Chilmark Community Church
July 19, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
I wonder what is going on in the story of Martha and Mary and Jesus? The two sisters are dearly beloved friends of Jesus. Along with their brother, Lazarus, they live together about a half hour’s walk from Jerusalem in a little town called Bethany. Except for the fact that today you would have to navigate a 4 lane highway, you can still walk to Bethany from Jerusalem and find a small village that appears not to have changed all that much over the centuries. A home built of Jerusalem stone that shines golden – white in the hot sun. A packed dirt floor that is swept smooth every day. Bedding for the household stacked against a wall to be pulled out into the main room or up to the roof when night falls.
This home is familiar to Jesus. It is a place where he could find peace and quiet and rest. It is a home of deeply profound spiritual friendship -a home where great crises have happened -where tragedy and anguish have been turned to joy. John’s gospel tells of a time when Lazarus was sick. The sisters sent for Jesus. He arrived too late. By the time he got to Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. In John’s story, Martha is the one who runs out to meet Jesus before he even gets to the house. She is upset with him. She calls him to task. “If you had been here, my brother would still be alive.” A conversation about resurrection ensues between them.. Martha acknowledges Jesus as the Anointed One – -the Son of God, coming into the world. Martha runs back to the house to call for Mary who is sitting, being comforted by other mourners. Deeply disturbed and moved by their grief, Jesus asks where they have laid their brother’s body. In spite of warnings about the stench, Jesus goes to the tomb and calls Lazarus forth into life.
Two sisters. So different. In John’s story, Mary kneels at Jesus feet and weeps – touching him deeply with her grief. Martha runs to meet him, challenges him, recognizes him as the Expected One. In Luke’s story, Martha waits on the guests, offers hospitality, does the dishes. Mary is again seated at the feet of Jesus – listening – devoted to him.
Volumes have been written about the two sisters. Frequently, the roles of the sisters are somewhat polarized. Mary is the passive sister who sits at the feet of Jesus. Martha is the active sister who keeps moving to see that meals are ready on time and served properly. During my growing up years in the Methodist Church in Franklin Lakes, NJ, there were enough women in the congregation
to organize into circles of women, 10 or 12 in each circle. There was the Ruth Circle, the Naomi Circle, the Esther Circle, and, of course there was the Martha Circle and the Mary Circle. As I recall, true to form, the Martha Circle ran church suppers while the Mary Circle was a Bible study group. Mary and Martha have been used to teach about the relationship between good works and faith, about active social justice and the contemplative life, about the traditional role of women in the home versus women in the work place. The story has lent itself well to a variety of interpretations over the generations – sometimes creating stereotypes of women – but just as often challenging them. Luke’s treatment of women throughout his gospel invites us to look again at how life might have been for women who traveled in the company of Jesus.
Martha was, in all likelihood, a woman of means. Under both Jewish law, women were permitted to have their own money and to own property. Martha owned the house in which she and her sister and brother lived. She had independent resources. Luke uses the Greek word diakon when he refers to Martha. The term was used to describe women who used their own financial resources to provide for the material needs of others. We get the term “deacon” from that word and it is still used to describe a level of service in the church today. In her essay titled “The Gospel of Luke” Turid Karlsen Seim writes By serving from their own resources in order to cover the needs of others, the women of Galilee are portrayed as prototypes of an ethos that is to be valid universally among the people of God. Models like Martha are frequent in Paul’s writing as he addresses and commends women like Priscilla and Phoebe and Chloe and Junia and Syntyche and others – all women of means who provided hospitality, financial support and leadership in the earliest years of the Christian fellowship.
In her life, Martha models a kind of redistribution of wealth through using her property and her own money to meet the needs of others for food, clothing, and a place to sleep. This is what she was doing when she hosted Jesus and his friends. So – Martha is referred to as deacon.
In the story, Mary’s role is passive. In contrast to her sister, she listens in silence. But Mary also defies the stereotype of women of the time. She sits at the feet of Jesus and listens – absorbing what he has to teach. Women did not do this. To sit at the feet of a master was to assume the role of a disciple – – a role traditionally reserved for males. To listen – to hear – the words of a rabbi – was a privilege reserved for males in Jewish tradition. Traditionally, Jewish women unless they were in the company of the husbands their husbands. Yet Mary, unmarried, appears in the company of Jesus and in the company of the disciples as an equal.
So – two sisters. One who assumes a leadership role as a deacon in the community by providing housing and food and rest for a traveling teacher – who happens to be Jesus – – one who assumes the role of a disciple and sits at the feet of the teacher and listens.
Together, they represent a wholeness that is a model for the life of the people of God. Too often the interpretation of the story leaves us with a polarization of the active life versus the contemplative life, righteousness by works versus righteousness by faith. The story has even been used to demonstrate a polarization between Judaism and Christianity where the fulfillment of the mitzvot or commandments is contrasted with the necessity of right belief and faith.
What would it be like, I wonder, to see these two sisters locked in a loving embrace where each sister nourishes and completes the other?
We are living in an era when we are called upon more and more to demonstrate by our lives and by what we do and by where we send our money that we are fulfilling the commands of the scriptures to love our neighbors – with all that this entails. We are called to be Martha in the world. I receive at least a half dozen requests for funds everyday in the email. Some of them can just be consigned to junk mail and ignored, but many are legitimate requests. There are so many places where we might direct our energy toward making the world a more hospitable place for humanity. Sometimes it is so hard to choose that we do nothing. We can’t be Martha to everyone everywhere.
We need Mary. We need to be able to sit at the feet of the master to be able to hear clearly what the direction is – even if it is only for today.
Jesus did not criticize the actual work that Martha was doing. She was doing all the right stuff – attending to the needs of her guests. He cautioned her about her distractedness – her irritability. It is as though Jesus knew that this is what happens to the over-committed. We do get irritable. There are not enough hours in the day – – there are not enough people to help with the work of healing and repairing the world – sometimes we might be tempted to think we are the only ones with the world’s needs on our agenda. This is the point at which Jesus chides us about our distractibility – – and says “come and sit awhile with me – – listen to what I have to say – – get your bearings – – don’t worry so much about so many things.” The truth of the matter is that when we step back from the work we are called to do -whatever it is – and spend time in quiet reflection, listening, praying, reading something that nourishes us, even singing a few hymns in the shower, the Mary side of our nature nourishes the Martha -helps to ease the irritability – makes it possible to re-engage in our tasks with renewed energy.
On the other hand, when we would rather simply immerse ourselves in peace and prayer and study and learning, the Martha side of our nature may well prompt us to take our prayer and contemplation, and insight and revelation into the streets, in one form or another, to participate in the Holy work of healing the world wherever we encounter its brokenness.
It is a delicate balance – the business of keeping the two sisters in close relationship. Jesus’ disciples wrestled with it. In Matthew’s story of Jesus and Peter and James and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration -that glorious time when Jesus’ is in conversation with Moses and Elijah -where all is in transcendent light and holiness – the epitome of spiritual experience for the three disciples, Peter’s first inclination is to build a permanent dwelling in the heights of spiritual awareness and connectedness – to stay there and enjoy the bliss. But Jesus, in perfect harmony, takes his friends back into the valley where there is work to do. (Matthew 17:1-10)
The early church wrestled with the balance as well as we read in the Letter of James where he writes: “Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham made right by his works when he offered his son Isaac, [in faith,] on the altar? You see that faith was active with his works and faith was brought to completion by his works.” (James 2:20-22). There was genuine disagreement in the early church as to which was the effective path – faith or good works.
As we are impacted by current events – by movements that demand that we discern how we are going to respond to tragedy and violence here and abroad, the pull between social activism and quiet contemplation increases. The reality is that in times of social upheaval and stress, times of political unrest and protest, the movements for social change that are fueled only by righteous anger and a sense of injustice cannot sustain themselves. The rate of burnout is high among social activists who are not deeply grounded in a sustaining faith tradition.
It is the movements that arise out of the fundamental teachings about lovingkindness, patience, forbearance, respect and mutual caring – the lessons of Jesus – – the lessons of our sacred texts – – these are the movements that have a chance to heal and repair the world.
The witness of the scriptures is that the two sisters must never be polarized or parted. The beautiful, active, concerned nature of Martha must never be divorced from the quiet contemplative nature of Mary. As in all loving relationships, the sisters feed and nurture each other in the service of The Living One to the benefit of all who come into their sphere of caring.
This has always been the call to the church over the centuries – to stay deeply connected with Jesus – both on the mountain top of clear seeing and holiness and in the valley where the work of healing and reconciling the world needs to happen. May we all rest more easily as we walk in harmony and balance with Jesus and the two sisters into a world that needs all the goodness we have to offer. AMEN