Mary and Martha
St Mary’s Monmouth 21 July 2019
- The role of women in society is an interesting and sometimes controversial subject. I guess most of us today recognise the equality of men and women and in our own lifetimes will have seen huge changes. When I was ordained in 1972 a woman could not even be a deacon whilst today, 47 years later our next bishop could well be a woman and when I worked in India, it was the custom for the men to eat first waited upon by the women. After the men had eaten, the women and children would sit and eat together waited upon by the servants and when they had finished the servants sat down in the kitchen and ate what was left over.
- I tell you this because in order to fully understand today’s gospel we need to know the social context. Jesus had gone to visit his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha although no mention is made of Lazarus being present so Jesus was already breaking a social rule of an unmarried man being alone in a house with women to whom he was not related. Then Mary breaks a social and religious taboo – she was in the front room sitting at the feet of Jesus like a male disciple would sit at the feet of his rabbi whilst being taught. Mary’s place (by the conventions of that time) was to be in the kitchen or working out in the back yard. She should have known her place!
- Now if you think that Martha was doing the cooking and getting a meal ready for Jesus whilst Mary was socialising and not doing any of the work and Mary was rightly feeling ‘hard done by,’ and if you have heard sermons that say the church needs its Marys and its Marthas – people who pray and people who roll up their sleeves and do the work then I think you have been led up the garden path!
- For a start we are not told that Mary was cooking a meal and the Greek word that is used implies that she was doing various tasks or chores, but the emphasis of the story is not what she was doing but her anxiety and worry which prevented her from being able to be with Jesus and Jesus gently tells her off.Quite what he said we are not sure because different texts record different words although all of them imply that Martha was fretting and troubled and anxious and Jesus tells her that only one thing is needful and Mary has chosen the better part by giving her attention to what he is teaching her rather than rushing around plumping the cushions and sweeping the floor or whatever she was doing.
- Today’s gospel is set in a Palestinian culture of two thousand years ago and whilst the role of women may have changed since then, human nature remains much the same.So what does this story say to us today?
- Firstly, we are told of the dangers of worry – the danger of being anxious. I may have told you of a friend of mine who is a born worrier and he worries about things that are never going to happen. Psychologists say it’s a defence mechanism, so if you worry about what may happen and it doesn’t then you feel relieved and if you worry about something and it does happen then you have already prepared yourself. When my friend hasn’t got anything to worry about, he worries that he might have forgotten something that he should be worried about.
- The Bible is full of verses that tell us not to worry about tomorrow because today has enough troubles of its own. Jesus tells us not to worry about life and what we eat and drink or what we wear or what we look like. He says that worrying can’t add a single inch to your height or a single hour to your life. In fact worrying is likely to shorten your life. In the parable of the sower, we are taught that the pressures of life can suffocate faith and people who worry tend to be people who lack trust. Jesus assures us that God loves us and will look after us. We are told that God cares for every sparrow and so our heavenly Father certainly watches over us.
- In the Gospel, Martha also reflects another behaviour that we can fall into when under stress. She thinks she knows better than God. Martha tells Jesus what he should do.She says, ‘Don’t you care – tell Mary to help me’ but Jesus showed that his way might not be our way of doing things. When God doesn’t help us in the ways that we want we face a choice – of becoming disillusioned with God or going on trusting him because he knows better than we do what is good and right for us.
- The message of today’s Gospel is not to worry and be anxious but to trust God and be with him. I remember watching my mother change from being a Martha into a Mary.She was always very house proud and house work and tidiness were her priorities. She had even trained her dog to pick up his toys and put them neatly in a box. Then one day when I visited her I commented that there was a layer of dust on the sideboard and she explained that was because it hadn’t rained for a long time. When I asked what that had to do with it she explained that when the weather was fine she went out and enjoyed herself, meeting with friends and exploring God’s world and by the time she got home she just wanted to be quiet and reflect – so she only did housework when it rained. So Marthas can become Marys.
- We can all be worried or distracted by so many things and we all know what a struggle it can be not to be anxious but to trust in God, but Martha’s story is a reminder that no matter how busy we are, we need to choose the better part and find time to be with God and to listen to him.