As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught.
But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing.
She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”
But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”
I’ve been sitting with Mary and Martha. They sit facing me, each holding one of my hands. Their faces are serene and kind. They are older, in my mind’s eye, than these stories.
They have been friends of Jesus… and I can see this in their faces. Joy and sorrow. Peace and pain. It is all there.
They hold my hands and look into my eyes and I feel that here are the two parts of who I am.
(I know this may sound a little strange. I’m in the midst of an Ignatian Prayer Retreat. I am guided each week through scripture and encouraged to try different prayer practices. One of these is the “Application of the Senses” – to immerse myself in the scene, to talk to the individuals present, to imagine the sounds and smells, to PRAY with the participants of the story… and so I sit with Martha and Mary.)
Jesus came to their house and was like no one they had ever known. They had heard him and heard of him, and he came to their house, with his whole crowd.
Martha sprang into action. She wanted to esteem Jesus with the best meal and experience she could create, even as he honoured them by coming into their home.
Mary had never heard anyone speak like Jesus. She knew that Martha wanted her help, but she couldn’t tear herself away. She wanted to hear the conversation. She didn’t want to miss any part of it. She sat at Jesus feet, in the position of a disciple, and Jesus did not send her away.
In the story, Martha comes to Jesus “worried and upset about many things”. I expect Martha has been trying to get Mary’s attention.
She has dropped subtle and less subtle hints. She has sighed loudly, and banged a few pots. She has asked pointed questions like, “Mary, where did you put that thing that I need and could you come and show me?”
She taps her foot… She sends her youngest in to ask Aunt Mary to count the guests so that she can know just how many guests to set the table for (and how very much work there is to do).
And Mary, fully aware of what her sister is “doing”, remains at Jesus feet… hanging on every word.
“My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”
I sit, looking into the faces of Martha and Mary. They each have hold of one of my hands. As I read this story they look slightly amused, smiling and joyous, gracious and forgiving.
They are able to laugh at their younger selves. They are able to remember those women, with affection.
They have learned to be generous and gracious with each other.
And I see myself in both of them.
I get up in the morning and think, “I need to pray. I need to write. I need to prepare a sermon. I need to think of ways to celebrate Easter when we cannot meet together. I need to connect with people and encourage them.”
And I look up and the sun hits the shelf in front of me and I think, “I need to dust that. I need to vacuum the hallway. I need to clear off the kitchen counter and clean all the way to the back. I need to hang up the laundry that is sitting in the washer. I need to clear up the pile of stuff on the guest bed…”
And – “I should write thank you notes. I should write a newsletter. I should do something about my social work credentials. I should study more…”
I want to paint the garden fence.
I am Mary. I want to sit and walk and talk with Jesus.
I am Martha. How can I sit down and enjoy contemplation if the kitchen isn’t clean? If the sunlight shows me the dust on the furniture?
These women smile at me, and at one another. They say to me, “It’s okay.”
Martha has learned to sit down at the table and enjoy the conversation. She has learned that when the conversation ends, she can go into the kitchen and clean up – and Mary will go with her.
Mary loves Martha. And she knows that cleaning the kitchen means that Martha will be able to sleep, and wake up in the morning feeling peaceful and quiet in her soul – without resentment.
Mary accepts that for Martha, a sink full of dishes is noisy. The dishes will shout at Martha until they are washed.
Mary doesn’t say to Martha “The dishes will still be there in the morning…” As if that is a consolation… as if that is a reason to relax.
Martha doesn’t say to Mary “You aren’t doing anything important. Come and help me!” As if thoughtful pursuits have no value, no power to feed the soul.
We know more about Mary and Martha than this story. We know that their brother was sick, and they sent for Jesus. And Jesus – who loved their brother – stayed where he was for two more days.
Lazarus died. They grieved for him. They buried him.
When Jesus finally came, Lazarus had been in the grave four days.
Mary and Martha both asked Jesus “Where were you? If you had been here our brother would not have died!” (John 11: 21 and 32)
He wept for “the one that he loved” who had died. He wept for his friends who were grieving. He wept because his soul was “troubled”. They still did not understand that He came to bring life…
And Jesus called Lazarus out of the cave, out of death.
Jesus said to Martha,
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Martha and Mary hold my hands and say to me, “It’s okay.”
They have learned the secret of what is important. They have learned that there is more to the story.
They have learned that even in the face of death, Jesus came to bring life.
And so they have learned to be gentle with each other. And are teaching me…
And I don’t have to choose to be one or the other. I can integrate Martha, and my need to wash the dishes before I go to bed so that I can breathe in the morning…
And I can integrate Mary, and my need to listen to the Holy Spirit in the sounds of the garden, and colours in nature, and to ALWAYS have flowers in my house.
I can look into their faces and see what they have learned – that there is always more to the story. There is always “four days in the grave and Jesus comes and weeps, and calls forth life from death”.
The meal is important, and the chores are important… and I will get to those. And sitting at Jesus’ feet is important. And walking out the door into the daylight is important. Hanging up the laundry is important.
And all of those “many things” are important… and I will get to them. Or not. And Martha and Mary tell me that this is okay.
And I will be gracious with myself. And I will laugh at myself. And I will do the one more thing, and trust that Jesus will come and bring life, even when I don’t expect it.
Both of these women are part of me (and you). And they teach me that my story doesn’t end with this day.
Look into their eyes. They are older and wiser than they were when we met them. They have seen death and life. They have learned to love their differences – and to live with them.
And they knew Jesus. And knowing Jesus changed them in beautiful ways.
I can see it in their faces.
Sit with them a while, and you will see it too.
Inhale: All shall be well and all shall be well…
Exhale: And all manner of thing shall be well…
(Julian of Norwich)
That’s what I would have said…