When mum went into the Nursing Home, we had to sell her house in Brierfield. When we were growing up, the main place of employment in Brierfield was a Smith & Nephews factory. I worked there for a couple of summers when I was at university. As time went on, they needed more and more people arriving from Pakistan to work in the factory, so Brierfield has become a place with a high level of Pakistani settlement, now into their third and fourth generations.
So when we were selling the house, the estate agent was pleased that though the wall between the 2 living rooms had been demolished to create a through living/dining area, there was a folding glass door to separate the two areas. Because Pakistani home owners like to have 2 separate areas, one for the men, and the other for the women. You may not like it, but that is their culture, and it is the culture of large areas of the world, including the Middle East today.
And sure enough, eventually, the house was sold to Pakistani owners.
Mum moved to that house soon after my dad died in 1988. One day, a little Pakistani girl knocked on the door and asked in mum would help her with reading. So she and her sisters dropped by week by week and mum listened to their reading. This went on for some years. As a former primary school teacher, she loved doing it. And the girls were able to flourish in school.
In the Gospel story we heard just now, Jesus is Bethany, at the home of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, though he is only mentioned in John’s Gospel. It is Martha who welcomes Jesus into her home, and she gets on with preparing a meal for him. Her sister Mary doesn’t go to help her sister, but stays to listen and to learn.
That just couldn’t happen in places like Brierfield and Burnley and Blackburn, even today. And it couldn’t happen in the Middle East today, where Jesus was healing and teaching. Women just couldn’t stay and listen to male conversations or even a male teacher. When the story says that Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, that means she was acting as a disciple. Male rabbis couldn’t have female disciples. It just wasn’t done.
What was happening in this story was against every social norm, both then and even now. It can so easily pass us by, because our culture is now so different. We are more often shocked that Mary wasn’t helping Martha.
Martha is shocked. The Gospel says that she was ‘distracted’. She was distracted from listening to Jesus herself because of her cooking. She was distracted in herself, because she was mortified by Mary’s behaviour – it was just not womanly to be staying in the room with the men, listening to the rabbi! She pleads with Jesus, asking him to send Mary to help her.
But Jesus says no, Mary has chosen the better part. Listening to Jesus is more important than preparing the next meal. Choosing to listen to Jesus is more important than making sure all the practical jobs are done. Being with Jesus is more important than being in the back away from him, even when whatever you are doing is worthy and valuable in itself. Being with Jesus is the top trump.
Jesus is being very radical, giving Mary a place as a disciple, treating Mary as an equal. And he would have been happy for Martha to be there too.
In our own culture, the place of women in society is now very different. We have a woman prime minister again, with a significantly female cabinet, and there is a woman challenging for the leadership of the Labour party, and a woman in charge of the SNPs. In the church, we have had women priests for 23 years. The first woman bishop was consecrated 18 months ago, and already women as bishops are so normal they are part of the ecclesiastical furniture. It is a very different world. And we can thank God for that!
For us, this story is a challenge about how willing we are to spend time with Jesus. For us now, that means spending regular times in prayer and reading the bible as well as coming together to worship. It might also be about spending time with like-minded people to study and pray together, learning from each other. It is not about dull study, but about the joy of discovering Jesus and growing in an ever-deeper relationship with him. And it’s a challenge to both women and men.
There are loads of tools to help. There are bible study notes to read every day, which point you to a passage and then give a little reflection on it. If you go on the internet, you can see videos of the Archbishop of Canterbury doing bible study with a friend – they are wonderful to watch. The diocese has started using a method called Dwelling in the Word, which is now used at Bishops’ Council meetings, reflecting on a passage of scripture. It would be fabulous if we could have a regular little group looking at passages from the bible.
There are thousands of different ways of praying. Use whatever suits you. Yvonne and Derek and I say Morning Prayer together 4 times a week, and often other people join us, and we enjoy that so much. That is a quite a formal way of praying. The prayer days we have held here in St Chads have used lots of different more informal methods of prayer.
Are you in the kitchen with Martha when Jesus wants you to spend time with him? Find some little ways this week that you can spend just some time being with Jesus. Open your life to him just a bit. Make friends with him a little more. Choose being with Jesus over all the important and necessary things you do – even just occasionally. Choose the better part.