Posts Tagged ‘Martha’

So easy it seems hard

April 1, 2017

Lent 5 – 2017

John 11:1-45

Marian Free

In the name of God who love us beyond our wildest imagining. Amen.

“If only” must be among the saddest words in the English language. They express regret, disappointment, a certain dissatisfaction with the way things are and a yearning for things to be different. They suggest an unwillingness to accept that life is beyond our control and that it includes the good and the bad. They represent a failure to live in the present and a striving for what is probably an unrealistic and ideal future. Or, as in the case of today’s gospel, “if only” expresses a desire that God would behave in the way that we expect.

There are, as is often the case with John’s gospel, a number of things going on in today’s gospel. Jesus’ life is in danger. The Pharisees have been trying to stone him, which means that for Jesus to be anywhere in Judea, let alone near Jerusalem, is extremely dangerous. According to John Jesus makes three trips to Jerusalem. Apparently while there he chooses to say with his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whose home in Bethany is only a couple of miles from the city. The siblings are more than friends with Jesus. They share an intimacy that would allow Mary to anoint Jesus’ feet and to wipe them with her hair, and that gives the women courage to tell Jesus that “the one whom you love is ill.” Not only are they close friends, but Martha and Mary have confidence in Jesus’ ability to bring about healing.

When Lazarus becomes ill, they send a message to Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t come. The sisters don’t have the advantage that we have. They don’t hear Jesus’ discussion with the disciples. What they know is that a friend who loves them not only doesn’t come, but fails to even to send a word to explain the delay. One imagines that the sisters are disappointed and confused by Jesus’ behaviour. His failure to honor their friendship and to come to their aid must have taken them by surprise.

No wonder both women reproach him when, long after Lazarus has died, Jesus finally turns up. “Lord if only you had been here our brother would not have died,” they say. We could have been saved this trouble and this grief – “if only you had been here.” Their confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal is unchanged. They simply do not understand why he would choose not to save their brother.

The reaction of the women is often overshadowed by the miracle of the raising of Lazarus, or overlooked because of Martha’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, but it is important to notice the reproach and to recognise that, despite their friendship and love, the women are not afraid to let Jesus know that they feel he has let them down. It is probably because the sisters know Jesus so well that they feel free to tell him just what they think.

Both the Old Testament and the New are populated with real people who have real feelings and real failings, both of which are essential to their relationship with God. When we read the bible we don’t get the sense that the various characters on the pages are trying to be something that they are not. We are not given the impression that if a person is less than perfect that God will have nothing to do with them. We learn that from Abraham to Martha and Mary, those who are close to God, those who have a strong relationship with God have no problem in either being themselves or in letting God know exactly what they think. Abraham takes God on when God threatens to destroy Sodom, Moses suggests that God will look foolish in the eyes of the nations if God destroys Israel, the woman at the well was not afraid to tell Jesus that it was the Samaritans, not the Jews, who were the true believers, and Martha and Mary have no qualms in greeting Jesus with a reproach.

These characters have one thing in common – an open and honest relationship with God/Jesus – a relationship in which they are not afraid to tell God/Jesus exactly how they feel, in which they are comfortable to have their doubt and uncertainty, their frustration and disappointment exposed for all to see. They didn’t care if they appeared foolish or uncertain and they had no problem letting God/Jesus know just what they thought. When they were face-to-face with God/Jesus, they were not overcome with embarrassment, self-consciousness or shame. They were comfortable enough in their relationship with Jesus to have their flaws and doubts laid bare.

Over the past four weeks we have met characters who, in conventional terms have been anything but model Christians, let alone perfect human beings. Nicodemus is timid and uncertain, the woman at the well had had five husbands, the blind man came to faith only in stages and Mary and Martha reproached Jesus for being late. During this time, we have observed people who were not confident that Jesus was who he said he was, whose self-interest led them to misunderstand what he said, who took their healing for granted and who scolded Jesus for not responding in a timely manner.

We learn from these characters that if we want our relationship with God/Jesus to grow, it is important that we are completely honest – about ourselves (our strengths as well as our weaknesses), about our questions, our doubts and yes, even about our anger and disappointment. We can take the lead from those in the bigger story that it is not only OK, but that it is healthy to enter into debate with God, to voice our concerns and express our frustration. Our relationship with God is like any other relationship. It cannot grow if there is dishonesty, fear and anxiety, but only if there is openness, respect and trust.

My hope is that this Lent you have learned something of God’s boundless love for you, that you have gained confidence to be yourselves – knowing that God’s love will not be withdrawn – and that you understand that the best relationship with God is one that is honest and true, one in which nothing is hidden and in which we are so sure of our place in God’s love that we are not afraid to let God know what we think, to ask the difficult questions and even, as did Martha and Mary to question God’s reaction (or lack of action) in regard to issues that we think are important.

Being a Christian has nothing to do with being good and everything to do with being in a relationship with God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. It is only because it is so easy that it sometimes seems so hard


Martha’s problem- too busy, or too unhappy?

July 16, 2016

Pentecost 9

Luke 10: 38-40

Marian Free


In the name of God who values and delights in each of us in our own way and desires that we are true to ourselves. Amen.

We all hate martyrs don’t we? By this I don’t mean that we hate those who are martyrs in the true sense of the word – those who have given their lives for their faith, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Oscar Romeros and so on. People such as they rightfully command our attention and our admiration. No I mean the martyrs who are martyrs of their own making. Those who demand that we notice how busy, how put upon, in short how “good” they are. I mean those who take on things that they would rather not and then whine and moan that no one helps them or that no one recognises how much they are doing/how much they have to do. Such people have no joy in the task in which they are engaged and very often suck the life out of those around them. The reasons for their taking on more than they really want to could be the result of any number of things. They might think that they will receive recognition and thanks, a sense of importance in the eyes of other for doing something no one else seems to want to do. Sadly, because they take no delight in what they are doing, the effect of their overwork is the opposite of that they had hoped for. Instead of being commended, they are seen as kill-joys at worst and attentions seekers at best.

The interpretation of the Mary/Martha narrative with which I grew up and one that has haunted more than a generation of happily busy women, suggests that because Jesus commends Mary and censures Martha, that he values contemplation more than work. How often have you heard someone (usually a woman) say rather guiltily, ‘I’m only a Martha’ as they uncomplainingly pour yet another cup of tea at a Parish function. This view has been very damaging to many women in the church who are left feeling that their contribution is somehow lacking because it is not spiritual enough. At the same time their contribution has been undervalued, because making jams for the church fete and ensuring that churches and halls are kept clean has not been seen as the real work of the church[1].

A better way to view the story is to see it as an illustration of need for balance in our lives, to understand that it teaches that our times of busyness will be more fruitful and less stressful if they are sustained by prayer, and that a healthy spiritual life is one in which time is spent with God informs and guides what we do, so that what we do is not banal and empty, but infused with the presence of God. Martha and Mary are opposites who demonstrates that action and contemplation are both necessary for a life lived in the presence of God.

A feminist view of this account identifies the fact that Luke effectively silences both women. Martha is censured for feeling burdened and Mary’s silence is commended. Neither woman is given a voice, which is interesting given that in John’s gospel both women play prominent roles in the community.

Then there is, to me, the most compelling interpretation. It is not that Martha is too busy or that Martha is not holy enough. Jesus problem is that she is not happy enough.

Jesus has apparently dropped in on the pair unexpectedly. Hospitality was an important cultural norm. The women would be expected to provide Jesus with food and shelter. That didn’t mean providing a feast, it simply meant sharing what they had. Why then is Martha so upset, what are the “many tasks” that are driving her to distraction? We can only guess that Martha is not so much focused on making Jesus at home, but on impressing him with her culinary and housekeeping skills.

Martha appears to be doing more than is required. The problem is not what she is doing, but that she is getting no pleasure from her endeavours. She has taken on too much and no one seems to have noticed or if they have, they don’t care! it appears that what Martha wants, is not just to ensure that Jesus is fed and comfortable, but for Jesus to appreciate her efforts, to commend what she is doing and to confirm what she believes – that it is she, not Mary, who is doing what is necessary.

Martha does not have the insight to recognise that both she and Mary have a choice as to how they exercise hospitality. Mary has chosen to listen to Jesus first and to worry about other details later. Martha has given other things priority and now that those things have overwhelmed her, she looking for someone to blame for her distress and is wanting to draw Mary into the maelstrom of her distress.

It is important to recognise that there is nothing wrong with being busy If no one did anything the world would grind to a stop. So the issue here is not that Martha is working rather than listening, but that what she does is driven by a sense of self-importance or a desire for recognition.

Jesus’ interaction with the two sisters is a reminder that there is not a tension between prayer and work or that one is superior to the other. Both are necessary and it is our task to find the balance that works best for us. Underlying the narrative is the reminder that our faith is intended to be a source of freedom, peace and joy. Faith is not, and was never intended to be a burden, a struggle or an imposition.

Martha’s unhappiness stemmed from a belief that she needed to earn Jesus’ recognition and regard. Mary’s better part is not so much that she prays rather than works, but that in contrast to Martha she knows without needing to be told, just how much she is loved and just how little she had to do (has to do) to warrant that love.

[1] This despite the fact that many Australian churches have been built on the sales at church fetes and many continue to rely on cake stalls for their survival.


A matter of life and death

April 5, 2014

Lent 5 – 2014
John 11:1-42
Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us life in abundance. Amen

One of the mysteries in the account of the raising of Lazarus is Jesus’ tardiness – when Jesus hears that Lazarus is ill he stays where he is for two more days. This is even harder to understand when the narrator tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus and that Jesus wept when he learned that Lazarus had died. This confusion is shared by the characters in the narrative. The disciples take Jesus literally when he says that Lazarus is merely asleep, Martha exclaims: “if you had been here my brother would not have died” – a sentiment echoed by her sister Mary. The Jews wonder: “could not the man who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Why, when Jesus cares so much for his friends and obviously has the power to cure the sick, does he delay?

An obvious reason for Jesus’ hesitation is that the Judeans are trying to kill him. If Jesus returns to Jerusalem it will place him (and by association his disciples) at great risk. It is little wonder then that he takes some time to think about the consequences of his going . What changes his mind appears to be his belief that Lazarus has died. This simply adds to the confusion – why, having chosen to play it safe, would he now risk his life and that of others to go to someone who is already dead? Again the answer is in the text: “so that you might believe”. Believe what is an obvious question, the answer to which is found in Jesus’ discussion with Martha. In response to Martha’s assertion that Lazarus will rise again on the last day, Jesus responds: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus has been claiming to be life. The gospel begins with the claim that “in him was life and the life was the light of all people” and the word life occurs at least forty more times – sometimes with the descriptor eternal life, but often on its own. “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (10:10). It is this focus on life in the gospel as a whole that helps us to get a handle on this chapter. When Jesus says that Lazarus’ illness is not unto death he is not trying to deceive or mislead the disciples. What he is trying to do is to get the disciples and the Jews to understand life and therefore death differently, to understand that somehow, as a consequence of his presence in the world, the relationship between life and death has radically changed – a fact that will become clear after Jesus’ own death and resurrection, but which he wants them to take on faith in the present.

Physical death is brutally real – the raising of Lazarus does not alter that fact, neither does Jesus try to sugar coat the reality of death. Lazarus is not raised to eternal life, but to life in the present, a life that will eventually end with death. Death separates us from the one who has died and the one who has died loses any benefits he or she might have had in life. The grief that Lazarus’ sisters and friends (including Jesus) feel cannot be avoided. In raising Lazarus Jesus’ attempt to redefine the ways that his followers think about death. (In order for that to happen, Lazarus has to physically die.)

There are a number of aspects to this redefinition of death. First of all, Jesus’ apparent lack of concern does not indicate indifference to Lazarus’ illness or indifference with regard to the sister’s grief. Jesus’ refusal to be hurried demonstrates that death (even his own) is not a matter over which human beings have any control. Death is something that is determined by God (not illness or other cause). Pilate himself would have no power to crucify Jesus unless that power had first been given him by God. Secondly, by creating ambiguity around Lazarus’ death – saying the illness will not lead to death, saying that Lazarus is asleep when he is not, opening the grave when it is certain he is dead, Jesus opens the possibility that death is not the definitive end to life. Death is more open ended – life does not cease completely after the death of the physical body.

A third way in which death is redefined is the notion that death is in some way for the glory of God. In the case of Lazarus, death glorifies God because his being raised to life will help the disciples to believe that Jesus is life. When Jesus raises Lazarus, he demonstrates that death cannot defeat life – something that will be definitively proven when Jesus is raised from the dead never to die again. Life and death are in the hands of God. Finally, the raising of Lazarus shows the disciples that death does not lead to separation something that will be clearly evident to them when Jesus rises from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection life will break into the world of the disciples ensuring that they are never separated from him.

In the account of the raising of Lazarus, both life and death are radically redefined for the disciples of Jesus. They learn that death has lost its power to overcome life. That said, Jesus offers no false promises of happy endings, no assurance that pain and sorrow have been eliminated from the world, just an assurance that this life can, with confidence be understood as a prelude to the life to come, that the separation from loved ones is only a temporary condition and that no matter what happens in the present, Jesus will never abandon those who believe in him because death itself cannot separate him from those whom he loves.

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