Martha and Mary


     Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem…..we know what Luke means to say – Jesus will not be deterred from his mission, but first, a stopover with very dear friends at that sheltered place called Bethany; we know its name from John’s Gospel.

     Bethany is a small town, perhaps a dozen rectangular shaped,white-washed dwellings, built onto the Eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, only 1 and 5/8th miles from Jerusalem, the same distance from here to Washington Square.

     Jesus and his disciples could see the homes of Bethany as they approached the town, because those homes stood out in contrast to the dry, rocky soil of the hillside and the few cedar trees among the homes, standing tall against the cloudless sky. Orchards of fig, olive and almond trees were arranged in tiers on the slope of the hill, with tidy stone walls separating the levels to aid in irrigation when the rainy season arrives. . .

     No wonder Bethany was a favorite place for Jesus: familiar, quiet, restful, lovely to behold and hospitable.

     Jesus made this journey to Bethany on many, many occasions and always stopped at the home of Martha, Mary and their brother, Lazarus. Martha’s generous hospitality was well known.

     Martha, Mary and Lazarus were three of Jesus’ closest and dearest friends. He had probably known them from his childhood; his family had most likely stayed over in Bethany and then went up with them to the High Holydays in Jerusalem.     

     On this particular day, the day we hear of in our Gospel, Martha stood at the front door of her home and beheld Jesus coming along the road, up the hill, with his disciples, raising a dust cloud as he slowly made his way to her home. Martha set to work, immediately, filling the water jugs to wash his feet and towels to dry them – this was Mary’s task in their household and she performed this act of hospitality with great care and love and respect for the Teacher.    

     But, on this day, something very extraordinary occurred: Jesus invited Mary to sit at his feet and listen to his teaching – this invitation was quite contrary to custom – a woman sitting at the feet of The Teacher? A woman welcomed and encouraged as a Disciple? Equal to the male disciples!? . . . . And, Mary, being the introvert, the contemplative type, was pleased, although somewhat shy, to sit in that front room with Jesus, that front room cooled in the shade of the cedars, yet, so full of light. What deep joy!

     Lazarus was most likely there, also, because as soon as he was told that Jesus had arrived, he came in from their carefully tended orchard, where for generations, his family kept fig, olive and almond trees. . .

     So, there they were, Jesus, with Mary and Lazarus, in a very intimate teaching time, while the other disciples sat out of doors, in circles, in the shade of the orchard trees, and . . . .      

     All this time, Martha labored in the rear room, the place for the cooking fire. Martha was preparing a very special meal for her very special guest: grain pilaf, with special additions of lamb and succulent vegetables. Martha enjoyed making these welcoming meals for Jesus; Martha relished the moments with Jesus in her home. But……

     Many of us here, today, can imagine how Martha may have felt, having no company in the kitchen to assist her in the meal preparation. Not only was she overwhelmed, perhaps, with the details of the meal preparation, but, perhaps, she was also feeling left out – surely, she could hear the low voice of The Teacher as he explained the wonderful truth of the Creator’s love. And, she was not there in that select group!

     Like many high energy, ‘management oriented’ people, she could not put her complicated meal preparation aside and just go into the front room and sit with Mary, listen at The Teacher’s feet. Who but herself was going to prepare the meal? And prepare it to her high expectations? Only Mary was capable of working with Martha in their kitchen, only Mary knew Martha’s ways and only Mary could be the ‘second woman’ in that kitchen!

     Finally, after much head shaking and heightening resentment, we hear of Martha’s next movement. She places her mixing bowl down on the low table in the cooking room, probably with some agitation, and enters the front room in a bit of a huff.

     “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”  . . . . .

     Silence in the room, all eyes on Martha. Then, Jesus softly chides Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”   . . . . .

      Was Jesus suggesting that Martha prepare a less elaborate pilaf? That he would be very content with a simpler meal? Yes, most probably, but there is something more to this.

     Jesus invites Martha (and here, today, invites us also) into a more balanced spirituality, a more complete holiness, a more intimate relationship with God. Jesus invites Martha, and us, also, to notice our need to be well nourished with the Word of God.

     Martha and everyone in that room (and everyone in this sacred space) has the words of Deuteronomy 8 written on the wall of our hearts: “(Neither men nor women nor children) can live on bread, alone, but from every Word that comes from the mouth of God.” Moreover, Jesus knows Martha’s heart (and, Jesus knows our hearts!), and invites Martha (and each of us) to desire Jesus’ indwelling and to make room, each day, for a ‘resting time with the Lord’.

     Truth is, in Martha’s life, and in each of our lives, our servant-hood issues from our love for God, our intimacy with Holy Spirit and our oneness with Jesus. This is a most important truth, hear this again: our servant-hood issues from our love for God, our intimacy with Holy Spirit and our oneness with Jesus.   . . . . 

     In one of his most recent books, Marcus Borg, a noteworthy and highly respected Scripture scholar of our own day, makes this observation about our lives as Christians: “…The goal of the Christian life is participating in the passion of God, as disclosed in the Bible and Jesus. God’s passion is that we center more deeply in God (‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength’) and (that we center more deeply in) the world – a world of justice and peace. These are the inner and outer dimensions of the Christian life – union with God’s passion.” (Putting Away Childish Things, page 133.)

    Dear People of God, Jesus is our ‘Spiritual Director’ this morning, like Mary (and, eventually, Martha) we sit at Jesus’ feet and listen most intently for his wisdom to take root in our hearts. After all, Jesus is Way, Truth and Life.

     On a practical note: I imagine that if we were to ask any of the generous people who prepare the soup for our Saturday Soup Bowl, each would note that a part of each day is spent in quiet listening to Jesus, who speaks of his love in their hearts and that the soup preparation happens in a prayerful manner – and, perhaps, with a sip of the fruit of the vine and holy company?

    Friends, let us be full of joy and gratitude that Jesus invites each of us here, today, to sit at his feet, to know and experience, first hand, his deep, profoundly deep and complete love for each of us, his longing to be with us, always, in his word and sacrament and in each other. In the words of a favorite hymn: I come with joy to meet our Lord……

     Let us do that now……

Preached by Mother Marie Swayze

18 July 2010

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 20, 2010 .