SERMON prepared for the July 1st 2012 Heritage Service commemorating the 200th anniversary of the commencement of the building of the current home of St. Andrew’s church (established 1787), Williamstown ON.

Mary and Martha of Bethany

We find the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany in the synoptic gospel of Luke (Luke 10:38 to 42) and in the Gospel of John (John 11 and John 12:1 – 3). The gospels were written for different audiences. Gospel of Matthew was probably written for a Jewish audience and while the Gospel of Mark for a Roman.

The Gospel of Luke was written for those like us, Gentiles and insists that the salvation of Jesus available all. While the Gospel of John represents Jesus as an incarnation of the eternal Word

You have just heard the story of the two sisters recounted from the Gospel of Luke.

The story poses a number of questions for us to consider.

First however, let’s set the scene. Who were Mary and Martha

Martha (or Marta) is a name which means ‘lady of the house’. She was the oldest of the two sisters. Martha is a direct strong woman. Luke says “a certain woman named Martha received [Jesus] into her house”. Luke 10 verse 38. She was not a timid person..

The younger sister is Mary (or Miryam). Mary most likely means beloved one or wished for child. Again from Luke, Mary who “sat at Jesus feet and heard his word”. Luke 10 39. Luke recounts this story immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan but doesn’t give a location of the “certain village”. In John; however, the village is identified as Bethany. In John’s recounting of the tale, Jesus was asked to come to the home of Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary due to his illness.

Earlier, because of a threat of stoning Jesus had retreated “beyond the Jordan where John at first baptized”. John 10; verse 40. “Therefor the sisters sent for him” John 11, 3). “ .. Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”. John 11, 5 They certainly knew Jesus well and weren’t shy in requesting a favour from him.

Bethany is just outside Jerusalem between that city and Jericho. So it is very likely that the certain village in Luke is Bethany. Although the two stories of Martha and Mary could be recountings of different events, there are enough similarities that we will be considering them together.

In John, as we have seen, there is the added narrative of the raising of Lazarus. We will touch on this event to give further insight into the nature of Martha and Mary.

Although the sisters had sent for Jesus when Lazarus was still alive, he was late. Jesus tarried before leaving. “He abode two days still in the same place where he was.“ John 11 verse 6. Before he and his disciples reached Bethany, he knew that Lazarus was dead. When they arrived, he had been in his grave four days.

Martha went out to meet Jesus and rebuked him for being late. Mary came to Jesus only after Martha passed on the message that Jesus had arrived. Jesus had said to Martha “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. (John 11, 25/6) Believest thou this? Martha answered yes, but when at Lazarus’s grave, Martha was asked to take away the stone but she replied “by this time he stinketh for he hath been dead four days” (John 11 39).

What does this tell us about Martha and Mary. Martha and Mary of Bethany were two young women who knew Jesus well. They were close friends with him, and as we see, shared two important episodes in his life.

Their stories were told not only for this reason, but because the early Christians were arguing about what a woman could and could not do. The stories about Martha and Mary show us Christ’s high regard for women. Neither appeared to have a spouse. This was very unusual in Jewish society. Young women were usually married in their teens. It would have been very unusual for them to be unmarried at say 20.

Could the sisters have been quite young, perhaps still in their teens? It seems unlikely based on the expressed competence of Martha in managing their household. And the regard Jesus gave Mary.

Were they were on the edge of society, and thus not acceptable in some way? Again this seems unlikely. In John, (11, 31) it is said that “the Jews then which were with her (Mary) in the house and comforted her … followed her …”. Mary and Martha were not outcasts. They had friends, friends who were not afraid to be seen with them.

They also seemed to be a family of relative substance. They prepared a supper for Jesus and his disciples (John 12, 2) and had in their possession “ointment of spikenard. Very costly.” (John 12, 3).

They certainly seem to have been comparatively well-off, independent, intelligent capable women. We come from a highland tradition and know that women are capable contributing members of society. The story of Martha and Mary reminds us not to slide into the less knowledgeable ways of the English around us.

The family was courageous. Jesus had retreated to beyond the Jordan. To welcome Jesus and his followers into their home when Jesus was in danger of stoning, showed a high degree of courage. Martha, Mary and Lazarus although unconventional, were solid respected courageous people.

In both tellings of the story, Mary sat at Jesus feet. For Mary to sit at Jesus’ feet, and for him to allow her to do so, would have been controversial. In doing so, Mary took the place of a disciple sitting at the feet of the teacher. Although Judean women were known to study the Torah, it was unusual for to be accepted by a teacher as a disciple. Mary must have been quietly breaking the rule that reserved study for males, not females and Jesus had no such qualms.

Martha and Mary had very different personalities. Martha was the doer, a capable young woman who organized and ran the fairly large and prosperous household. By the way she talked to Jesus, she was very confident and familiar with him.

Martha was a worker. “A woman named Martha received him into her house” (Luke). They made him a supper and Martha served (John).

Martha requested Mary’s assistance and even entreated Jesus to ask for her assistance. “Martha was cumbered about much serving and came to hem and said Lord dost thou not care that m sister hath left me to serve alone, bid her therefore that she may help me” (Luke 10, 40).

Was Mary lazy or shy, we’ll never know, but it appears that Mary was either a thinker or a dreamer, interested in ideas. She, however; had our Lord’s confidence. She sat at Jesus feet and heard his word.

When Martha objected to the fact that she had to work while Mary sat and listened, Jesus said “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful and Mary has chosen the good part which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10, 41/2)

Martha was demanding that Mary keep to the traditional way of behaving. Jesus was ignoring the traditional role of women, and encouraging Mary to think and learn. He upheld her right to listen to and think about ideas, and to develop her mind. She should not be limited to the tasks that society laid down for her.

Jesus said Mary “had chosen the Good part” Luke 10 42

But what of Martha. Jesus had previously encouraged the idea of service among his followers, so he did not say that Martha’s role of service was unimportant. This would have gone against all his other teaching.

We are encouraged to do service. In the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke just before this account, Jesus says go and do thou likewise. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25), we are told “well done good and faithful servant. thou hast been faithful over a few things . Welcome into the joy of thy Lord”. And the story of Nicodemus “But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” John 3:21

The first and last stanzas of a poem “Sons of Martha” by Rudyard Kipling has put into words what a lot of us think.

“The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.“

“And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd—they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet—they hear the Word—they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and—the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons!”

I’m sure this is the feeling of many of us. We toil to make things better, to make things work, to keep things going for the rest of society. Many of whom seem to perform only tasks that add little value to society.

Are good works not enough. What Jesus is saying was that being a disciple, and learning about the ideas he was explaining, is even more important. Mary made a conscious decision between two alternatives: She chose listening to Jesus over preparation of a meal. This may sound strange to those who, like Martha, think meal preparation is more important than just visiting. Mary saw this situation differently. She chose to listen to the wisdom of Jesus, her Savior, while she had the opportunity.

Jesus said Mary chose “that good part which cannot be taken away from her”. We all need that good part.

There are other scriptures where, Jesus tells us our highest priority in life should be to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness . . .” (Matthew 6:33)

He also gives us guidance in how to do that: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4)

Apparently Mary knew that Jesus’ words were the most important needs of her life. Jesus recognized this when He reminded Martha that her life was taken up with many secondary needs, but her greatest need was that which Mary acknowledged.

The good part lasts forever. Like Mary, we need patient faith. What about Martha’s children. Was Mary the only perceptive sister? Martha had faith and understanding of Jesus are seen when Jesus then said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (John 11:25-26).

Her response of faith was, “Yea Lord, I believe that you are the Christ the Son of God, which shall come into the world” (v. 27).

Remember, Jesus told us to seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33 KJV). That’s what Mary did. She sought Jesus first. On the other hand, Martha had not yet spent the time in God’s presence. Martha, was overcome by her feelings. Her faith was not yet at the high level. But, Jesus offers us the means to corrects the situation. He says to Martha, “if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God” (John 11, 40).

As has been shown, we are encouraged to do good works. However, good works are not enough to achieve salvation. We must accept Jesus as our Lord and our Saviour.