A little sermony something on Mary and Martha (Luke 10.38-end)
Let’s start with what I’m not going to say:
1. I’m not going to say that this story is an argument against hospitality and a criticism of those who give their time and skill in the service of others: the coffee makers, the cake bakers, the washer-uppers…. not least because I’d probably never again be brought a drink after the service!
2. I’m not going to say that the story means simply that housework is bad and self-indulgent religious experiences are good.
3. I’m also not going to say that it’s a simple contrast between ‘being’ and ‘doing’, between the interior life of faith and the outward expression of that faith in actions that serve others.
So, if I’m not going to say that this story is about any of those things, what is it about?
First it’s about expectations.
To sit at the feet of a Rabbi was what you did if you were planning on becoming one – you learned the stories of the faith, and you learned to share them, to interpret them for others. You learned the faith so you could teach it. And in those days, a woman could not become a Rabbi, so there was no point in Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. Martha would have seen it as being (at best) self-indulgent and (at worst) cringe-makingly arrogant and inappropriate.
But Jesus says that Mary is, in fact, in precisely the right place, and defends her right to be there. Why?
1. Because Jesus seems to have a rather different attitude to women than most of his contemporaries – briefly, he seems to treat women simply as human beings.
2. He knows that women will be the sharers of the faith – they are already disciples, and by the end of the gospel accounts of his life, death and resurrection, they are also revealed as apostles (the very first apostles, in fact). Just think first of the Samaritan woman at the well whose testimony brought her whole city to faith in Jesus, and then think on to the women in the garden who first brought the good news of the resurrection.
3. Because God does unexpected things. He calls Galilean fishermen to be great preachers. He calls tax collectors to be ministers. He calls women to be apostles. God is clearly incapable of pandering to stereotypes and working purely within our expectations. God does unexpected and odd things, and gives us new and exciting directions to go in and gifts to explore. Just because you’ve always done the washing up or the flower arranging doesn’t mean God can’t call you to lead the intercessions. Or the other way round. Just because we might not fancy ourselves as apostles doesn’t mean that God shares our narrow expectations, and he may well put opportunities in front of us for the sharing of the faith in word and in deed.
The second thing this story is about for me is quite simply this: Jesus has come to Mary and Martha’s house. The Son of God, the Messiah, the Second person of the Trinity, is sitting in their living room !!!! I do know that tea making ad washing up are important, but really, what could possibly be more important than the fact that The Son of God has come to my house and he’s come to see me!
When the woman at Bethany annointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, and Judas accused the gesture of being wasteful, Jesus said to him, “You will always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.” He might well say the same to Martha in this story: “There will always be housework to do, but you won’t always have me right here, with you.” And it needn’t just be housework either, or any other gender-stereotyped activity – it could easily be mending your fishing nets, or making good that hole in your boat. And if you want to bring it up to date I’m pretty sure we could all add our own list of things that get in the way of us actually spending time with the God who’s come all this way just to be with us.
Spending time with God is incredibly important. The busier you are, the more precious a gift that time is. Learning the stories of the faith and learning to articulate them for ourselves is equally an incredibly important process, and the less confident we are about it, the more we need to be given space to ask the questions, and the encouragement to share our doubts and ideas.
Serving God is also incredibly important, and we know that when we serve one another, when we offer hospitality to one another, when we metaphorically or actually wash each other’s feet, it truly is Christ we are serving.
But the flip side of that is that Jesus, here among us isn’t only our guest, and our action and busy care are not the only ways that we can serve him. He is also our host, for it is his world in which we dwell. Martha sees Jesus sitting in her living room and treats him as a guest, asking herself how she can serve him, faffing around and not actually spending time with him. Mary sees Jesus sitting in her living room and treats him as a host, asking what he wants to give to her, what wisdom and grace he has in store for her.
It may be a case of “Do not ask what you can do for God, but ask rather what God can do for you.”
We need to do both, to be both. But if we never give ourselves time to stop and bask in the presence of God who has come all this way, in the incarnation, to be with us and among us, then we’ll never have sat still long enough for him to give to us whatever gift it is that he’s brought, just for us. And we are, after all, what he came for.