Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sunday Sermon: Martha and Mary


Luke 10.38 – 42

At the last Parish meal I volunteered to cook. I went home and said to my beloved something like “Do you think you’d be able to help me cook for the parish meal.” A clergy child herself, she tends to take these sorts of things in her stride and, ever practical, enquired “How many people?”

“Up to twenty.”

She paused for a moment and, having reflected, began to suggest menus.

Those of you who were there may not remember seeing much of my beloved. I, who had volunteered to cook, spent most of the meal chatting to the other diners and Rachel who, you remember, had only volunteered to help, spent most of the meal in the kitchen.

It really struck me as I was reading for this morning how like today’s Gospel reading this little incident is. Who was the Mary and who the Martha at the Parish meal? And when we come to think about it, this Gospel story must be mirrored in other relationships in this congregation as we tend to fall into our default roles.
My beloved can multi-task: she can be doing half a dozen things at the same time and still recognise with a sixth sense, through several walls, that there is someone else – me, usually - doing nothing - and that state of affairs can’t be allowed to go unchallenged. That’s a gift, no?

When I was studying on the Yorkshire Ministry Course we went to Whitby on one of our Easter residentials and I have a very strong memory of one of our tutors leading meditations on the key characters of the Easter events using a tool called the Enneagram. A lot has been written about the analysis of Enneagram personality types and its application to the people of the Bible. I was amazed when I did an INTERNET search how much has been published on this.

One of the things that has often frustrated me about many Bible stories is their briefness: the fact that they are often just the bare bones of an event with little of the personal touch involved to flesh them out. An understanding of the personalities of the characters, so often lacking from the wider narrative, would really bring those stories to life as we understand more about what made those people tick: their likes and dislikes, their motivations and so on.

I’d like to try that with Martha and Mary this morning. In brief, the Enneagram has nine personality types and Martha and Mary represent two very clearly.

In this story we see Martha and Mary in dispute over how best to entertain Jesus. Martha rushes around cooking and cleaning and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. Then, eventually, and inevitably, Martha snaps and appeals to Jesus to take sides, which he does - but not in the way Martha had hoped. Certainly Jesus’ response seems odd: I don’t know about you but I rather felt that Martha had a point, and yet Jesus takes Mary’s side.

So, let’s take Mary first. What is it that she does? Overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus and, against all the social conventions, she sits with the men and listens raptly at Jesus’ feet. In the alternative version of this story, told in John’s Gospel (Ch 13), Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive oil. It is here that we also learn of their Brother Lazarus who Luke doesn’t mention.

Mary is a warm and emotional person who cares a great deal about her relationships and devotes a lot of time and energy to maintaining them. At their best Marys are enthusiastic and unselfish, perceptive of the needs of others, and unconditional in their love for others. Mary’s personality type likes to feel needed: one of the ways she does this is to be emotionally supportive of others and she gains her affirmation this way. Marys, however, can also tend to the manipulative and the love and devotion they exhibit is not always entirely without ulterior motive and self interest: Marys are flatterers. They often have a sense of entitlement when it comes to those closest to them and that would certainly seem to fit in with the way Mary assumes that spending time with Jesus while Martha works is fine. Such people can become intrusive and demanding if their emotional needs go unmet and exhibit an emotional volatility: here she is sitting with the men when convention dictates that she should be with Martha and the other women. Why do we think no one has challenged her? Because she could cause a scene: Marys are prone to outbursts. But it is more than that: the men present surely deferred to Jesus. It was against the social norms certainly, but who in that group of close friends was going to object if Jesus didn’t. Let’s think of John’s extended version here: Mary was spontaneous and intuitive and wanted to do something demonstrative, so with emotion rising from within she broke open the jar of costly ointment and poured it over Jesus’ feet. She then did something impulsive and wiped the feet of her beloved master and teacher with her hair. When, according to John, she hears Jesus say that she had prepared his body for death, she is cut to the quick.

So, how about Martha?

She is also overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus but she deals with it by overcompensating and going into organisation overdrive. She’s the sort who would probably have a system for loading the dishwasher. Martha’s personality type is such that she likes to take charge because she doesn’t want to be controlled and she gains her affirmation from being well organised and competent but at the same time she uses those skills to avoid engaging. Martha’s are strong, hard working and single minded. They are generous to a fault in providing for those under their care but they also tend to be domineering and make no bones about saying if they aren’t happy and, having a strong sense of injustice, are often unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie: intimate relationships are frequently the arena in which their control issues are most obviously played out and where questions of trust assume real significance. At their worst Marthas are controlling, abrasive, self-centred and avenging. They have no problem tackling people head-on and can often drive people away by their bluntness and seeming bullying behaviour.

And Jesus? What are to make of his behaviour? In his presence everything is placed in its proper perspective. He praises Mary because she ministers to his needs before she ministers to those of others. He has no need of Martha’s martyr complex or her manipulitiveness as she tries to get him on her side. Her service is important. Jesus isn’t dismissing it at all but because he recognises where she is coming from he is able to encourage her to see things in perspective. This isn’t about service as such, it is about Martha hiding behind it and using it to express her resentments. If we think Jesus’ response is odd – even a bit harsh – it is because he knows what we don’t: he knows the sisters; their strengths and weaknesses; their motivations and their hidden tensions and rivalries, and on this occasion it is Martha who most needs correcting. “You are worried and upset about many things” Jesus says to Martha. Is this an acknowledgement of all the sleights and resentments she carries? The sleights and resentments that stop her truly letting go and being in the present with Jesus? Marthas are very bad at letting their guard down and being vulnerable to the care and comfort of others. Marys, of course, have no problem with that at all. Martha must learn that hospitality is only one type of service, important certainly, but only one thing is essential while Jesus is with them and while he is with them everything else is to take second place.

How does Jesus lead someone as full of inner turmoil as Mary to inner healing? Mary’s impulsive spontaneity was over the top. Jesus’ response is gentle and he accepts her gift totally. He upholds her gentle spirit and rebukes those who are berating her. However, she must let him go and acknowledge that she doesn’t possess him. Jesus will not play to her insecurity and she has to be freed to rediscover her own life and autonomy. Can Mary be released from her possessiveness in order to reach out to others? Is this also our lesson?

How does Jesus lead someone as controlling and judgemental as Martha to inner healing? It was not Martha’s perfect actions which Jesus wanted but her presence. Can Martha learn to be less obsessive and step back from situations, recognising what she is like? Can she give herself permission to relax and enjoy the moment? There is a lot of Martha in all of us. Jesus loved her very much and stayed with her often. If we identify with Martha we can know that Jesus loves us very much and wants to stay with us.

Can a person change? I have to confess I believe there are probably some “core” aspects that do not change. But, I also believe, (and witnessed in my own life) the power of Christ in us that makes the biggest change of all. In fact, we are promised in many scriptures and in particular, the three noted in the book: Ezekiel 36:26-27; 2 Corinthians 5:17, and Philippians 1:6 that Christ can transform a heart of stone into a heart of flesh and that we can be a new creation and that “He who began a new work in us …” will complete it. Others in class also had some powerful stories and testimonies of Christ’s power to change a life.

So, are we ready for this journey? Are we ready to step outside the comfort zones of our default positions? Jesus can lead us all to inner healing.

Just to finish. If you still think that Martha came out of the exchange badly let’s remember that she was the one who voiced the astonishing statement in John 11:27: "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."

Update: Someone pointed out to me that this confession of Martha's is very similar to that of Peter's confession, only she didn't get any Keys! Fair point!