A sermon preached by Alice Lawhead on 17th July 2022
The gospel lesson today is a familiar one. It’s a short, relatable domestic incident that takes place at the home of Jesus’ friends: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
Lazarus doesn’t appear in this passage of scripture, but we know he is brother to Mary and Martha. We know that Jesus loved the three of them, so much so that when Lazarus died, Jesus wept with the sisters in their grief – and of course Jesus performed his greatest miracle when he brought Lazarus back to life. We know that they were friends he visited from time to time; their home in Bethany was just a couple miles outside Jerusalem – about the distance of the Rose Hill Oval from Oxford City Centre.
We don’t know how they met Jesus. Perhaps they were amongst those who followed him around from place to place, some of the unnamed followers who would have heard him preach the Sermon on the Mount; perhaps they met at that memorable wedding in Cana when Jesus turned water into wine;
they may have heard him preach in the temple in Jerusalem, they may have seen him perform healing miracles. Perhaps they had been baptised by John and were already committed to the idea that Jesus was the Messiah.
However it was, in today’s New Testament reading we have Mary and Martha. Sisters, with a lot in common: same parents, same brother, growing up together in the same place, still living together in the same house. One can well imagine that they even looked alike, as sisters often do.
Cultural expectations for them would have been virtually identical. They would know the story that was our Old Testament reading — of Sarah and Abraham — and they would have known their place in it. Indeed, the incident related in today’s Old Testament reading sets down the pattern of hospitality that all Jews would have acknowledged: To go out and meet the guests, women in the kitchen preparing food, men firing up the grill, then the women withdrawing whilst the men ate the meal.
There’s no doubt that Martha would have seen her role in that pattern:
to prepare a meal for their guests – Jesus and his disciples — and then to withdraw while the man of the house – Lazarus – took over, just as Abraham did with his three guests.
Now, there are lots of Marys in the Bible and sometimes it’s hard to keep them all straight: this is the Mary who, on another occasion when Jesus was visiting their home, poured a lavish amount of the precious ointment nard on Jesus’ feet, so much nard that Judas protested at the waste of it all. Then Mary wiped her hair on Jesus’ feet, an act of such intimacy that we almost want to look away. On that occasion, too, Martha was serving, while Lazarus was ‘reclining at the table’ with Jesus.
So we can detect in Mary’s character passion, extravagance – and behaviour that draws criticism. When she positions herself close to Jesus, she places herself outside the norm, certainly outside the expectations of her gender. We could call her a non-conformist, to say the least.
Martha, on the other hand, stays in her lane. She opens her home to Jesus, offering hospitality, and then – as everyone would have expected — she busies herself with practical preparations. After all, Jesus + disciples = 13, minimum, and there may have been others in their entourage. It could have been a lot of people, lots of hungry mouths to feed, on short notice.
Can you picture Martha kneading a massive amount of bread dough, running out to the kitchen garden to pick vegetables, tossing a huge salad in her biggest bowl? Counting noses, setting the table for this crowd, checking that everything is just right?
Well, she’s doing all this work, and she could sure use another pair of hands. Harried, flustered, exhausted, she emerges from the kitchen looking for Mary. I have the feeling this isn’t the first time she’s had to go looking for her sister when there was work to be done. And she doesn’t have to look far; she probably knows where Mary will be – with the men, listening to Jesus.
Martha is overcome by her frustration. She can’t help herself. She creates a scene. Maybe you’ve been to someone’s house when an open argument has broken out between husband and wife, or parent and child. Or perhaps it was more subtle: the glaring look, the kick under the table, the sharp comment. Maybe you’ve seen it in a film where the tension around the Christmas turkey can be cut with a knife. Maybe you’ve been the one who let slip some criticism, brought up some old incident in front of your guests, to their embarrassment and yours.
Poor Martha. She steps out of the kitchen and into the gallery of Bible characters who are best known for the worst thing they ever did. You can see her: Standing in the doorway, hands on hips, she asks a question, assumes she knows the answer, and then demands action. ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?’ Without waiting for an answer to that question, she follows up with a command: ‘Then tell her to help me!’
Mary and Martha, in many ways the same, but in the way they related to Jesus: poles apart.
Imagine the scene now: The room goes silent. Mary, who has been sitting on a little stool next to Jesus, caught up in his presence, looks at her sister, looks around the room, looks at Jesus. She may start to get up, self-conscious, ashamed. Martha might realise immediately how inappropriate her own behavior is. The established rules of hospitality really don’t include dragging the guest of honour into a domestic dispute. Are there tears in her eyes? The other guests, embarrassed, don’t know what to say. Was Lazarus in the room?
Jesus speaks, but not to Mary, as Martha has demanded that he do. No, he speaks words of love to her, his friend. ‘Martha, Martha.’ There is a volume in those two words. Can you picture the gentle look, a slight shaking of the head, a sad smile? He calls her by name. ‘Martha, Martha. You are distracted by many things.’ Other translations say ‘worried and upset.’
He sees how troubled she is; he acknowledges the condition she’s got herself into. Then he tells this woman who has been juggling a million details, ‘There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen what is better, which will not be taken away from her.’
We are left to wonder how Martha responded to that. And what Mary did next. And we are left to contemplate, in our heart of hearts, what might be the better thing.
What can we learn from this brief but dramatic incident?
First, I think it’s obvious that there is a place for Martha in the kitchen, and there is a place for Mary in the parlour, but there is no place for one to criticise the other. We are brothers and sisters, all are loved by our Creator God, and we all have a place in his heart and his kingdom.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul lays this out beautifully. He says that we are all given gifts by the Spirit of God, that there are ‘different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.’ He uses the example of a human body that is made up on different organs, different parts. The foot doesn’t feel less part of the body because he’s down there at the far end of the leg, and the eye doesn’t criticise the hand for not being able to see.
All parts of the body make up the body; and in the Body of Christ – the church – we are going to see a variety of temperaments, a variety of gifts, and a variety of callings.
And hospitality, after all, is one of those spiritual gifts. But those who have it shouldn’t criticise those who don’t.
Second, we see how the cares of this life can interfere with our experience of Christ’s presence in our lives. Martha’s heart was in the right place; she wanted to look after Jesus’ needs; her outburst might have been prompted by a concern that Jesus was hungry and she felt badly that the meal wasn’t on the table for him. After all, she was doing what was required of her as a woman of her background and belief – with the great matriarch, Sarah, as her example of how to behave.
Many of us can relate so well to Martha in this regard. We have an understanding of what is expected of us, and we try to do it. And let’s be honest, Martha is just the sort of person we all think we need more of on the team: a completer-finisher. A safe pair of hands. But she got so involved in what she could do for Jesus, she neglected what Jesus could do for her.
Third, we learn that devotion to Christ must always be the central thing – the ‘one thing that is needed’. Mary chose it instinctively and repeatedly, but Martha missed it. Nothing – nothing – should be allowed to become so consuming that it takes the place that only our Lord should occupy. Whatever it is that is getting us all worked up, that is making us critical of others, that is absorbing our energy – whatever it is that prevents us from sitting at Jesus’ feet — even if it started out as some work of service for him – has to be put in its place.
We must not give primary importance to secondary things; the meal is not more important than the guest.
Jesus loves us, he knows us. He’s our friend, and he has a name for each of us. Does he call us Martha? Or does he call us Mary? I know that when I read this passage I can hear his voice, and I know so often that he shakes his head slightly and sighs, ‘Alice, Alice.’
How much better to hear him say, ‘You have chosen the better part—which will not be taken away from you.’