help her. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!”
The room falls silent. Eyes catch… “Did she really just…?”
A desire to show love through one thing, then another thing, then another thing… led to feeling overwhelmed, which slipped into shame which slipped into resentment …and eventually rage.
It’s a small scale domestic tiff, but Martha’s experience with Jesus is a common one.
Most of us have been there. We are doing so much for God… and others, who barely seem to do anything are getting all the attention.
God seems to be rewarding people who aren’t as worthy as we are.
Doesn’t God see how hard we’re working for him?
Doesn’t he care?!
Some folk go through years, even most of their lives in a silent war with God feeling like God is distant and uncaring because of a situation like this. It eats away souls. People leave churches over it. If it’s uninterrupted, people can lose their faith altogether and become bitter at any mention of God. Martha, and we when we are in that situation, desperately need a hand to reach down to grab us as we start to tumble into darkness.
So how does Jesus respond? Well, it’s something we don’t expect.
He makes a pun!
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
The word for “things” in Jesus’ response is a food word in Aramaic… so it is more like he said something like “You are creating all these different courses… but Mary’s only chosen one course. A better course. Let’s not take it away from her.”
It doesn’t quite work in English but trust me, in Aramaic, it was warm and fond and a little bit funny. He breaks the icy atmosphere with a corny pun.
Where Martha has been so focussed on tasks, she hasn’t even been able to use her sister’s name, Jesus repeats her name back to her… twice… “Martha, Martha”
Jesus catches her, “I see you… I know your name”
Like Bilbo fussing in the kitchen, Martha has lost track of her guest. But her guest has not lost track of her.
Remember, acts of service are not wrong.
Jesus does a lot of practical service – he’s always feeding people. In fact, this passage is sandwiched (no pun intended!) in between two others.
This story is immediately before the Lord’s Prayer – the most important passage in Luke’s Gospel on devotion. It is also immediately after The Good Samaritan, the most important passage in Luke’s gospel on acts of service to humanity.
It bridges the two.
You can imagine when Luke’s gospel was finally published, Mary and Martha, who by then would have been in their 90s would use both of these passages as proof texts against each other…
“You see!” Martha would say pointing to the story of the Good Samaritan “You need to be more like me!”
“You see!” Mary would say pointing to the Lord’s Prayer “You need to be more like me!”
But as it happens, Luke in his wisdom placed this story in the middle, your eye does not have to stray far from either the Lord’s Prayer or the Good Samaritan to find the story of Martha and Mary.
This story is not supposed to teach us that acts of service are not important compared to prayer. In fact if you remember the story of the Good Samaritan from last week, it was the priest and the Levite, scurrying off to their devotions who were the ones who missed the heart of God by NOT doing the practical service. It was the Samaritan – the person from the group they thought were theologically dubious who was the one who was the closest to Christ.
This is not a fight between piety and practicality.
This story is clarifying the message of the Good Samaritan – you can’t JUST do good acts of service… and preparation to read the Lord’s Prayer – you can’t JUST pray that God will give us today our daily bread.
It’s not as simple as saying that Mary sat and Martha served.
The issue is that Mary like the Good Samaritan was present with the person in question.
Jesus does the thing that brings Martha back to being present with him… repeating her name to her… Martha, Martha… for the first time in hours… Jesus and Martha look at each other, really look at each other…
Having got her attention Jesus addresses the heart of the matter. She is anxious, like butter spread over too much bread… he invites her to refocus. In her mind she is bound, unable to step away from her many masters – all the practical tasks she must complete – but in calling her name Jesus sets her free to focus on the one thing that really matters to her.
This isn’t a matter of sitting or serving… this is a matter of focus. Being WITH Christ. One thing.
Reminding herself, Jesus is here.
This is how we must live too. But is this really possible for everyone?
Some of us are in seasons of life where time to sit still is in short supply.
This passage can seem a hard one for folk who are busy… those setting up new businesses, new parents, junior doctors, those working 3 jobs and struggling to have enough money to feed their family, those who provide full-time care for an older or disabled relative.
How are we supposed to find time to sit, still with Christ for hours each day?
This is to miss the point.
Christ is the one who is still… still with you. Christ’s focus has never left you.
Was the problem that Martha was too demanding of Jesus?
Admittedly it did add a slight awkwardness to the dinner party, but Martha’s problem was not that she shared this with Jesus was that she didn’t share her problem with Jesus earlier.
She wasn’t demanding enough of Jesus… she had just got on with the tasks she imagined he would want. She hadn’t wanted to bother him when things started to go wrong. She had forgotten how much she meant to him.
We scurry off doing tasks and not wanting to bother God. We don’t check in when we start a task, we try to hide when feeling overwhelmed. We bother Jesus ENOUGH!
Martha, and we, need to get into the habit of bothering Jesus with our problems, sharing our frustrations with him… ideally earlier… before it turns into resentment and rage.
Christ calls your name, over and over. He calls your name even when you can barely remember it yourself.
Even when you are tired and frustrated and passive-aggressive or just plain aggressive and envious and bitter and even when you’ve lost it and said the thing that stopped the party…
Jesus calls your name.
Jesus sees you.
Jesus invites you into a way forward that is greater than you could have imagined.