The sisters Mary and Martha make multiple appearances in the gospels, particularly John’s gospel. And in each passage, as they interact with Jesus, we learn something new about them. The dinner recounted in this passage immediately followed the raising of Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, from the dead. Mary and Martha had anxiously waited for Jesus to come and heal their ailing brother, only to see the time pass away, along with his life. When Jesus finally appeared after Lazarus’ death, the sisters were incensed. Martha tells Jesus that if he had come, her brother would not be dead. And in the midst of their conversation, Jesus made what is one of the most beautiful declarations in all of scripture. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said, “Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then Jesus looks at Martha and asks, “Do you believe this?” She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s son.” It wasn’t not too long after that that Jesus made his way to Lazarus’ tomb and called out into the darkness, “Lazarus, come out!” Then, Lazarus stepped from the tomb, just as if he had been asleep.
Mary and Martha must have been beside themselves. Indeed, Jesus did not get to Lazarus in time to heal him, but with that option now gone, he did something even better. He brought Lazarus back from death. It’s only logical that with their brother now among them again, Mary and Martha want to show Jesus their gratitude through a celebratory dinner. So Martha, the consummate hostess, goes to work; just as she does in that all-familiar passage in Luke’s gospel, the one we are perhaps most familiar with when it comes to these sisters. While Mary and Martha are not connected with Lazarus in Luke’s gospel, the scene depicted there is very similar to this one. Martha is busy preparing a meal for the guest of honor, and Mary is idly sitting by in Jesus’ presence. In Luke’s gospel, Martha rebukes Mary for not helping with the prep work. But in our scripture reading for this morning, it is Judas who rebukes Mary for the costliness of the perfume which she “wastes” on Jesus’ feet. In both cases, Jesus defends Mary’s act of devotion, but we need to know that Jesus’ defense of Mary does not diminish the significance of Martha’s work, which is why we are looking at these two sisters together.
Mary and Martha are noteworthy not because of their multiple appearances alongside Jesus in the gospels, but because, together, they are the model of complete devotion. I chose this passage from John this morning as the reading to launch our look at Mary and Martha because we see Martha, hard at work in the background, and Mary making an extravagant, costly offering to the man who has just saved her brother. Often, these two sisters are pitted one against the other. I think this happens because in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better way. We are told that we must be more like Mary and less like Martha. But what we need to know is that, in reality, we are enriched most by holding their actions together, and by learning lessons of discipleship from both of them.
So let’s start with Martha. Throughout the gospels, Martha is depicted as something of a busybody. Can you identify? Just days ago, we can imagine that Martha must have been pacing nervously, alternately wiping the feverish sweat from her brother’s brow and running to the doorway, craning her neck for a glance down the road, hoping to see Jesus coming toward her as her brother’s life wilted away. After Lazarus has been raised, and the celebratory dinner is planned, John tells us simply that “Martha served.” You can see it in your imagination, I’m sure; this woman, sweating over a fire in the kitchen, meticulously attending to every detail, then running back and forth between table and kitchen to make sure everyone is satisfied and has their fill. It’s a similar scene to that depicted in Luke’s gospel, where Martha finally gets fed up. She goes to Jesus and tells him to make her sister do what she’s supposed to be doing and come help her out in the kitchen.
In Martha’s mind, this is a perfectly legitimate request. Jesus has taught through his ministry the importance of diakonia, service; this is the word used to describe the work that Martha is doing as she labors diligently in the kitchen. Combine this with the very clearly defined roles of women in this time, and it’s only logical that she should feel she is the one doing “right.” And Jesus’ rebuke of her as recorded in Luke’s account of this meal is not because she is not doing the right thing, but because she is doing it for the wrong reasons. She’s looking for recognition, justification, and affirmation. And here’s the thing, Jesus does want us to serve him, just as Martha was so busy taking care of her honored guest when Jesus came to dinner, but we Jesus doesn’t want us to serve him only for recognition or praise. We serve Jesus because that is what Jesus has commanded of us. We do works of service, diakonia, because Jesus has called us to be his body at work in the world, to serve our neighbors and the “least of these.” If we serve only for the recognition it brings, then we are serving only for ourselves. Martha reminds us that we need to be about the working of serving Jesus in the world everyday; in fact, we should be so busy serving Christ that it consumes us. But what Jesus tells Martha and all of us, is that it should be service alone that consumes us, not service that seeks recognition.
Which is why Mary is important, too. It may seem that Mary is just being lazy, but as she sits and listens to Jesus, as she pours expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet, what she is exhibiting is her complete devotion to Christ. She wants to listen and learn. She wants to converse and grow. She wants to express her total gratitude and offer all of herself to this healer, savior, the giver of life, her Messiah. So as Martha clangs pots in the background, Mary sits undisturbed, fully focused on Christ in her midst. It doesn’t matter that gatherings in the sitting room are really only for men, and the women are supposed to be busy serving them. It doesn’t matter that the perfume Mary pours over Jesus’ feet is worth at least as much as most people in that day and age made in a year. It doesn’t matter that in order to dry Jesus’ feet with her hair, that would require her hair to be both uncovered and unbound, hanging loosely from her head in a look that at the time was reserved only for the most intimate of settings between men and women.
None of these things matter because Mary is fully focused on the Messiah. She is engaged in worship, in all its facets, and it’s true worship because it’s centered completely on Christ. What we learn from Mary is that the relationship we have with Christ matters more than anything else in our lives. It matters so much that our life should be completely devoted to Christ. We should make time, even when it defies social convention and means missing the ball game, so that we can sit with others and learn about Jesus; so that we can hear his teachings, consider his actions, and contemplate how we can follow his example in our world today. Our relationship with Christ matters so much that we should offer him the best that we have; the first fruits of our labors, given generously and freely without hesitation. Mary shows us that our relationship with Christ cannot be bound or restricted by anything or anyone. We have to offer all that we have and all that we are without any hesitation.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once said that God raised the people called Methodist “to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” It was a two pronged gospel of personal assurance and social witness. He urged the people toward what he called “Christian perfection,” which is achieved only by perfect love of God and perfect love of neighbor. The ideal of the Christian life is both a total devotion to Christ and a complete offering of ourselves in service to Christ. I think if John Wesley wanted to point to a good example of such discipleship in the gospels, he may very well have lifted up these sisters of Bethany; Martha, wholly consumed in service to her Messiah, and Mary fully wrapped up in devotion to her Savior. It’s really two sides of the same coin. That’s what we need to know and learn from these two women today. We cannot serve if we do not know Christ, but we make Christ known through our service. It takes both; personal devotion and social witness. And Mary and Martha offer the model of complete devotion; they are the full embodiment of a true disciple.
So, I wonder this morning, how are you doing as a disciple? Are you like Mary, tending toward worship and study, or are you more like Martha, eager to be out serving and doing. If you identify with one of these women, you have a great start! But that also gives you an idea of where you can grow. If your preference is to be preparing a meal for Mustard Tree or Family Promise, maybe it’s time to considering setting aside a few moments each day for devotional time. Or perhaps it would be good to seek out a new Bible Study. Or maybe you need to re-evaluate your offerings both of your resources and yourself. Are you giving generously of all that you have and all that you are? Are you truly grateful to Christ and expressing that gratitude in every way possible?
And if those things come naturally to you, maybe it’s time to take a lesson from Martha. Step out from behind the Bible every now and then. Do more than just come to worship on Sunday mornings! Get out into the world and put all those wonderful lessons into action. Give of yourself to serve a neighbor in need just as if that person were Christ himself. Go and visit in the hospitals and prisons; spend time with the sick and the homebound. Help prepare a meal for the homeless or some birthday gifts for impoverished children. And do those things not so that you gain recognition; not even so you can say that you are doing the “right” thing. Give of yourself for others because Christ first gave himself for you. Serve simply because Christ calls us to serve.
It might seem silly to think that one person could pull off what it took two people to do in the Bible. But this is the challenge of discipleship, of living a life of complete devotion. And just because it's hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And here’s the thing; if we, like Mary, can devote all of ourselves to Christ, and like Martha consume ourselves in service to him, then even if we fall short in our discipleship, we have still chosen “the better way!”
Thanks be to God!