18The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Are you a Mary or a Martha?
There seems to be an assumption that people are either one or the other. We are either the prayerful sitting at the feet of Jesus kind or the making the tea kind. The older I get the more I realise just how wrong that assumption is. Clearly the women who followed Jesus from their descriptions in the Bible were prayerful AND active. How could you partition their act of going to anoint Jesus’ body on Easter Sunday as either work or prayer. Rather it is that after which we should all strive Prayerful work.
I always used to think Martha's story was a CRITCISM of those who seek to show their faith by works but in the mellowing of the years and especially in my last role I began to understand that this is in fact no condemnation of those who put their faith to work but of those who work rather than seek faith. Martha is not someone who has rejected Jesus and chosen work instead. No if you remember the passage it begins:
“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home”
It is Martha who makes the first move the invite Jesus in. Jesus' words to Martha are not that she should NOT work but that she should be aware that only one thing is necessary; faith in God. He does not say that Martha is WRONG to serve but that she is DISTRACTED by her works from what really matters. She is busying herself to “get it all just right” rather than spending time with him.
In fact a clergy colleague suggestedto me that it is Mary who isgetting it wrong in someways by breaking the female stereotype of service and instead just sitting and listening like a male disciple!
Our Old Testament story backs up what Martha’s intentions most probably were. Martha knew the importance of HOSPITALITY of inviting people into your home; of feeding people. Of inviting God into your home. However Jesus’ message to her is that she rushes to feed him without seeking to be fed herself.
Abraham and Sarah entertain these strangers and feed them but they themselves receive great news in the process. Their hope is fed. Even if it brings Sarah to giggles rather than prayers (too often my downfall!)
Both these stories show us that gathering around a table with people and with God is not just about what is on the table physically but about what God is offering us in the form of spiritual food.
In a world where we strive to succeed and where long hours are seen as the goal and often an indication of a job done well, I think many of us need to hear those words that Jesus spoke to Martha. As with so many of Jesus' most powerful speeches, he begins by calling Martha by name (twice in fact). Can we each hear that message so personally? "You are distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing." Indeed more than that, can we show that message to others? Far too often I find myself entering that most bizarre of stag contests - who has over-worked the most? "You think YOU've had a long week? I had a meeting every evening this week AND I'm working on Saturday AND Sunday and I haven't had a WHOLE day off in two WEEKS!" "I haven't had a day without some work in THREE weeks!"and the four Yorkshireman-esque discussion continues... Why do we do it? Do we really believe that we are BETTER for burning ourselves out in whatever work we do?
When I first started in youth work I was told of the great numbers of youth workers who burn out in the first two years and until a few years ago year I hadn't seen anyone burn out but I regret that In my third year of youth work I saw a wonderful, caring and inspired youth worker work herself into the ground (no it wasn’t me!). When there is so much GOOD work that can be done, I know that it is amazingly difficult to rest, to stop and do something totally pointless like... read a novel, watch a film, have a lie-in or just veg out... but that is exactly what we all need at times; some time for ourselves. Jesus knew this and often took time out for prayer as well as for meals with friends.
My dear friend, when she was taking that time out, urged me that I should take note before I push myself to far and I have certainly heard that message from her and from this reading.
What work do you have to do that is so important today or this week? Is it because the work is important or because YOU want to FEEL important?
In the grand scheme of things much of what we do is not vital and earth-shattering, no matter how it might feel to us. IN her busyness Martha gets snippety at her sister who isn’t so busy (how many of us do the same?) Jesus wanted Martha to know that she was a precious child of God no matter how busy or un busy she was, no matter what anyone else was doing or not doing and that the only thing she needed to do was to turn towards God. Not to worry about all the things that needed doing to feed everyone but to come to the table and be fed by God.
Is it only us busy ones that need to change though?
When Jesus speaks to Martha about her rushing around, he’s commenting on her distraction from her relationship with God. You don’t have to be busy to be missing that connection with God. It could be that you need to engage with God in a new way.
It is possible for those contemplative prayerful types to take up a practical task and it is possible for those who roll up their sleeves to take some time out to pray. It doesn’t have to be a choice of one or the other!
I've been on retreat to various different places and I must admit I struggled a little staying in one community of sisters who were Marys – actually some of them were literally Marys – but my point is that these nuns prayed and kept quiet time most of the day. The community was relatively small and the young active nuns even fewer in number and so it wasn’t so surprising that there were people supporting them doing the cooking and the cleaning. Another nunnery I stayed at however was the opposite. On my first evening there a gloriously pink faced sister brought in the dinner which she had so obviously slaved over in a hot kitchen, another dug in the garden for the vegetables that went into it and yet another washed it all up afterwards. These sisters were no less holy. Less quiet but not less Christian!
Whether you’re more a Mary or more a Martha, remember this week to focus on God through quiet or through practical service. However you do it remember to take time to come to God’s table. To take time to be spiritual. I know for many people this may seem like a great challenge as the ever-rolling to do list looms forward. If it begins to feel like that this week and you feel yourself spiralling like a Martha into distractions. Listen for Jesus calling you by name and reassuring you.
.... There is need of only one thing.