SPEAKER – Jaime Low
21 July 2013
Mary and Martha
Good morning everyone, the scripture reading for today is a familiar passage to most of us, if we have been attending church for a while. It is taken from Luke chapter 10, verses 38 to 42, the story of Martha and Mary.
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.
39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.
40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,
42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Are you a Mary or a Martha?
As we read from this story, the straightforward lesson to be learnt here is not to be Martha, distracted by the many tasks in our lives. But rather be like Mary, who placed listening Jesus as the first priority. A more balanced approach would be to acknowledge that both Mary and Martha are wonderful women who represent two different ways to be disciples of Jesus. Martha stands for those who are the doers; they are those who serve the Lord Jesus primarily by their actions. They get things done. Mary, on the other hand, stands for those who are the hearers and learners, who sit at Jesus’ feet and passively absorb his teaching. Both approaches are equally valid, and both are needed in the church. We have to have some “Marys” and we have to have some “Marthas”. We probably all have a bit of Mary and Martha in us, and are not just one or the other. The goal is to strike the right balance.
I always feel a twinge of discomfort when I read this story, and thought it was unfair that Martha’s effort was placed as not as important as Mary’s action. After all, it was Martha who made the first move the invite Jesus in (verse 38). And when there are guests in the house, someone has to do the work to make them feel welcomed. As we know in Jewish culture, it is important to show hospitality to people. Jesus did not come alone, he brought along his group of disciples, and preparing a meal for one may be easy, but if I was to prepare a meal for at least a dozen people, I am sure I would have been frustrated too. As we read in verse 40, we can understand how Martha must be feeling when she sees Mary just sitting by the feet of Jesus, and not lifting a finger to help her when there are so many things to be done. It is always easy to see some fault or shortcomings in the other person, especially when we are busy or feel that the other person is not doing their part of the work. We all have been a “Martha” in our lives, if you have never felt like a Martha or never complained once that someone else seems to be having a relatively easy time, maybe you have not been working hard enough.
The two sisters
Martha appears to be the eldest of the family, or head of the sibling household. And as with most eldest kid, they tend to be more practical, efficient and have a sense of responsibility. When Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead (John 11), both sisters played a prominent role in the story and their contrasting personalities are evident in this account as well. Although both were upset and disappointed that Jesus did not arrive before Lazarus died, Martha ran out to meet Jesus as soon as she learned he had entered Bethany and said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”, but Mary, she was just waiting at home. John11:32 tells us that when Mary did finally go to Jesus, she fell at his feet weeping. Actually if you read the gospels, every time Mary is mentioned with Jesus, she is always found at his feet.
Mary is the younger sibling, who probably had it a bit easier in life (with her elder sister doing most of the tasks). And if we are to just read just the Luke passage about Mary, she may even consider be considered a bit lazy. But that is what happens when we remove a passage and interpret it as it is, the author’s way of writing and emphasis would influence how we feel about the characters in the story. Remember that Mary was not always passive and inactive. It was Mary who later anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume just a few days before his death. The disciples thought it a waste of the precious ointment – it was worth a whole year’s wages; but Jesus extolled Mary’s lavish gift and devotion. He said that her act that would be remembered wherever and whenever the Gospel is proclaimed. John emphasizes here that Mary was so humble, convicted and dedicated to Jesus and His teachings that no expense or personal act was too great or demanding for her to honor her Savior. This attitude, outlook and perspective are what God desires in all god’s disciples. Jesus highly regarded Mary’s approach, and in a culture where women did not receive formal teaching from a rabbi, it is a revolution for a woman to be in the position of a disciple, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his word. Mary was quite a rebel for her time.
It is illuminating to contrast Mary’s reverence with Martha’s demeanor. Martha was so comfortable with Jesus that she openly included Him in her frustration. Her words “Don’t you care?” and “My sister has left me to do the work by myself” show her frustration. For Martha to intimate that Jesus did not care whether Mary was not helping shows both a close relationship and considerable forthrightness. Martha did not suggest to Jesus that He ask Mary to help her; she told Him directly to “tell her to help me.” Jesus responded forthrightly but tenderly: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things”. When we call a person’s name twice, it means we really want to get him or her to listen to us, we have something important to say. Jesus was not angry at Martha’s outburst. He responded to her gently and explained to her simply what her problem was. It is not that what Martha did was not good, but Mary had chosen better. Martha had missed the main point of Jesus’ visit, which is to fellowship with her and her family. Martha was fretting over something quite important to her: providing a meal for Jesus and His disciples. But how important was this compared with other priorities?
So how about our priorities in this world? Is it to make a decent income to sustain a reasonable standard of living? And the LGBTQ community has quite a high standard of living. To work in certain jobs so that we can be regarded as having a certain social status in life? To be viewed as a ‘good’ representation of a Christian believer? No matter what are our priorities, we know that they would require hard work and long hours. When we meet each other, how often do we complain about the amount of work we have done? Such as “I have worked through a few weekends without a break”, or “I stayed at work till midnight for the last few days”. Why do we do it? Because we live in a Martha’s world, where action speaks louder than words, and we use words to emphasize our actions even more. When there is so much work that can be done, it can be difficult to rest, to stop and smell the roses, to do something like read a novel, watch a film, or to have a lie-in, but that is exactly what we all need at times; some time for ourselves to connect with ourselves, to connect with the humanity within, and also with the beloved of god within us. Jesus knew this and often took time out for prayer as well as for meals with friends. I think many of us need to hear those words that Jesus spoke to Martha. Can we each hear that message so personally for us? Hey you! “You are distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing.” Indeed more than that, can we show that message to others? We need this time of quiet and stillness, to take stock of our lives, and what is important to us.
I think the line drawn between works and listening to God is especially unclear when it comes to what we do in church. Just in these two and a half hours that we are spending here, are we being a Martha or a Mary? Now that Jesus is not on earth for us to sit by his feet to listen to, what is the better choice for us? Is it the minimum we can do is to just show up for Sunday service? We give to the building fund, we tithe, we serve in the ministries of the church (whether front end on the stage or back end where sometimes no one sees), and we think we are doing what god desires of us.
God counts it a very small matter how much time we actually spend in church, how much money we give, whether we are meeting in an 7000 seat auditorium or a dingy pub. Whether we are singing the loudest and most rocking worship song, or just a quiet hymn. God looks at our hearts. Are we paying attention during the Sunday service, at the very least, not to be swiping on our smart phones while someone is up here sharing, or when the communion is being shared, in which we remember Christ’s sacrifice. In this world of distractions, even if we are not distracted by the amount of information that we can access on our phone, our minds will do the job for us to wander around. We could be sitting quietly, but actually are pseudo Marys, our thoughts are on the unfinished work, or on the quarrel that we just had with our loved ones, or even just day dreaming because what ever is taking place now just simply does not captivate our attention or appeal to us enough.
But is it only the busy ones that need to change though? If everyone was a Mary, then nothing will be done. It will be all just words, contemplations, prayer and praise. No one will be at the Audio Visual controlling the volumes on the microphones; the chairs will not be arranged, there will be no refreshment for us to gather around and fellowship together, the sanctuary or the toilets will not be cleaned. We may be spending all our time reading god’s words, but if our actions do not reveal the fruit of the spirit in us, then no matter how much we claim that we may know god, we are actually a fraud. When we have contemplated enough, it is time for us to put our knowledge into actions.
It is possible for those contemplative prayerful types to take up a practical task and it is possible for those who roll up their sleeves to take some time out to pray. It does not have to be a choice of one or the other. Life is not just black or white, but many shades of rainbow in between.
Our Christian walk
What does God ask of us as Christians? To ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’, and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ How do we demonstrate this in church? Take a look around at the faces in this church, how many of these are faces we may see every Sunday, and yet I am probably the first to admit that I do not know a lot of peoples’ names, or what each other does for a living. Why is that so? Sometimes I give the excuse that I am not good with names, we are not really friends, just acquaintances. But I realize that if I cannot even make the effort in knowing a person’s name, then what makes me think I will put in the effort to know the person him or herself? We have a congregation population of around 100 people, if we speak to two person everySunday, we would have rotated through the congregation in less than two years. Like what Miak said last Sunday, we do not want to be a “hi and bye” church, but how do we go beyond that as a community? For me it begins with giving the other person the respect of learning their names, and paying attention when the other is speaking, and not be distracted by another cute young thing that may have caught our eyes, or the lunch that we are in a hurry to eat.
And this is in church, where we are supposed to be a family in Christ. If we cannot practice loving our neighbors as ourselves here in church, a place where we are called to show love, where people are cordial with each other and we are more or less a homogeneous group, how do we practice this commandment out in the real world, where we may be faced with hostility and people unlike us? How can we be the prodigal family, where we display extravagant love for each other? We learn to love, from god’s expression of love for us, from the love we received from our family, our partners and our friends. We are to learn from Jesus, to provide for those who have less than us, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked. To care for those who are marginalized and at the fringe of the society. To turn the other cheek, to love the other who are unlike us, and even our enemies. To pray for those who are against us, and give comfort to those who are in need. To be the strength for those who are weak. To forgive one another, when we make mistakes, or fail to live up to each others’ expectations, for we would want to be forgiven if we make mistakes ourselves. These are not easy to do, and indeed a tall order to follow. We will not be perfect overnight just because we proclaim our faith in christ, in fact as christian, we are all the more aware of our weakness. We will stumble as we journey along, we will get hurt and take time to recover, but if we are able to keep our focus on god, we know we will be able to walk this journey together.
So it does not matter whether you are a Martha or a Mary, a Mark or a Matthew, just remember that you have a place in this prodigal family of ours, and Free Community Church will always be a home to welcome you.