Martha and Mary: It`s not about personality types

In those few verses from Luke`s Gospel the first thing to notice is that Jesus is on the road. And like a lot of the stories in this part of Luke`s Gospel we`re hearing about with the kind of welcome (or otherwise) that he receives. These two women Martha and Mary are singled out because they warmly welcome Jesus into their home ….but having received him they offer contrasting reactions. THIS I think is the key to understanding this passage. It`s got little to do with being active or passive… what we foolishly describe as practical versus the prayerful… It`s not about identifying yourself as a `busy Martha` or a `quiet Mary`…. as if this were a story all about personality types.

No, putting it very simply, in contrast to Martha, Jesus commends Mary for what she`s doing in `sitting at his feet…..` This, he says is the `better` way. So why`s he saying this and why is it `better? Well, of these two women it`s Mary who seems to understand how thoroughgoing and how radical a change of life is required if you welcome Jesus into your space…. and if you are going to live in relationship with him.

Just for a moment, imagine her posture. We`re told that she`s `sitting at his feet`…. This is a place of learning isn`t it? That`s an expression we use in education “One sat at the professor`s feet” in order to learn and so on….. And Mary`s listening; she`s hanging on his every word. But here`s the thing. What we need to grasp is what an extraordinary thing this was … that Mary – indeed any women- should sit `at Jesus`s feet`.

You see, Martha`s plea from the kitchen door wasn`t really about the lack of help … it was actually a protest about the scandalous way her sister was behaving. When she saw Mary sitting `at the feet` of Jesus…. Martha (and everyone else there) was non-plussed that Jesus would allow such a thing.

You see, Mary wasn`t only breaking the social taboo of sitting among the men she was signalling her desire to become a teacher as well… This was the kind of behaviour that got you noticed!

In other words Mary not only welcomed Jesus into her home she fully engaged with him…. In effect she took on the full responsibility that went with becoming his disciple.

In this act of sitting at the feet of Jesus we see Mary receiving a different identity; stepping aside and living at odds with what social and other conventions expected of her. This I think is why she`s singled out and commended by Jesus.

And you see, Martha`s problem is not so much her `activism` or `busyness` as what Jesus calls her `distraction`. She wants Jesus in her home but really doesn`t give him the full attention he merits…… The cruel irony of course is that she is distracted by her attempts to serve Jesus! But Martha I think, is a prime example of what we might call a fretful faith.

It`s the kind of faith that thinks everything rests on their shoulders… It`s the kind of faith that accuses the Mary`s of this world of not pulling their weight ……. And all because they haven`t learnt what Mary has learnt….. That when you welcome Jesus into your home you need to give him your FULL attention. It begins with sitting at his feet and listening to what he has to say….. It begins NOT with what you can do for him but with what he desires to do for, in and through you.

In this sense, Mary is inspiring because here`s someone who wants her faith without water-added. Irrespective of what anyone else thought or said she had one `go` at this…. and she wanted the real thing. And she grasped with both hands the full responsibility that went with becoming Jesus`s disciple.

So, in contrast I suppose Martha could represent two of the failings we easily find ourselves falling into. On the one hand we could think about how we hardly bat an eye-lid when folk say… “Yes, but you mustn’t become too religious”. We love to imply that there is some kind of `reasonable` half-way house in faith….. as it were a `semi-detached` house ….. Yes, Jesus is welcome but not so that I would give him that much attention.

On the other hand she could represent that part of us which welcomes Jesus with some enthusiasm…. But then latches on to DOING all sorts of stuff… `churchy` or `religious stuff`…. The practical stuff which just preoccupies us, absorbs us and effectively insulates us from him so that we no longer listen to him at all…..Not having learned first to sit at Jesus`s feet … to listen to him and be changed by him and his view of the world we try to do it all our way … We imagine it`s about US and our story… when all the time it`s about him and being caught up in HIS story.

With more on our plate than we can manage we become fretful and distracted…… Faith, sitting at Jesus`s feet…. rather than being as it were, the framework for life becomes a means of coping with the life that WE have chosen. And all too often, when those of a fretful faith get together the upshot is usually a very busy Church….. A Church which offers no alternative or difference but rather a fretful carbon copy of what people already experience elsewhere.

Again, it`s not about activism versus some kind of `quietism`…. It`s about where the centre of gravity for one’s life; the centre of gravity for the Church really lies. So what do we see and learn from Mary`s response to Jesus?

I`m going to use what we might think of as a rather old fashioned phrase…. but we might call it `serious godliness`. In the welcome which Mary gave to Jesus she is picking up the challenge which St. Paul lays before us: “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2.12). Jesus commends Mary because she has got things the right way around. She has resisted Martha`s fretfulness…. He approves of the choice she`s made…. And notice, it is a clear decision… Mary chose to honour Christ; to wait upon him and receive what he was saying into her heart. In that lovely phrase: “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”(Luke 10.42) We see that she has tapped into the root, the source of the Christian life.

So in its context, I want to suggest that this is a story about contrasting responses to Jesus. Both of the women welcome him but (initially at any rate) only one of them really understood what that meant. Mary scandalously casts aside every social and religious expectation in the book so that she could single-mindedly give herself to sitting at the feet of the Lord.

In contrast Martha is fretful and distracted. Again, ironically, she thinks she`s serving Jesus but she`s not centred, focussed, listening to or receiving Jesus at all. Jesus doesn`t denigrate the need for putting the supper on. He`s no stranger to hard work either. But he`s very clear about Martha`s inner attitude. ”Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing” (Luke 10.41).

So, let me put it bluntly; and for want of a much better phrase let me say “This Christian `thing` doesn`t work when you invite Jesus into your home and then ignore him. If you want to see a difference you have to steel yourself and take the same attitude as Mary”. You have to say, “I don`t care what anyone else thinks, I get one go at this and it`s time for some `serious godliness…` That`s the one thing I can take into eternity”.

“I will work out my salvation with fear and trembling…. I will choose the better part. I will let my life be re-shaped in such a way that having sat at the Lord`s feet I can bear the true responsibilities of being a disciple”.

 St. Ignatius of Loyola put it this way:

Our only desire and our one choice should be this: “I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me”.


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