Mary & Martha
Who doesn’t know the story of Mary & Martha? It’s one of the gospel stories that I don’t think we could forget if we tried. Every part of me longs for Jesus to say ‘Yes, poor Martha, let’s both come & help you & we’ll all carry on talking in the kitchen’ – and he never does.
So if it’s such a familiar story, how can we get something fresh from it? I hope so, if we put three different things alongside the Gospel story.
First of all, I’d like to put the story alongside a modern-day experience.
My daughter Ellie is home for the holiday now, and doing what all self-respecting teenagers do – as little as possible. Whilst lying inert on the sofa the other day she was watching a programme called ‘Come dine with me’. Basically a group of strangers take it in turns to have each other round for dinner every night for a week, and they each give each other points out of ten – and the one with most points at the end of the week wins £1000.
In the episode Ellie was watching - and I just happened to catch a little of, too – one woman was so behind with her preparation of the meal that when her guests arrived she had to keep rushing in and out of the kitchen. The table was decorated & she’d even bought little presents for everyone; the food looked good when it came (perhaps because it was just coming up to my lunch time) the wine had been carefully chosen and she’d even put a flag up a flagpole for goodness’ sake.
Yet she didn’t score high points, because her guests felt she didn’t spend enough time talking to them – she was forever rushing off to the kitchen.
I thought of the programme when I re-read the story. Martha is trying to be the perfect hostess for Jesus – but her very busy-ness means she is not being a good hostess at all, because she’s working so hard she’s actually neglecting her guest.
And let’s put the story alongside something else – the story which Luke pairs it with – the Gospel reading which comes just before it: the story of the Good Samaritan.
Here’s Luke doing his ‘one man’s story; one woman’s story’ pairing. The lawyer asks a question ‘What must I do to gain eternal life?’; Martha asks a question "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?. Two questions about ‘doing’ – one from a man, one from a woman.
The message of the story of the Good Samaritan (which Jesus tells in response to the man’s question) is that love of your neighbour means love of everyone and anyone – and might actually involve getting your hands dirty. Love, says Jesus, is practical.
‘Too right!’ Martha might say, ‘the sentiment of love alone doesn’t butter any parsnips!’.
Yet just to make sure we get the whole message, in this very next story, right after saying ‘love is practical’, Jesus says, in effect, ‘love isn’t just practical’ – love is also listening, attending, learning.
The life of faith isn’t only to be spent in frenzied activity: it is to be a life of thought and care coupled with active, practical service.
Luke wants us to understand the role of both the head and the heart in following Jesus.
So – finally, what do we see if we place our two New Testament readings alongside each other – pairing the Gospel story with the part of the letter to the Colossians which we heard?
What Paul has to say has enormous scope and grandeur – it may even be that he was quoting an early hymn about the greatness of Jesus Christ.
He is the image of God, the first born of all creation, the one in whom everything was made.
He is the head of his body, the church, the one in whom God reconciles the world to himself.
He has reconciled each one of us, made us his friends.
He offers us the hope of glory.
Can you feel how Paul starts way out with cosmic powers and comes down nearer and nearer to home – to God’s offer of love to each one of us in Christ?
So Martha understands the greatness of her visitor, Jesus, and wants everything to be perfect for him. But Mary accepts the personal offer Jesus gives her, to sit at his feet and talk together.
Martha might wonder whether she is worthy to be Jesus’ real friend, the sort who sits and listens to what he has to say. And of course in the society of Jesus’ time his offer to Mary is an astonishing one – that she, a mere woman might sit and listen, rather than merely waiting on this important guest.
But that is what Jesus offers and that is what Paul’s letter echoes:
The God of all creation, the ruler of the planets, wants little Mary to sit with him and hear what he has to say to her.
‘Mary has chosen the better part’ says Jesus. Not because listening to words of love is always better than performing acts of love, but because both are needed to truly follow Jesus.
So we have drawn aside to worship this morning. We accept the offer to sit and hear the words of God’s love for us, we stop rushing around long enough to grasp again how precious each one of us is to God, and then filled with this assurance we can put love into action once more.
In the name of Jesus.