Sermon for 21 July 2019 on Luke 10:38-42 (48 C, Pentecost 6)

Mary and Martha Reconsidered
For such a fleeting encounter with Jesus, Mary and Martha get an incredible pulpit exposure. Last time I put “Mary and Martha” into Google I discovered that there were then more than 55,800,000 references including quite a few million sermons dedicated to featuring the pair. For such a small walk-on part in the Bible, all those words might well seem out of proportion. By way of disclaimer I freely admit that given millions of discussions about Mary and Martha on the Internet, anything I might add by way of commentary on today’s gospel is unlikely to break new ground in a much trampled small field.

At first sight, it isn’t even as if the story is particularly notable, so the real question is why the Gospel writer chooses to document the encounter at all. The key puzzle seems to be why Martha is wrong in insisting that Mary should be out back playing the part of the servant in the kitchen instead of having the temerity to place herself at the feet of Jesus? Given that Jesus was typically on about servant-hood, why does Jesus not simply agree with Martha and commend her for being humble?

Yes it is true we now live in a modern society in a part of the world where, at long last, women are gradually being accepted more for their abilities than their traditional subservient role in a male dominated society. In that context the pickings in the Bible are very slim indeed. And I am not even sure that we should be surprised. We ought to be able to admit that when the Bible was being assembled historians would have found it difficult to see beyond the deeds of society’s leadership of those times. Apart from the odd exception, in Bible days, most leaders were male – often selected in part for their role as military leaders, law makers, priests, rabbis, craftsmen and so on.
Of all the kings and queens, Roman leaders and even early Christian church leaders, the imbalance in favour of males simply reflected the way society in those days was expected to function.

True in those days, it was reasonable to guess Martha would be the one who was conforming. Remember the woman’s place at that time was to be the stay-at- home housekeeper. The woman was the one to do the cooking, the cleaning and the one to offer of hospitality to the honoured guest. Back then women were to be seen, preferably at a distance, but definitely not heard. It was not women but rather the men who were expected to sit with the guests.

But there was also something else. Remember Paul was recorded sitting at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22.3), so by sitting at Jesus feet, Mary was simply adopting the role of a student in the presence of a teacher.

Being merely present and listening in the background is to be a spectator. On the other hand, sitting at the feet of a rabbi was a natural position for one who wished eventually to emulate the teacher and even adopt his role.

Some men not women might be expected to be doing that. So in terms of cultural patterns it should be stressed it was Mary who was not conforming. Instead of sharing in the cooking, cleaning and offering hospitality she was apparently sitting at Jesus feet, and we might imagine she was there hanging on his every word.

What Martha did about this may be criticised in hindsight, but it was at least a predictable human response.

On re-reading this incident I am coming round to think that rather than objecting to Martha’s willingness to serve her household, Jesus might have been rather focussing on the bit where Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary she should be following Martha’s example in that she should be sharing in the background humble tasks of hospitality.

The phrase “tell my sister she should help me” might, after all, be interpreted as being shorthand for implying that “Since my way is best, others should do as I do”.

In the context of a Jewish village, Martha would no doubt assume that Mary like herself was almost morally obligated to service. Accepting the Jewish faith was also buying into the Jewish customs of the time. We still echo this in typical comments about new immigrants. “Well they chose to come here – so they should adopt our way of life.”

Traditionally religious followers often become convinced their personal religious insights are best for everyone. I’ll bet someone here has heard a local say that Islamic women shouldn’t wear the Burka in New Zealand.

At first glance, for our modern generation, it almost looks as if Jesus is taking sides in the progressive camp versus fundamentalist/conservative faction. Progressives are of course very much into equality and would presumably support Mary wanting to learn or even question as a man. If some of the older literature coming out of the conservative Christian camp is to be believed, the Martha like homebody, there to serve her man, would almost be the archetype Christian housewife.

As attractive as that side-taking might be to me (sometimes accused as being a liberal progressive), I suspect this interpretation would not bear up under scrutiny. Remember Jesus is presented in the context of one who has just finished telling the story of the Good Samaritan in which he praises the one who took the part of a good neighbour in offering tangible service, and in a number of other places, Jesus is clearly in favour of his followers adopting the role of servants.

On re-reading this incident I am coming round to think that rather than objecting to Martha’s willingness to serve her household, Jesus might have been rather focussing on the bit where Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary she should be following Martha’s example in that she should be sharing in the background humble tasks of hospitality.

The phrase “tell my sister she should help me” might, after all, be interpreted as being shorthand for implying that “Since my way is best, others should do as I do”.

Remember that all the gospel writers had to make choices from a host of anecdotal material about Jesus and his teaching. The fact that they were also writing at the time of the dispersion of Jews from Jerusalem made it imperative that some attention be given to Jesus teaching which suggests how the soon to be homeless Jews should cope with those with different attitudes to faith, and I would like to think that this in fact is one of those passages.

As Jesus makes his way towards Jerusalem, the gospel writers use a number of examples to show Jesus’ teaching has the effect of opening those who encounter him to new attitudes to custom, to law and to those discovered in their day-to-day encounters. However we should not think that these glimpses necessarily replace one set of formulae – in other words the law – with another new set of formulae to cover every situation.

If Luke was recording this story to prepare Jews and new Christians for the unpredictable experiences they were likely to encounter, Martha’s implied “My way as the only way”, is hardly the most helpful to represent the new Christian faith. Jesus was presenting a new version of faith particularly one which also claims to give preference for a pattern of behaviour in which tolerance, forgiveness and what we would now call situational ethics being used to guide his followers’ choices. Nor for that matter is the insistence on our own preferred pattern of behaviour as a model for others appropriate for our own developing multi faith situations.

Jesus, in effect recognising Mary’s quest for wisdom as being more important for her current situation than her need to conform to custom, is at least suggesting a different way of valuing the choices of other people. Since few of us live in the equivalent of the Jewish village – but instead live in what has become an increasingly multi cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith society, perhaps there is a case for mulling over Jesus’ reply.

We are surrounded community-wise if not own household-wise by a wide range of responses to challenges of faith. We may not like it – and indeed may even resent others in their personal approaches to faith, but is it not possible that like Martha we can become excessively distracted by such matters?

In reality, for all of us, there are different times in our lives when we should be seeking guidance – and other occasions when it is time to act. In others words there is probably a little of Martha and Mary in all of us. Yet since each of us are going to be at different stages of the journey, to focus on someone else’s time of contemplation and insist instead that they join us in whatever activity of service we are currently engaged upon, risks turning us from a humble servant to a nagging Martha.

It is of course only the first part of the story. We can only guess what is likely to happen next. Jesus confirms Mary’s decision to listen to his teaching but the critical step that Mary may or may not take after she has heard his words is to decide whether or not the teaching is going to affect her life from that point. And I guess that is the part that we too need to consider. Week by week in Churches throughout the community parts of the gospel is presented – but I guess there is no guarantee that the hearers are going to use that gospel as the starting point for what happens in the days and weeks to come.

Ultimately, for faith to have meaning to those who look on, the marks of faith will shape our lives. If on reflection we note that we are becoming excessively worried about how realistic others are being about their faith, it is then just maybe, we might recall Luke’s story of Mary and Martha.

Furthermore, it is a characteristic of our age that we tend to associate ourselves with others who share our way of thinking. This means that our Churches often become examples of group-think and instead of being mildly judgemental as Martha-like individuals it is possible the group invests power of similar collective thinking to the point where its judgement is magnified in its effect. Even a relatively small group sharing a highly judgemental attitude to those who worship differently or who allow different standards of behaviour can derive enough internal agreement to condone or sponsor actions which would have been unlikely to have been generated if left to the good sense of individuals merely trying to be helpful to those they meet.

I have for example encountered attempted missionary work in some nations which is blocked by State authorities disgusted at judgemental attitudes of previous missionaries. For example parts of India and the Middle East are closed to Christian missionaries whose predecessors have taught that the local religion is evil. Since most religions teach concern for one another it simply may be that we should admit to ourselves the Martha focus on differences can become harmful if allowed to grow unchecked.

Since I suspect there is good and bad in all of us, it may be time for some self checking. We will no doubt on occasion all find ourselves irritated by those who express faith in actions of a form we currently disparage. Are we content to seek our own faith and express it in a way that does not denigrate fellow seekers, or do we too need someone to remind us that the Marys in our life may be doing just fine without the need of our judgement?

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7 Responses to Sermon for 21 July 2019 on Luke 10:38-42 (48 C, Pentecost 6)

  1. GEM says:

    Thanks Bill. This week I will be sharing Joy Cowley’s poem on Mary and Martha in her book ‘Come and See’. On the theme of action and contemplation together ‘in the fragrance of his presence’: ‘Again she remembers the truth of service./Mary and Martha cannot be separated./One takes in and the other gives out, in a natural rhythm like breathing.’
    I will ask the congregation to place that alongside a feeling that Jesus is the disruptive guest who overturns expectations (following on from the Good Samaritan and a pattern in Luke generally). Perhaps the puzzle is more important than the answer.

    • peddiebill says:

      That looks sensible. I am starting to use readings like that regularly to give a contemporary reading alongside the Bible reading set for the Sunday. My reasoning is that since Paul’s letters were intended as contemporary letters to be read to the congregation, to be true to the spirit of Paul we should seek contemporary readings to deal with today’s issues.

      • GEM says:

        Yes, agree. Cowley’s piece is a kind of acted out meditation. Looking back at what I have prepared I see that without meaning to, I have a mix of vigour and contemplation. M and M if you will.

  2. Erica Marsden says:

    Bill, as the eldest of six and a girl (read, a Martha) , when I reflect on this incident, I wonder why Jesus didn’t invite Martha to sit and listen too and offer for everyone present to help with the hospitality after he had finished teaching. Now I know ‘things’ were very different in that time and in that culture but given the counter cultural ways of Jesus, I do ponder on why he didn’t take this, to me, obvious alternative.

    • peddiebill says:

      A reasonable question Erica – and I am not sure I can give anything approaching a definitive answer. Having read gospel accounts of the same incidents from different gospel writers where there are apparent contradictions about details, perhaps we should admit that while the accounts themselves may be highlighting interesting points, the finer detail is always uncertain. Some authorities make a reasonable case that sometimes (but not always) the gospel recorded stories are not so much historical eyewitness accounts as parable-type stories included to draw the listener or hearers attention to important aspects of Jesus.
      Don’t forget there is an even more important gospel than those of Matthew, Mark Luke and John. That is the one we construct for ourselves (often not written). If we cant think of anything which is gospel in our own lives (including the things which are important to us as a result of what we have read and experienced) then while the Bible contains gospels which matter to some they are not gospels to us.
      Thanks for taking the trouble to share a good question. I would be interested in whether or not you feel my answer helps!

  3. Bill, your response has certainly induced more pondering. Thank you.

    • peddiebill says:

      Thanks Erica. I sometimes wonder if it is OK to share my reservations about widely accepted attitudes to matters like prayer. The trouble with training in science is that it encourages me to be cautious about what faith means.

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