I haven’t posted sermons for months, mainly because I have been adapting old sermons for new situations: our congregation is now mainly Iranian and we have shorter sermons (600 words ideally) which are read in English (me) and Farsi. This is new, because I didn’t have an old one which said what was needed on this occasion. But here it is.
Jesus and his disciples are still on their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. They were taking their time, with regular stops. There were lots of encounters, various incidents.
On the evening of this story, they stop at a village and are welcomed into the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary. If this is the same Martha and Mary who were the sisters of Lazarus, mentioned in John’s Gospel, the village was Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. In the past, people have identified this Mary with Mary Magdalene, but that is very unlikely. Mary was a very common name for women, and there is a danger of conflating all the different Marys in the Bible into only two separate characters.
Jesus is teaching. Mary, probably the younger sister, sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to him. To “sit at the feet” of a teacher is to be a disciple. So, in an age where men and women lived very separate lives, Jesus’ disciples included women, and Jesus was clearly comfortable with that.
Martha was in the kitchen, preparing a meal. Cooking for the crowd was quite a responsibility. This was Martha’s way of serving her Lord, through the offering of hospitality, care and comfort. It was an important vocation, and she just got on with it. It means that she couldn’t listen to Jesus like her sister. She complains to Jesus and asks him to tell Mary to help her.
We are not told why Martha feels so upset, so we have to imagine the possible reasons:
May be she thought it was shameful that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet alongside the men, and was afraid that there would be repercussions, that this would affect their marriage prospects, for example.
May be she didn’t understand the way Jesus welcomed all people, men and women, into his circle of disciples.
May be she was grieved because she was doing all the work and her sister was having all the fun. May be she thinks Mary is being selfish in just doing what she wants.
We don’t know for sure.
Jesus sees that Martha is distracted and worried. He understands that. But the solution lies not in sending Mary back into the kitchen, but in changing her own attitude. She needs to acknowledge her own state of mind, her own anxiety, her own negative feelings. They come from within her, not from the situation. It is her own attitude that makes her miserable.
Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part”, and over the centuries this has been interpreted as meaning that the contemplative path of following Jesus is higher than the practical path of service. I think that’s a bad interpretation. It is one way of following Jesus – probably the way I have taken myself, as I am more of an academic and less gifted in practical things, more interested in prayer than in cooking.
But I value those whose discipleship and ministry is different from mine. Jesus calls us to follow him and to serve him. He gives us different gifts and enables us to use those gifts in his service. He calls all of us to serve with the gifts he has given us. And we are called to serve cheerfully and with good grace, not criticising other people in their service, and not moaning when they have other callings to follow. We are invited to value everyone who follows Christ, whatever their calling.