Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Jan 23 2020 - Luke 10:38-11:13 – Martha and Mary

What do you make of the story of Martha and Mary? I suspect you may even find the wording of my question slightly odd; we are more used to speaking of "Mary and Martha". But it's Martha who appears first in the story. It appears to be her house that Jesus is in and she is intent upon honouring him as her guest. Everything she is doing is intended as an act of service for Jesus, while her sister sits idly at Jesus' feet. Isn't it rather unfair that she is told off because of her way of expressing her devotion to Jesus?

I have a friend who tends to read the story in this way. He is a task-oriented person; always keen to be active in the work of the kingdom. He gets frustrated with those who present themselves as wonderfully spiritual but who do very little – like those who constantly leave others to clear away the chairs after a church service while they stand chatting with others.

Then there are those who ask the question, "Are you a Mary or a Martha?" – as if it's a matter of temperament. This would seem to suggest that one might be commended or condemned on the basis of one's inherent character – God loves contemplatives but hates activists!

We need to remember that whoever we are, and whatever may be our temperament, we are each called to follow Jesus. There is nothing spiritual about spending one's life in perpetual contemplation while refusing to get one's hands dirty with the common work of the world. Jesus did not choose to stay in heaven, sitting (as it were) at the feet of the Father and gazing upon his glory. Jesus came into this world to live the life of a servant and to give his life for our salvation. But equally there are dangers in the business of service. We can become so preoccupied with the work that must be done, that we lose sight of those whom we are serving – whether the Lord himself or other people. At such times the work becomes a heavy duty rather than a joy.

It's not a matter of temperament; it's a matter of the heart – of living closely with Jesus, following in his footsteps and of doing all that we do gladly to the glory of God and in service of others. And it's about balance. We need to follow Jesus who sought time apart with the Father but also gave himself gladly to the service of others. Was he a Mary or a Martha? ... a contemplative or an activist? He is God incarnate and the model for all he calls us to be.

And one more thing: what is really remarkable about this story is that Mary – a woman – has assumed the position of a disciple, sitting at the Master's feet and listening to his teaching. In an age where a woman's "place" was in the kitchen, she broke the mould and joined the men. And Jesus commends her for it rather than packing her off to the household duties. He is delighted that women and men equally seek to learn of him and follow him. And Luke is pleased to bear testimony to this radical breaking of the rabbinic traditions.

The disciples had been busy in the work of the kingdom and had seen remarkable things happen as a result of their ministry but, when they saw Jesus at prayer, they asked him to teach them to pray, and that’s just what he did. They needed to learn to be still in the presence of God if they were going to continue being useful in his service. And so do we.

We need Jesus to teach us to pray – and we need to learn from those who have been taught by him. It’s good to repeat the words of the Lord’s Prayer and to use other written prayers which we make our own by joining our hearts with the words. These can be valuable learning aids. But it’s also good to pray in our own words, pouring out our hearts to God and bringing all our cares and concerns before him with thanksgiving and praise. It’s good to knock on heaven’s door in the confidence that, “Everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:10).

Lord Jesus, teach me to pray – and to wait and to listen. And through such prayer, empower me for service that your kingdom may come and your will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Peter Misselbrook