Martha and Mary

Luke 10:38 – 42

We hear a voice: ‘He’s here! At last! We’ve been hoping against hope that he’d come; and now he’s actually here! In my house! This man has words of eternal life. And I can listen, truly listen, not just overhear snatches that the wind happens to blow in my direction. Nothing else matters! Nothing is going to eclipse the joy of this day! The cooking and the washing-up can wait: this day my life will change!
We hear another voice. ‘He swans in here with a dozen disciples, and goodness knows how many people outside, and just like a man, he expects food to appear by magic on the table, as though we always have food in the kitchen for a score of unexpected guests and places for them all to sit, and water for them to wash in, and wine for them to drink, and beds for the night; so there are mountains of work to be done; and my sister, my sister, just sits dreamily there at his feet, gazing up at him with those limpid eyes of hers, in there with the men, mind you, in there with the men, instead of being discreet, without a care in the world, as though we had a house full of servants to do the actual work; and I’m out here, tearing round the kitchen, tearing round the village, tearing my hair out trying to look after all these people and it just – isn’t – fair!!’
So what do you think? Is Mary shirking all the tasks that must be done, or has she rightly ordered her priorities to sit at Jesus’ feet? Is Martha justifiably angry, or martyring herself unnecessarily? I wonder if our reactions to this sisterly squabble between Martha and Mary depend on our own upbringing and family life. How did you get on with your brothers or sisters, if you have them? Were you ‘the one expected to do all the work, while they idly sat about all day long?’ Or were you afflicted by a brother or sister who could never sit still for a moment, who was always fidgeting around, tidying your cup before you’d finished your drink, even; always making you look bad in front of mother?
Note that Martha doesn’t even mention her brother Lazarus! Do we infer that he’s already outside in the kitchen, hard at work peeling the potatoes? That would be no, as potatoes grow, as yet undiscovered, in America, rather than in Judea. But it is Mary, not Lazarus who is the focus of Martha’s complaint: even she has no expectation that her brother will help her out! He, presumably, is already sat ready to listen to whatever spiritual wisdom Jesus is about to impart, alongside his sister Mary, rather than engaging in ‘woman’s work’. And is Martha’s ire compounded by the universal expectation of the time, that no woman should be seen sitting at the feet of a rabbi; which is, of course, men’s work, surely? Nice work if you can get it, but you do have to be a man. And so she comes to Jesus: ‘Get her to help me, Lord! Take my side for me! Rule in my favour!’
Does it really matter, this little domestic squabble? Pan back a little, see a bigger picture. For, like Martha, we all think God is on our side. And so we hear more voices. God is obviously an Anglican, for instance. He is the God of order and understated elegance. The beauty of our worship, the economy of our liturgy, the timeless sublimity of choral evensong in and English cathedral: of course he’s an Anglican! Of course he’s on our side.
But other voices claim that, because two hours of worship isn’t nearly long enough, we worship for at least three. And the rhythm and emotion of our music, and the enthusiastic participation of every one of the two or three hundred people here during the whole hour of the sermon show that his Spirit moves among us freely and powerfully. And the faith is spreading rapidly, here in Africa. Of course God is an African Christian! Of course he’s on our side. And so on.
In our day, internal church squabbles cause barely a murmur beyond the sound-proof walls of our churches. The guardianship of the sacred sites in the Holy Land make the news occasionally because of the odd fist-fight between monks of different denominations. But usually, nobody dies. Go back four hundred years, though; and because God is on our side, for the good of your heretic soul we’re going to have you burned at the stake! And hundreds, if not thousands were thus put hatefully to death in the name of the God of love.
In the wider world, we don’t even have to go back this far. It isn’t clear how many thousand people were killed in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. And it massively over-simplifies very complex issues to call one side Catholic and the other, Protestant. But at some level, each side claims God for their own; and listening to his voice means we must drown out all other voices, in bloodshed, if necessary.
Pan back further still. One of the few heartening stories to come out of the trenches of the first world war was of the first Christmas. Not the football matches in no man’s land; the carol-singing. Our troops sang Silent night, holy night. And the Germans sang, Stille nacht, heilige nacht. For a few fleeting moments, suffering was shared. Worship was shared. But it couldn’t last, because for each side, God was on our side; and our cause was right and just, so how could he not be? Millions died, before the peace was settled almost exactly one hundred years ago.
Not so trivial, when a dispute blows up to this stage. Why doesn’t God intervene and give a ruling? But do you remember that look of smug satisfaction on the face of your brother or sister, when a parent was forced to give a definitive ruling on some argument? I can still see the tongue stuck out; and the triumphant glee with which my sister, or myself, basked, when one of us was pronounced right and the other wrong. A parental ruling may settle the issue, but it doesn’t resolve the quarrel; and at the end of the day, we still have to live together.
What if God does not take sides and hand down rulings? What if we have to work at reconciliation for ourselves? We have to listen to those with whom we disagree, take account of their feelings, recognise their pains and concerns. We have to try honestly to convey our hopes and fears to them. We have to ponder our own preconceptions and prejudices. We have to risk not finding a resolution at all. But there is the hope that this way, we will grow beyond bitterness and rancour, beyond triumphalism and point-scoring, and understand better the way of Christ.
And so Jesus doesn’t give a ruling in Martha’s dispute with her sister. He doesn’t suggest that Martha take up her quarrel with Lazarus, presumably the head of the household. He doesn’t go off to chastise Mary, nor does he betray Martha’s distress by commending Mary in person. But he knows the pressure his visit has imposed. He knows how much work there is to do, and that it should not all fall on Martha’s shoulders.
So as she comes to him, hot, bothered and sad, I picture him taking Martha’s hands in his, hearing her voice and complaint, and calming her stress. And loving her, whether she is indeed burdened with a careless and idle sister, or whether she is a self-appointed martyr to the cause. ‘Martha, Martha’, he says, ‘You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing’. And thus he guides Martha to what she needs most at this moment: simply to sit down, and stop for a few minutes and just be. And to reflect that perhaps in the end it’s a good thing that God does not take sides.
© Jon Russell 2019