There’s a case to be made for Martha

3 Aug

I have to admit it: I have not succeeded with my plan to post, chapter by chapter, on Luke’s Gospel.
No excuses.
But I am still following the Year of Luke, in my preaching and reading, so here is something from a recent sermon, when the Gospel reading was the story of Martha and Mary, from Luke 10, 38 – 42.

The basic thing I want to say here is that the idea that we should all be like Mary, and not Martha, is profoundly misleading and wrong.
There is a case to be made for Martha!

(What follows is stuff from the sermon manuscript, edited …)

There’s a case to be made for Martha.
    In fact, Martha has a special place in the bible, and in church history, which is scarcely noticed. She was the one who said, in the story we find in John 11, that if Jesus had come sooner, her brother would not have died. She believed in him. She was a woman of faith.
You may be familiar with a statement made by Peter, when Jesus asked the disciples: Who do you say I am?  We find this in Luke 9.20, for example, where Peter answers: You are the Christ of God, or Matthew has it, ‘You are the Christ, the son of the living God’: and this statement is called ‘Peter’s great confession of faith’. And Jesus declares that this faith will be the foundation of the church. Many Bibles have a little sub-heading in them, noting ‘Peter’s great confession of faith’.
    But we have not noticed that Martha also said these very same words: in that story in John 11, Martha says to Jesus: ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’ (v.27.) This is Martha’s great confession of faith.
    Martha was a woman of faith, and indeed there is a great Christian tradition about her. The German scholar, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel has researched the traditions about Martha: there are in fact ancient wood cuts, and drawings, in churches in Europe, which depict Mary as a preacher, and indeed as a Bishop. There is a tradition that has her, not St George, slaying a dragon. These images and ideas are from the very early Christian centuries.
    We may not know quite what to make of this, but  they challenge a common perception of Martha. You know the idea, it sets up a sort of dichotomy, two different ideas of what faith is really about. One, which is said to be like Mary, stresses prayer, while Martha is all about action; on the one side we have the Bible, and on the other, the wisdom of the world; and in recent centuries this has been made a contrast between faith and reason. Martha or Mary.
    Martha is always in some way at a bit of a disadvantage here. She is seen as, well, a good, practical helpful person. She is a good person to have around, but you wouldn’t put her in charge … she hasn’t quite got the focus right.
    So it seems, the way Luke presents his story. Jesus answers Martha’s protest:  Martha, Martha, you are worried, and distracted by many things; there is need of just one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.
    That seems to put Martha in her place, doesn’t it?
    Mary has chosen the better part.

    But what is it? What is the better part, and What is this one thing that is needed?
    I am going to dare to suggest to you what it is.
    I think Jesus was simply saying, ‘Come and sit with us’.
    I think he wanted them to be together.
    The better part is to be with Jesus, learning and growing together.
    This is not that traditional contrast between prayer and action, or bible and world, or piety and practice.
    This, I think, is a challenge to the church to learn what it means to be with Jesus, wherever we are.
    The better part is to be with Jesus. But that means a more difficult task than getting the beds made and the dinner ready.
    It is a task which has in fact defined the very nature of a Baptist church, through all our history.
    Baptist churches have always been communities of people who seek to know the mind of Christ.
    That means, we do four things, and we do them together.
    I say we do this, though in fact in so many places we have lost this heritage, but let us try to hold on to its value.
    We do four things: we are a people who read the Bible together. We read and study the living word of God.
    But much more than that, we then pray together and talk together, about what it means for us. These two things, praying and talking together, about the meaning of God’s word, that’s what the church meeting was always supposed to be about.
    We ask each other: so if this is what God is like, what is God now asking us to be and do, here, today?
    And then, for a fourth thing, we act: we plan to live into this vision of God.
    Here, I want to suggest to you, is a pathway for the one thing needed. To be with Jesus is not about some pious huddle, hiding from the challenges of the city and the world out there.
    No, it means to seek the way of Christ, to listen to him, to learn from him and to be like him.

In short, then, it is not Mary without Martha, but some way of the two, together with Jesus.

3 thoughts on “There’s a case to be made for Martha

  1. Many thanks for these thoughts Franks. It’s a good meditation as I begin the day.
    I wonder, however, if you could have pushed even further than you do the case for the faithfulness of Martha … Perhaps that’s for another day.
    I’ve often thought she gets a bit of a raw deal in this story. Jesus doesn’t say that what Martha is doing is wrong (there’s a whole ramification for ethics here) but simply that Mary has chosen what is ‘better’.
    Thanks again.

  2. Frank, just wondering if you came across Augustine on this text, who gives the standard interpretation. Of course, everyone reads Augustine every morning (as you do):
    “at present alleluia is for us a traveler’s song, but this tiresome journey brings us closer to home and rest where, all our busy activities over and done with, the only thing that will remain will be alleluia. That is the delightful part that Mary chose for herself, as she sat doing nothing but learning and praising, while her sister Martha was busy with all sorts of things. Indeed, what she was doing was necessary, but it wasn’t going to last.” (Sermon 255.1-2, quoted in ACCS Luke p183)

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