Luke 10: 38-42 Colossians 1 15-28
This week God has really been giving me a lot of really big hints about my lifestyle – not just gentle nudges, really obvious prompts that even I in my usual oblivious way haven’t been able to ignore. He couldn’t be much clearer than if He’s sat me down in my study, looked straight into my eyes and said now Jane I really think we need to have a chat!
It started with the book that I decided (or was it me that decided?) which is called Sacred Rest. Written by a Christian woman who realised that she was spending way too much time doing and relatively no time at all being, it’s been a valuable insight into my own life. And then on Wednesday the Gospel for the mid-week service was one that preceded one of my favourite verses from Matthew in which Jesus reminds his followers of the need to lay down their burdens at his feet. It’s not just what I’ve read that God has used – it’s also been what I’ve done. The most important encounters that I have had have been the quiet ones with people, the ones when God has been so obviously present that it’s been as though he’s been sitting with me and those I have been with.
And today once more scripture is telling me very clearly the way of life that I should be aspiring to. It’s a passage that has always spoken into my heart, partly as many of you know, I have my very own Martha, who was named after her Biblical counterpart – clearly a ploy on my part to breed a future homemaker but who it would appear God has other plans for which don’t include being house proud! But mainly I love this passage which I think in a relatively few short verses has such a lot to say to us particularly about two things. One is the way in which women are portrayed in the Gospels, which I believe influences views about women’s spirituality and ministry. Secondly, I think the passage also speaks to us about the different ways in which we all react to God’s call on our lives regardless of gender.
One of the really interesting points that this passage raises is in relation to how the roles of men and women are perceived in relation to the life of the Church and indeed with respect to the way in which each fulfil their vocation as disciples of Jesus. This has been a very real issue for me as my sending parish is one where some years ago the differences of opinion on the ministry of men and women caused deep and hurtful divisions. It is a matter of great joy to me that many of those divisions have now been healed and that the parish is now one where the gifts of men and women are both celebrated and as result it is fertile ground in which the Gospel flourishes. But back to Mary and Martha as they welcome their honoured guest into their home. By acting as she did Mary made a brave decision to behave in a way that was not the norm for a woman at that time. The boundaries between male and female roles were very clearly demarcated in society and Mary made a radical choice by sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to Him speak rather than scurrying off to the kitchen as Martha did. Mary chose to behave in a way that would be completely acceptable if she had been a man but highly questionable for a woman. And Jesus reaction to her behaviour was equally radical. Far from condemning her behaviour or encouraging her to following her sister’s example, Jesus welcomed Mary as He would have welcomed any man who sought His teaching and in doing so He legitimised women as equal recipients of His ministry and therefore equal in the eyes of God.
It’s important that we understand the cultural meaning of sitting at the feet of someone considered to be a teacher, or Rabbi, at that time – it wasn’t a passive role as the words imply. Rather it indicated that the person sitting as Mary did was a student of the teacher, the Rabbi, and even more vitally it indicated a desire to take on the role of teacher oneself. By choosing to sit at Jesus’ feet in order to soak up his words Mary was making a very powerful and public statement – she was in effect stating not only her desire to be Jesus’ disciple but she was also quietly taking her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of His words and in this desire Jesus clearly affirms her as we read in verse 42 “Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her” Mary responds to God’s call to listen to Jesus speak about the kingdom and Jesus not only accepts but encourages her in her vocation. This is not simply an affirmation of the validity of women among Jesus’ disciples – it is an outpouring of God’s love on all who choose to follow Him.
Too often we get caught up in what separates us from each other, what makes us different, superior, better – but actually as far as God is concerned there is no difference, no hierarchy of who is more worthy to be part of his ongoing mission on earth. We are all worthy in his eyes and this passage from Luke’s gospel is clear evidence of Jesus’ acceptance of women as equal to men in their response to proclaim the Gospel message.
What, then, does this portion of scripture say to each of us about the choices we make in our response to God in our own lives? In a relatively short passage we can see in the actions that Martha and Mary take two very different ways of responding to God. I am sure that if you reflect upon this you will find yourself relating to one or other depending on your personality. So – Are you a Martha – always busy, rushing around, making sure everything is done. A visit from unexpected guests means action! No sitting around; just chatting and relaxing – oh no, it’s straight into the kitchen to make tea, find something to eat, to be the provider of physical nourishment. And then there are the Marys – delighted to see a dear and special friend. More interested in spending time with those around them. Happy to sit quietly, listening and reflecting on what’s being said, knowing that this will be time well spent, time that will strengthen them both as individuals and as members of their community, a provider of emotional and spiritual nourishment. And that’s where conflict can arise in any group of people – be it family, club, faith community or workplace! The Marthas start to feel resentful – after all they are the ones running around, doing all the work – you can’t have people round and not offer them refreshments. That would never do – what would people think? How inhospitable! If there’s a practical task that needs to doing ask a Martha – you can guarantee it will be done quickly and efficiently. Everything running like clockwork. But the Marys don’t get that at all. For them it is a treat it is to have such special friends honour them with a visit. It would be rude just to leave them to their own devices – far better to spend time with them than to bother with the small stuff like cups of tea! Tasks aren’t important. Listening and talking to people, making them feel special – that’s what’s important. That’s what they feel God is calling them to do.
Just like Mary and Martha we each have a choice as to how we respond to Jesus’s presence in our lives. We can run around doing stuff to prove how much we love Him – taking action, organising events, trying to prove that the more we do the greater our faith. Or we can relax in His presence – be still and listen to him, really listen to what He is saying to each of us and soak up His love, be revived and restored by Him. So what’s the right answer? Well, actually, I don’t think there is one – there are different seasons in our discipleship. There are times when we do need to be busy, getting stuff done but there are equally times when we need to rest and spend time in God’s presence, revelling in the joy of sabbath rest. This isn’t a passage about the merits of either active or contemplative spirituality. Both are important, both are equally valid. It’s not easy being still. It’s not easy to listen but we all need to be Marys once in a while. We need to take time out from our busy schedules just to be with God. To soak up his word, to be clothed by the Holy Spirit – to know that with God by our side nothing is impossible. We can be part of the growth of God’s kingdom here on earth but in order to do that we need to know when to step back, when to listen to God, to understand what He is saying to us and more importantly to act upon it.
We all have a vocation to serve God and we are all affirmed in that vocation whatever it may be. Everything we do for God is important – whether it is an active tangible task or silent contemplative prayer its all vital work. Some of us will be called to active ministry, to organising events, to carrying out the many practical tasks that are essential to ensuring that the church is front and centre of the community, encouraging others to join God’s family. Others of us are called to prayer, to providing that unspoken, often unnoticed support without which we equally couldn’t survive. So to the Marthas out there (and I include myself in this category) Try sitting still for a while – you never know you might actually learn to enjoy it! And to the Marys – keep doing what you do best, being still in the presence of the Lord and reminding the rest of us that this is what is true faith is. And for all of us some words to reflect on written by Mother Theresa – who demonstrated both Mary and Martha tendencies in her life. ” God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer”