Martha and Mary Luke 10:38

A sermon at the congregation of the Good Shepherd (Anglican Parish of Kingston North)
by Robert Brow, July 22, 2001

A Home that Jesus Loved - We know from John's Gospel that Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus lived in the village of Bethany (John 11:1). This was just over the Mount of Olives about 3 kilometers from the city of Jerusalem (about as far as Kingston City Hall is from here). Luke makes it clear that Martha is head of the house, but he leaves out what might have been an embarrassing fact that her husband was Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:6, Mark 14:3). He must have been put out from his home to wander around crying "unclean" and he was perhaps healed by Jesus (7:22), and as a result was invited to the home of Martha and Mary. He would have had to remain in quarantine until he was declared free of the disease. The fact that a member of the family once had this dread disease would be viewed as a terrible family secret. Which reminds us that many of our own families have a dark secret we would rather not talk about. But Jesus stayed in the home on this occasion, and again during the four days from Palm Sunday to the last supper (see Mark 11:1-2, 11-12, 14:3). Blessed is the home where Jesus can feel at home.

Two Sisters who Quarreled - Martha and Mary obviously had very different temperaments. Martha was a perfectionist. When a guest came to her home everything had to be more than perfect. Mary didn't worry about gourmet food or tidiness. When a guest came she wanted the chance to talk and learn. So they would easily fall out and disagree. When we were in Cyprus caring for the Anglican chaplaincy church there, we would be invited out to a restaurant where they served a meze of fifteen different dishes: fish and sea foods, fruits and vegetables, feta cheese and salads, and ending up with beef, pork, and lamb, two desserts. You can imagine it took a huge amount of time for the cook to prepare. And Martha was determined to serve Jesus the most lavish meze he had ever eaten. But time was running out and she needed Mary to come and help. Finally she called out angrily "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself" (10:40). She expected the visiting rabbi to scold her sister and get her to help with the last five meze servings. But Jesus had her summed up exactly. "You are worried and distracted because you are trying to serve up too many dishes. I don't need all that. There is need of only one thing." And "Mary has chosen the better part" which was to honor their guest by sitting by him and listening to what he was saying.

The Change in the Status of women

In Jesus' day devout Jewish rabbis would pray "Blessed art thou, O God, that I was not made a woman." And they had a strict rule that women were not allowed to be taught the torah (the Old Testament books of Moses) in case they misinterpreted it. But Jesus made a very radical change by baptizing and teaching women. And here Mary was sitting as a disciple at Jesus' feet and being taught by the Son of God himself. She is evidently a baptized full disciple of Jesus.

There is no way the apostles would have begun baptizing women on the Day of Pentecost unless they had been doing this among his disciples (see John 4:1). Here are some verses from the Book of Acts that indicate how important this change was in the early church. "They were all together in Solomon's Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women" (Acts 5:12-14, as in 8:12). Before his conversion "Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison" (Acts 8:3). Usually it was assumed that if the men were put in prison, a movement would end. But obviously the Jewish authorities could see that the women were just as much involved in making the good news known as the male disciples. Saul got letters from the high priest addressed "to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem" (Acts 9:1-2)

We don't know how long it took Paul to change from his Old Testament male chauvinism. I like to think that the last straw was the vision he had of someone from Macedonia calling him over to Europe to help the people there (Acts 16:9). He assumed this call for help would be from a male, but when he got to Philippi Luke records that the first convert was a business woman. "The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying come and stay at my home. And she prevailed upon us" (Act 16:14-15). Not long afterwards Paul was writing about the tenfold mutuality between husbands and wives in the early churches (1 Corinthians 7:1-16). Obviously Luke was impressed by this astonishing change from Old Testament patriarchy. And the story of Martha and Mary describes how this change was from the teaching and practice of Jesus himself.

In a moment we are going to be taking communion. It is a family meal to which we invite Jesus to be present and teach us. Our communion is not like a Passover meal with its numerous dishes. Pita bread and wine from the grape harvest were the very minimum simple ingredients of a meal of the poor. In our family gathering the Marthas could be a bit less perfectionist and fussy, but both Marys and Marthas, and men of different temperaments, are all equally loved and welcomed in our family gathering. And women are full members of the church as a body with many different functions and gifts. Most important of all Jesus loves to come and eat with us as a church and in any family (Revelation 3:20).

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