Martha and Mary (or Martin and Mark) because the men don’t get out of the equation!
I’ve called tonight’s talk Martha and Mary – or Martin and Mark. Gent’s I don’t want you to think that just because it’s about two women, that you get to sit on the sideliners, because it relates to men, just as much as women!
It’s a quite
sexist these days to assume Martha and Mary would be the ones in the kitchen
getting the meal ready, in our house, if Les had to wait for me to cook – he’d
go very hungry indeed! So, although it refers to women in the kitchen – one
cooks while the other listens, today we could say it’s one brother decorating
the bedroom for a guest, while the other listens – though I’m aware that that is
sexist too, as many women do the decorating!
The story of Mary and Martha is a story of two remarkable women. Who doesn’t identify with the story of the hardworking Martha, frustrated with her sister sitting captivated at the feet of Jesus? And who doesn’t admire the single-minded devotion of Mary able to ignore everything but enjoy being in the presence of Jesus? To quote the hymn, “the things of earth [had grown] strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” In some ways they were as different as chalk and cheese, though that isn’t the whole story, but most important of all they both shared a profound love for Jesus, even if at times they had different ways of showing it.
There are three stories of this family in the Bible – these are they:-
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 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.” But the Lord answered her, “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.”
In John 11: 17-27
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
Our story all started when Jesus went to Bethany, several miles outside
Jerusalem, to visit the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Martha’s home was
probably quite affluent and we don’t know of any other of such standing where
Jesus felt so comfortable. When Bethany is referred to as “the village of Mary
and her sister, Martha,” the implication is that they were important figures in
the community and that their home was the chief one in the village.
They had become close, personal friends of Jesus during his ministry, they aren’t just acquaintances. He had a deep love for this family, and it’s clear from Luke’s account that Jesus made Himself at home with them. It’s interesting that once Jesus had left home to begin his ministry, we never read of him returning there for a rest or relaxation, so in some respects we can assume that he was closer to these three than he was to his brothers and sisters.
Certainly hospitality was a special hallmark of this home. Martha in particular is portrayed everywhere as a meticulous hostess.
But this older sister, a follower of Jesus, was in for a surprise.
Jesus had apparently come at Martha’s invitation. She was the one who welcomed him in, she was plainly the one in charge. She fussed over her hostess duties. She wanted everything to be just right. She was a conscientious and considerate hostess.
And Jesus was the perfect houseguest. He instantly made Himself at home. He enjoyed the fellowship and conversation, and his contribution to the discussion would have been instructive and enlightening, and I think humorous too. No doubt His disciples would be asking questions and he would be giving thought-provoking answers. Mary’s instinct was to sit at His feet and listen. As a “rabbi and teacher”, this is not something that would ever normally happen – which shows how Jesus’ view of women was not the norm. Martha, the perfect hostess, carried on with her preparations.
Soon, however, Martha grew irritable with Mary. Can you imagine the picture? At first, she probably tried to hint in a “subtle” way that she needed help, by making extra noise—banging the pots and pans around with a little more aggression than the situation really required, and then by letting some utensil clatter together loudly in a basin. Martha might have cleared her throat a few times or sighed heavily enough to be heard in the next room. Anything to remind Mary that her sister was expecting a little help. When all of that failed, Martha probably stomped through to the dining room, hoping to catch Mary’s eye and summon her into the kitchen with a look or a nod in the right direction, she was disturbed that she was doing all the hard work, while her sister was being idle. In the end, however, she gave up all pretence of subtlety and aired her grievance against Mary right in front of Jesus. In fact, she didn’t complain to Mary at all, she complained to Jesus and asked Him to intervene and set Mary straight. She thought that Jesus would tell Mary to get up and do some real work!
Not only that, but her comment to Jesus suggests a complaint against him too. Which is completely unexpected, and shows the depth of friendship that she could speak to him in this way. “Don’t you care?” Martha phrased the question in such a way that she expected Jesus to say “Yes I care” and she expected him to side with her and tell Mary to get on with it. As a guest, Jesus should not have been asked to settle a family dispute.
Jesus’ reply must have utterly startled Martha. It didn’t seem to have occurred to her that she might be the one in the wrong in any shape or form, but the little scene earned her the gentlest of admonishments from Jesus. Not only that, but as usual, Jesus doesn’t respond with a direct answer, but uses his response to teach the sisters a valuable lesson.
Unfortunately, Luke’s account ends there, so we don’t know if Mary got up to help Martha, or if Martha thought “He’s right, I’m going to sit here too and forget the feast, they can make do with bread and cheese!” But, I think it’s safe to conclude that Jesus’ words struck home. Why can I say that? Because of the two further occasions involving the sisters of Lazarus, which we’ll come to in a moment.
A couple of important lessons emerge from this story.
Martha’s behaviour at first appeared to be true servanthood. She was the one who put on the apron and went to work in the task of serving others, her gift hospitality is beyond doubt. But her treatment of Mary soon revealed a serious flaw. She allowed herself to become critical and judgemental. Her words in front of their guests were certain to humiliate Mary. This was both embarrassing and awkward! Martha either gave no thought to the hurtful effect of her words on her sister, or she simply didn’t care. But Martha was wrong in her judgment of Mary. She assumed Mary was being lazy.
Because the moment Martha stopped listening to Christ and took her focus off him she became very self-centred, as she assumed the worst of her sister. Martha became angry, resentful, jealous, critical and unkind – all in a manner of minutes. Though you suspect it had been festering for a long time. What Martha was doing was by no means a bad thing. She was waiting on Christ and her other guests. In a very practical and functional sense, she was acting as servant to all, just as Jesus had so often commanded.
But Martha’s thoughts and feelings had become too self-focused. She turned her attention from Christ and began watching Mary with a critical eye. Naturally, it began to ruin the whole evening for Martha. It became all about her and how she was being treated. Mary, by contrast, was so consumed with thoughts of Christ that she became completely oblivious to everything else. She sat at His feet and listened to Him intently, taking in every word he said. She wasn’t lazy. She simply understood the true importance of this occasion. The Son of God Himself was a guest in her home. Listening to Him was at that moment the right place for her to focus her attention.
One thing that stood out about Mary was her ability to observe and understand the heart of Christ, maybe even more so than the twelve disciples. Her gesture of anointing Him in preparation for His burial at the beginning of that final week in Jerusalem shows a remarkably mature understanding. That was the fruit of her willingness to sit still, listen, and ponder.
Martha could have learned a lot from her quieter, more thoughtful sister. But not right now. Martha had a table to set, a meal to get out of the oven, and “many things” she was “worried and bothered about. Before she knew it, her resentment against Mary had built up, and she could no longer restrain herself. Her public criticism of Mary must have embarrassed everyone there.
When you work hard, especially when others don’t join you or notice what you’re doing, do you notice yourself becoming more critical of others, more judgmental, assuming the worst of their thoughts and motives?
How do you feel when you’re left to do all the hard work and others don’t join in?
If we’re honest, we’ll see that we’re not so different from Martha. We really need to be more like Mary in this regard. It’s okay to let the dishes sit in the sink, leave the vacuuming or dusting, not paint the bedroom or mend the car or whatever else so easily distracts us from sitting at the feet of our Lord. The work will get done in time.
It’s interesting to read this story and try to imagine how the average woman might respond if placed in a situation like Martha’s. My suspicion is that many women would be inclined to sympathize with Martha, not Mary. After all, it would normally be considered rude to let your sister do all the hard work in the kitchen while you sit chatting with guests. So in a real sense, Martha’s feelings were natural and somewhat understandable. In normal circumstances, any older sister would think it obligatory for the younger sister to help in serving a meal to guests. In other words, what Martha expected Mary to do was, in itself, perfectly reasonable.
The same could be said of Martin and Mark our two brothers and the decorating. One hanging the wallpaper and the other sitting with Jesus, letting his brother do all the work.
Nevertheless, what Mary was doing was better still. She had chosen what Jesus described as “the good part”. She had discovered that at that moment what was required more than anything else was to give her full attention to Christ. That was a higher priority even her service, and the good part she had chosen would not be taken away from her, even for the sake of something as gracious as helping Martha prepare Jesus a meal. Mary’s humble, obedient heart was a far greater gift to Christ than Martha’s well-set table.
This establishes worship as the highest of all priorities for every Christian. Jesus would not do what Martha wanted, because it was Mary, not her, who properly understood that worship is a higher duty to Christ than service rendered on His behalf.
It is a danger, for those of us who love Christ, that we not become so caught up with doing things for Him that we begin to neglect hearing Him and making time to be in his presence. Never allow your service for Christ to crowd out your relationship with him! The moment what we do becomes more important we’ve got our priorities in the wrong order. Human instinct seems to tell us that what we do is more important than what we believe, but what we believe is ultimately more crucial than what we do.
Martha loved Jesus. Her faith was real, but by busying herself with activity, she became spiritually unbalanced. Jesus’ gentle words set the priorities once more in their proper order. Martha’s service was a distraction from the “one thing” that was really needed—listening to and learning from Jesus. What we do is vital, because that is the evidence that our faith is living and real, but faith comes first.
I’m very grateful that Christ’s rebuke of Martha was a gentle one. I think it’s very easy for us to identify with her. It is tempting at times to become swept up in the activity of ministry and forget that faith and worship must always have priority over work. In our sometimes hectic lives, we all need to cultivate more of Mary’s worshipful, listening spirit and less of Martha’s scrambling commotion.
Martha and Mary also remind us that God uses all kinds of people. He has gifted us differently for a reason, and we’re not to be resentful or feel badly done to, just because we have differing temperaments or contrasting personalities.
Both were remarkable in their own ways. If we weight their gifts and their instincts together, they give us a wonderful example to follow.
Despite the tension between the two sisters, theologians say this story is not about the contemplative life versus an active life. It is about discipleship, and the fact that it is about women makes it that much more extraordinary.
But that is not the end of the story.
Mary and Martha have another encounter with Jesus in the gospel of John (see John 11).
In a wonderful way John continues where Luke has left off, with the story of the raising of Lazarus. When Jesus received the news that Lazarus had died, he didn’t rush to be with the sisters as you might expect, but he waits and when he arrives Lazarus has been in the grave for four days. Was he indifferent to the grief of Martha and Mary? Loving them as he did, I don’t think so.
But then they hear that Jesus was on his way. Ever practical Martha, dried her eyes and went to meet him while Mary sat in the house, weeping. As soon as Martha meets him in her usual blunt fashion she says “If you had been here my brother would not have died. But I know even now you can do whatever you can.” Those aren’t the words of someone with no faith.
When Jesus says those words to her “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” Martha responds “Yes Lord I believe”. She then gives Jesus three titles – Messiah, Son of God and “the one who is coming” which set her on a par with Peter - not bad for a busy hostess, wouldn’t you say?
This is the Martha of faith, trust and absolute confidence in Jesus.
It is only then that Mary goes out to meet Jesus.
Mary said exactly the same words to Jesus that Martha said, “Lord, if you had
been here, my brother would not have died.” But then she fell at his feet and
there is no affirmation or confession of faith on her part and no revelation
from Jesus. (This is surprising, since she was the one sitting resolutely at
Jesus’ feet while Martha was busy serving.) Jesus’ response to Mary’s weeping
and that of the professionals is astonishing. The words are aggressive, they
indicate anger and indignation (not compassion, as they are sometimes
translated). It is unclear what Jesus was responding to. The other likely
explanation is that he was upset at the unbelief of Mary and the Jews.
There is one final story about Martha and Mary (See John 12:1-8).
Jesus went to their house again for dinner. Once again Martha is the hostess and this time Mary brought perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Because the perfume was worth a year’s wages, Judas thought it would have been better to give it to the poor.
Jesus validated Mary’s actions, indicating she was the ideal disciple (especially in contrast to Judas who was disapproving of her loving actions).
In a sense, Mary has come full circle. She was the devoted disciple in the beginning. But when it came to putting those teachings into practice, she faltered. But in anointing Jesus, she recognised that his death was near.
The picture of Martha is of someone who is no longer “distracted” over her responsibilities, not anxious or frustrated, but someone who is calm, trusting and I firmly believe in full agreement with her sister’s act of love and devotion to Jesus. It seems to me that at last Martha, too, has chosen that good part which could not be taken from her. When there was a crisis in her life, she had a greater understanding of who Jesus was. It is more than likely that Martha was present with the two Marys and other women at the cross and then at the empty tomb of Jesus, and along with them became the bearers of the news of the risen Christ.
Perhaps what we can take from the lives of the two sisters, is this: -
The church needs both Marys and Martha’s (or Marks and Martins) to be the best it can be.
We need to cultivate both the Martha and Mary sides of our personalities – not to be all Martha (practical) and not to be all Mary (devotional). Someone has to do the practical work, but the point of the story is about making Jesus and our relationship with him as our first priority. Some of us tend to be more like Mary in our Christian walk, while others resemble Martha. It's likely we have qualities of both within us. Isn’t it a case of cultivating both characteristics? We may be inclined at times to let our busy lives of service distract us from spending time with Jesus and listening to his word. But we can’t be “so heavenly minded that we become of no earthly use”.
Today, we live extremely busy lives. We have to constantly juggle all sorts
of different things and responsibilities. And in all these, we have to make
choices not always of what is good or bad, but what is best and better.
The stories of Martha and Mary are a reminder that we need to set our priorities right. Our first and foremost choice must be our personal relationship with Jesus, everything else can come after that. Everything else can wait, because this is a “better choice”.