Many of us will have read Louisa M Alcott’s book Little Women when we were at school. It centres around the relationship between 4 sisters, each of them very different. They don’t always get one with each other, but they do love and trust each other. Their differences are central to the plot of the book.
Martha and Mary are clearly very different characters, too, but today’s gospel reading suggests that Mary is right and Martha is wrong. Probably most of us, particularly the women here this morning have some sympathy for Martha, and a feeling that Jesus is being less than just. After all somebody has to get the dinner ready, clean, etc; we can’t all sit about in a contemplative daze.
What is a little surprising in today's reading is to find Martha who is willing to challenge or have a go at Jesus.
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, 'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.'
Here we see Martha having a go at Jesus for letting her do all the work while Mary just sat there and listened. She was having a dig at her sister Mary, too, of course. You can just imagine the scene. Mary sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus and Martha bursting in apron on, flour in her face, wooden spoon in hand....
Now most sermons I've ever heard about Martha and Mary always end up asking you to think: Are you a Martha or a Mary? They often encourage us to be a Mary - someone who will take time to sit and listen to Jesus, a pray-er, a thinker, someone who reflects calmly on life; someone who knows how to BE. Martha is made out to be the ‘bad guy’ someone who can't sit still, always has to be doing, and maybe missing out of hearing what God wants to tell you; someone who knows how to DO. Of course we know that we need a mix of both – as Frank Sinatra put it DO BE DO BE DO BE DO!
These sermons major on Jesus' words to Martha.
'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.'
I am sure the vast majority of the congregation go home feeling rotten about themselves because we nearly always feel like Marthas, we too are busy people with not enough time to get to know God any better.
I'd like to take a another look at this story, and to see just what made Martha so mad at Jesus; what she did with her anger, and to look again at Jesus' response to see if there's any good news in it for Martha, and those of us who feel like her.
'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.'
That is what she said; but I wonder if that's what she meant. This is all guesswork, but perhaps Martha was:
A woman who always knew her place.
The oldest in the family;
She didn't have her brother's brains or her sister's good looks.
She was always busy doing all the cooking and baking and laundry the way her mother had done;
And you can hear people admiring her, saying, 'You'll make a great wife for some lucky man, Martha.'
But there was no lucky man for Martha.
But she knew her place ... and welcomed everyone who came, made them comfortable and started baking and making sure everywhere was clean and tidy, getting the dinner ready ~ that was what she did.
I think we might be able to see Martha like that. Someone who knew her place and got on with it, but who must, from time to time have got fed up with her lot, (as we all do at times), wondering why it was always her who had to look after them. Maybe we can begin to see and understand, perhaps, why Martha had a go at Jesus that day.
Frustrated, feeling trapped, busy but alone in the kitchen while Jesus her friend, was enjoying the company of Mary, sitting there at his feet.
Often when we have a go at someone it is because of things like these ~ hidden things, simmering under the surface of our everyday lives. For like Martha we all have the potential to carry around with us resentments and frustrations, the things which sometimes cause us to lash out.
Jesus, said, 'Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.'
He didn't actually say what that one thing was. But Martha knew and we can guess. Turn to him. Trust in him. Find your place in him.
Finding your place in anything else leads to worries and distractions.
Perhaps we can all learn something quite practical from Martha: that next time we feel burdened, heavy laden bowed down with the stuff of life – rather than finding someone to blame – turn to Jesus and find our place in Him.
Martha never bottled things up – and the next time we meet her she's having a go at Jesus again. Her brother Lazarus has died, and she says, "If you had got here earlier my brother would not have died."
This time, there was no reply from Jesus. This time, seeing how sad and sorry she was at losing a brother she loved, Jesus wept ~ he cried with her. She found her place in him.
The real problem between Martha and Mary wasn’t the workload Martha had in the kitchen. No doubt that was real enough ~ the real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she was a man. Mary had crossed an invisible but very important social boundary. The public room was where the men would meet. The kitchen, and other rooms belonged to the women. Only outside, and in the marital bedroom, would male and female mix. So for a woman to settle down comfortably among men was bordering on the scandalous. Who on earth did Mary think she was? And what was even worse for Martha is that Jesus completely affirms Mary for her actions.
What we are often told about this story is that Martha and Mary are models of the active and the contemplative styles of spirituality – leaving us feeling guilty if you’re not like Mary.
But let’s be clear ~ both being active and sitting still are equally important.
Without one you wouldn’t eat.
Without the other you wouldn’t worship.
We are called to live a balanced life. But what we can’t avoid is the challenge the passage presents. For it is not about us - it is about Jesus, who loves us just as we are. He is saying don’t get hung up about what you should and shouldn’t do, what other people think you should or shouldn’t do – just come to him as you are – for we are accepted in the beloved for who we are.