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Three Portraits: Mary & Martha

In the real world a few people have asked if I have a script of my Mary & Martha sermon they could borrow.  I am a bit reluctant - partly because it has countless typos, partly because although I work with a script I never read it verbatim and partly because it feels a bit self agrandising (if there's such a word).  However, given I'm really as vain as anyone and secretly pleased people want to see my stuff, I have edited it slightly and reproduced it below.

Please don't pick me upon dodgy exegesis or iffy hermeneutics.  But please do thank Stuart J whose sermon on Mary & Martha profoundly influenced my thinking on the first portrait.

By the way, if the colours or font offend blame the effects of import/export between platforms - that and my reluctance to get to grips with html.



Mary and Martha – Three Portraits



If you could choose, who would you be, Mary or Martha?  Why would you choose the one you do choose?  Which of the sisters feels more like you?  Why is that?  How do you feel about it?

These questions were the starting point for my thoughts.


Many years ago, as a child, I learned the story of Mary and Martha in Sunday School.  Martha, hot and flustered, irritable and complaining, is so busy getting the meal ready that she misses the opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what he has to say.  It is Mary who is praised.  Mary is the good sister, the one who chooses aright, the one we should emulate.


And yet… and yet at the same time a very different message was also given out loud and clear about what good Christian girls did – they were obedient daughters who helped their mothers, who learned to cook and clean, who could manage a household and, in due course, become good wives and mothers who would pass on their own daughters the domestic values that reflected Martha far more than Mary.


There were rarely pictures of the sisters, but if there were, Mary would be scowling, and in my mind’s eye was probably plain in appearance, in a brown dress with unkempt hair and work-hardened hands.  She was demonstrably older than Mary – whilst Martha was probably at least the age of my mother, Mary was a mere teenager, clear skinned and beautiful, in a brightly coloured dress with shining long hair and a captivating smile.  No evidence to support this, but somehow it was obvious that the sisters’ looks and their personalities matched.


As I have revisited the stories of these women, I found three very different pictures that show us some very different aspects to these women and break right through the unhealthy either/or of childhood to give us a more rounded view.


Picture 1 – A Large Domestic Gathering – Luke 10:38 - 42

We have perhaps heard this story so many times that we never notice it is located immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Recognising this, and trying to imagine ourselves reading the story for the first time, should affect our reading of it.

Jesus and his disciples are travelling around from place to place.  In a certain village, not named by Luke, lived Martha and her sister Mary.  Martha does something very generous, something that seems utterly right and good: she opens her home to Jesus and his entourage.  Leaving them to relax, she goes about the domestic duties that are required; obviously expecting that sister Mary will help her. 

But Mary has other ideas – it isn’t every day that someone like Jesus comes to your house, so she joins the crowd sitting at the feet of Jesus to hear what is being said.  Unlike those pictures of the story I have seen, Jesus would not have been sat on a chair with Mary sitting like a little child looking up at him, rather it is likely that Jesus would have been stretched out on a long couch facing the other men as they conversed.  Around the edge of the circle, servants would move about and less important people would stand or sit on the floor hoping to hear something of what was said.

In this everyday situation, Martha expects everyday behaviour.  She is upset when Mary flouts convention, and probably quite taken aback when Jesus seems to affirm her choice.  Perhaps because we have heard the story so often, we are no longer shocked by it.  Perhaps it seems so much a part of our childhood that it doesn’t connect with our busy lives caught up with domesticity.   Perhaps there are some of us who are so busy doing good things – things for our families, things for our churches that we need, not to be told off, but to be reminded that actually it is OK to sit down and spend time with something that is for us, that someone as special as Jesus is more worried about our company than the cleanliness of our fridge. 

It isn’t that Martha made a bad choice, rather, on this occasion, Mary made a better choice – read carefully what Jesus says, and doesn’t say.  Being a practical, busy woman is nothing to be ashamed of, but even busy, practical people need time simply to receive, and specifically to receive from God.


Picture 2 – A Domestic Tragedy – John 11: 1 - 43

Lazarus had been ill and now he had died.  Messengers had been sent to Jesus and he had not come.  This wasn’t a time for cleaning the house, nor was it a time sitting listening to a fascinating speaker. It was a time of tragedy and mourning.

When Jesus finally arrives, it is down to earth practical Martha who comes to meet him.  Her words should surprise us, this busy, down to earth woman has clearly shifted a long way in her thinking – she talks to Jesus about her brother, daring to wonder if a miracle might be possible, entering into a theological discussion about resurrection and then – and here perhaps is the most amazing thing of all - it is Martha who says “I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God who was to come into the world.’   Martha?  The one who got cross because Mary wanted to listen to Jesus?  Practical down to earth Martha having an insight like this?  Yes!

Meanwhile Mary comes to join the two of them and through her tears is it possible that she chastises Jesus – ‘Lord if you had been here he would not have died.’  Unlike Martha there is no ‘but even now…’  Could it be that quiet reflective Mary has failed to grasp what Martha saw?

It isn’t as if Mary did anything wrong.  She was mourning her much-loved brother and her request to Jesus seemed to have gone unanswered.  It is not that she did not have faith.  It is just that, on this occasion it is Martha who is granted the special insight, the glimpse beyond the moment.  Being a thoughtful person is good, but it does not give a monopoly on spiritual insights.  Being a practical person is not an alternative to being spiritual, God reveals special insights to whom so ever God chooses, perhaps under the most surprising circumstances.  We all react differently in different circumstances and for Martha this was the moment that she had a special spiritual experience.


Interlude - And now?

So what about us?  It has only been possible to look very briefly at these two stories, to glance at portraits of the two sisters who were so very different and yet each one in her own way a disciple of Jesus.

For me it is in reading the two stories, seeing how the two women react in very different circumstances that helps me to discover more about myself and to be reassured that my God-given personality is not better or worse just because it is different from someone else’s.  More than that, by seeing something about the two women’s experiences reminds me that things are never as simple as perhaps we imagine they might be.


Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he had to say, yet it was Martha who recognised him as the Christ.  I wonder, if sometimes we confuse knowledge about Jesus, the people who are always there and listen attentively, with knowledge of Jesus, the recognition that changes hearts and minds, which can be discovered by people with little or no knowledge about him.  I guess there are as many stories about the rebellious teens who came to faith whilst the quiet, knowledgeable ones drifted away as there are the other way around.


Martha was concerned about practical matters – her home, her family and her guests.  Is there a danger that we dismiss as less spiritual those women who are caring for relatives, working weekend shifts simply because they are not physically present in our services or meetings?  Might not what they are doing be just as acceptable to God?  Could we, should we, be finding ways to support them, to enable them to take a little time to sit with Jesus, perhaps at the expense of our own treasured personal time or space?


I don’t think that Mary was better than Martha, nor was Martha better than Mary, rather they were very different people who each got some things right and some things wrong. What we gain from reading the two stories together is reassurance that whichever one of them we feel more like, we are valued by God and have a place in Christ’s kingdom.


I guess most of us are really a mixture between the two, we are busy with our everyday lives and we take time to come to devotional meetings and services of worship.  It isn’t really a case of ‘would you rather be Mary or Martha’ but of ‘how can I combined the best of Mary and Martha’ to be the women God created me to be?


I would want to say that we should love ourselves believing that God has made as unique and precious people.  We should also do our best to value other people for who they are, not seeking to recreate them in our image but to learn with and from them.  One last picture before we end…


Picture 3 – A Place of Wholeness and Acceptance – John 12:1- 3

These few verses offer a third and final glimpse into the home of Mary and Martha and we see a picture vastly different from what has gone before.  It seems that his relationship with Mary and Martha was so important to Jesus that, in the week leading up to his crucifixion, he spent precious time with them.  Their house was a place of safety in which he and his inner circle could eat and relax during what must have been an incredibly tiring and stressful time. 

We only get a tiny glimpse, a portrait in miniature, but it speaks volumes.  On this occasion Martha served the meal, Lazarus reclined with the men and Mary anointed Jesus’ feet.  There is no hint of discord in the family; maybe the sisters have now found their true role as disciples and can give each other the space they need to serve Jesus in their own way – sometimes practical, sometimes overtly devotional but always, always motivate by love.  It doesn’t matter in the end if we are more like Mary or more like Martha, what matters is what motivates us. 

As we go our separate ways today, my prayer is that we would each know ourselves loved of God and live out our discipleship as an echo of that love. 


  • Thank you.

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