Mary and Martha or Martha and Mary
This sermon begins
with an important riddle. Is it Mary and Martha or Martha and Mary?
Which name comes first? So often we confuse the two names,
but it is important to know which name comes first. Mary? Or Martha?
I must begin with a
story that borders on being a parable. If you will, imagine that you
are invited to a special dinner at our home, with my wife, Janet,
preparing the exquisite meal. Now, it needs to be clearly started at
the outset that my wife and I have a very traditional
relationship. That is, we each have certain jobs around the house
and when it comes to cooking, she does 98 to 99% of the work.
The preparation for
this “dining excellence” at our home begins on Wednesday, when
Jan begins to think about the meal she will serve. It will be
Cornish game hens, with wild rice from Minnesota, and a broccoli
soup from my mother’s recipe, small slender asparagus spears sautéed
in brown sugar, Sally Vraspir’s famous wedding salad, and to top
it off, a slice of cheesecake, not bought from Cosco’s. All of
these delicacies are to be purchased on Friday, the day before the
sumptuous meal, so all the ingredients are fresh. Saturday morning
arrives, and is filled with busy work: the house is immaculately
cleaned, upstairs and downstairs. No one will go downstairs, but it,
too, is cleaned immaculately. The floor of the dining room slate is
freshly waxed so it actually glistens. Then Jan works the outside of
the house, working in the flowerbeds in the front of our home,
around the house, and beside the house. The gardens are finally
weedless and looking spectacular. Then on early Saturday afternoon,
Jan does the table itself. She finds the right table linens, the
napkins, the silver, the goblets, the centerpiece. She cuts the
flowers and delights in making the flower arrangements. Late in the
afternoon, she prepares herself, bathing, selecting what to wear,
primping in front of the mirror. It is now 6:45 and we begin the
last minute flurry, and that is where I finally help. That is, I
pour the water into the glasses, select the music or CDs, and find
the wine opener. It is 7:00 and time for the guests and you arrive
and press the doorbell. Jan and I greet you with grace and calmness,
pretending that we always look this way, pretending that our home
always looks perfect, pretending that our gardens are always
immaculate. And you the guests are pretending too, pretending that
you did not have a fight on the way over to our home and you always
get along perfectly well with one another. You, the guests, examine our gardens off the deck and then
return to the living room to begin nibbling on the hor'derves that
have been prepared for you. And this is where it gets a little bit
tense. You begin telling your favorite jokes while nibbling
hor’derves in the living room; I am laughing too loudly at your
jokes; and my wife is in the kitchen straining to hear what is being
said, as she is working feverously to finish the meal. We are
laughing in the living room and she is working in the kitchen and
there is an invisible tension mounting between my wife and myself.
She doesn’t like doing all the work while we are having all the
pleasure of enjoying each other’s company in the living room.
And this little
incident from our home is parallel to the gospel story for today
about Mary and Martha. So often, Jesus takes homey incidents from
life and converts them into parables. Jesus takes every day
circumstances and transforms them into moments for spiritual truth.
Jesus does not quote the philosophers of the day or the quotable
quotes of the day or the famous Jewish rabbis of his era. Rather,
Jesus always finds spiritual truth in the everyday moments of life
such as the gospel story for today.
Is the sequence
Mary and Martha or Martha and Mary? You need to know the answer to
The story for today
involves Mary, Martha and their brother, Lazarus. From the Bible,
we can reach some conclusions. That is, Mary, Martha and
Lazarus were good friends of Jesus. Jesus visited their home in
Bethany often. The little village of Bethany was located two miles
from Jerusalem, and according to the Gospel of John, Jesus visited
Jerusalem at least six times. In other words, Jesus visited the home
of Mary, Martha and Lazarus often. We know that Martha owned the
home and so we assume that she was the oldest sister. We know that
Jesus deeply loved Lazarus. In the Gospel of John, we hear that
“Jesus wept” and many confirmands memorize this verse because it
is the shortest verse in the Bible. But the Greek language says,
“Jesus sobbed,” that Jesus “bowels burst,” he cried so hard.
In other words, Jesus truly loved Lazarus deeply, and Lazarus was
the brother of the two sisters, Mary and Martha. Such deep
relationships don’t occur in a moment, and this reveals that Jesus
had spent much time with this family. We also know that Jesus had
become the most famous rabbi in the land; he had become enormously
popular and well known. And we know that Jesus, the famous rabbi,
was coming to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus for dinner.
And Martha, the
oldest, was going to plan and prepare the dinner for Jesus. You
can’t serve a famous rabbi him hot dogs. You can’t serve the
renowned rabbi of the land baloney sandwiches. You can’t serve him some ordinary cream of wheat. Jesus is
coming to dinner and you have to make the meal special. So we can
imagine Martha going to market the day before the feast in order to
get the freshest food available. She may have found some fresh fish
that had been brought in from the Jordan River. And dates and
pomegranates and figs and raisins and nuts. And the finest of wines
that she could find. What a shopping spree that was, and the next
morning, Martha was a flurry of activity, busy cleaning the house
and the yard before she began to prepare the feast for Jesus, the
famous rabbi coming to her house. How exciting. She set the table
with her finest, bringing out her brass menorah, the seven-candle
stick, to make a candle light dinner, and her favorite pottery ware.
It was the time of arrival and Jesus knocked on the door, and
everyone was so excited to see Jesus. They laughed and chatted and
Jesus noticed how clean and prepared the house was, and Martha was
pleased. Jesus sat down on a pillow in the front room and started to
teach. Being a rabbi and all, he started to talk about God and love
and prayer. And soon Martha was out in the kitchen, so busy, so
focused on her last minute preparations, and she was irritated that
she couldn’t hear the conversation between Jesus and her younger
sister in the living room. The more Martha worked, the more
frustrated she got with her sister, sitting in the living room,
cheerfully listening to Jesus. So Martha started to send signals to
her sister, banging the pots and pans together so that the noise
would bring her sister into the kitchen. It didn’t work. So Martha
walked into the living room to serve the hor’derves, the wine, the
cheese, the crackers, and as she walked by Mary, she gave Mary the
eyeball roll, rolling her eyeballs in the direction of the kitchen.
But Mary wasn’t looking. Soon, from the kitchen, Martha returned
to the living room to pick up the leftovers from the hor’derves,
and gave her sister another signal, this one the rolling shoulder
motion, rolling her shoulder and arm in the direction of the
kitchen. Mary, again, did not respond. She was still focused on
Jesus and his words. So Martha finally stood in the kitchen door and
her anger could not be contained any longer: “Jesus, would you
tell Mary to come into the kitchen and help me with all this work.
She is taking advantage of her being the youngest again, so as to
get out of doing the work. Would you tell her to come into the
kitchen and finish the work for this meal?” Jesus spoke to Martha
calmly, “Martha, Martha, don’t be so upset. You are busy and
distracted with many things. Mary has chosen the better portion,
listening to me, and this will not be taken away from her.”
Martha put her hand on her hips, said “hrumpff,” and
stomped back into the kitchen to finish the meal.”
And thus ends the
story and the parable. This story was told over and over again in
the early church because it was so down to earth, so ordinary, so
common, and that is the way that Jesus’ parables always were.
Down to earth, ordinary, common incidents from life that
could illustrate the spiritual truths of the kingdom of God.
Is it Mary and
Martha? Or Martha and Mary? You need to know the meaning of this
What is the meaning
of this story?
We first need to
put in a good word for Martha. Recently, I attended a women’s
retreat, and we studied the Mary and Martha story. I discovered that
99% of the women said that they were “Marthas” and so we need to
speak a good word for the Marthas of life. I asked my wife, Jan,
about this story and she quickly reminded me that if there were no
Marthas, I would not eat lunch or dinner and neither would a whole
bunch of other men. She also told me that it would have been fairer
if Mary would have approached Martha and said, “Let’s both
listen to Jesus and then let’s both go and work in the kitchen.”
So we need to speak a good word for all the Marthas of life.
Martha? Martha has
become a symbol of action-oriented people, responsible people, men
and women who get the job done. And the world needs men and women
and boys and girls who get the job done. This is certainly true in
the church. How would the church every survive if not for the
Marthas and Marvins who sing in the choir, run the altar guild, work
with the homeless, work with the youth, and build the church. The
church could not exist without the Marthas and Marvins, the men and
women who are responsible and do the work. The same is true with the
family. We need responsible people to do the work of the house: to
cook, to clean, to keep the house operating, to pay the bills, to
keep the cars running, not to speak of raising the children and
loving the spouse. Households can’t survive without Marthas and
Marvins. Nor can offices. Nor can schools. Nor can businesses. What
is wrong with being a Martha? A Marvin? A responsible, get it done,
kind of person?
Nothing. There is
nothing wrong with being a responsible, action oriented, get it done
kind of person. Jesus did not fault Martha for being responsible.
Martha’s fault is that she was … too busy to listen … too
distracted to sit at his feet and absorb his presence … too busy
living life to quietly hear what Jesus had to say … too involved
with all her activities and actions that she didn’t find time to
first listen to the voice of Christ.
And so Jesus taught
in an unforgettable way that listening precedes action, that we
listen first and then do or act. The answer to the riddle is Mary
first and Martha second. It is always in that order.
That is true in both human love and Christian discipleship.
Listening first and action second. Listening and then doing.
Jesus clearly said: be hearers and doers of the word. Jesus
never reversed that order; Jesus never said, “Be doers and hearers
of the word.” From the lips of Jesus, it is always hearers
and then doers of the word of God. And this sequences is true for
both human love and Christian discipleship.
Martha has become a
symbol of the modern world. No, more than that, Martha has become a
symbol of you and me who have become so active and busy with living
life, we no longer have time to slowly quietly listen to God or even
our spouse, kids or friends. In fact, it is a subtle trick that we
become so active in doing good things, that our activities become a
cover-up for our lack of listening and quiet caring. Martha has
become a symbol of a person who is far too busy and has lost the art
Let me give you
some examples. Have you ever come home from a day of work and your
kids are talking with you at the kitchen table, and they are saying,
“blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and you nodding affirmatively at
their words and thoughts, but you haven’t heard a word that they
said. Yes, I think so. Or have you ever come home from a day of work
and your spouse wants to share with you what has happened during
their day, and he or she goes “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,”
and you don’t hear a word or thought that was spoken because you
are so preoccupied with what happened during your day?
Yes, I think so. Or have you ever been introduced to someone
and your mind is racing so fast about everything that you actually
don’t hear their name at all, and so you ask their name again, and
you hear their name like you had never heard it before. You actually
totally did not hear their name the first time. Have you ever had
that experience? I think so. Many
of us, in our intense business of life, have lost the art of
The story for today
suggests that the first prerequisite for human love and Christian
discipleship is listening. Human love begins with listening.
Christian discipleship begins with listening. The primary foundation
of human love is listening. The primary foundation of Christian
discipleship is listening. Listening
is the pipeline through which human love and divine love flows.
What is listening?
Listening is focusing on the other; it is centering on the
other person; it is concentrating on the person before me, giving
them my undivided attention. Listening is a gift of self to the
other person. Let me illustrate by taking this pair of binoculars
here and focusing on the face of Bob Lenherr in our congregation.
Through is pair of binoculars, only Bob’s face is in my point of
vision. Nothing in front of him; nothing to the side of him; nothing
behind him. Right now, I can only see the face of Bob. This morning
early, I used the same binoculars to look at my wife’s garden from
our deck, a garden full and lavish with flowers, so full and so
lavish I couldn’t focus on one flower. I then put the binoculars
to my face and focused on three roses that I hadn’t seen so
vividly without the binoculars. With my natural vision, I saw the
whole garden; with the binoculars, I could focus on each individual
plant. I did not focus on what was in front, behind or around. And
so it is with listening. Listening is an art that is learned and
slowly developed where you actually focus on that person before you.
Not the history of everything that has happened earlier today or
before. Not on the future and all the activities that will occur
later today or this week. Not on the side about everything that is
occurring right now at this moment. Listening focuses on that one
person, not on the past, not on the future, not on all the stuff
going on right now. Listening is a gift; it is an art; it is a
And listening is
the first face of love. The more one listens, the more love grows.
The less one listens, the less love there is. Listening is the
conduit, the pipeline, through which love flows and grows.
This is certainly
true in marriage. Any good marriage will find a man and woman who
have discovered what it means to listen to one another. That is also
true in good families. That is also true in good businesses. It is
always Mary first and Martha second. It is always listening first
and then doing. That is just the way life works.
But the gospel
story for today is not primarily concerned about listening to
one’s spouse, family, friends or work. The Mary and Martha story
is not primarily concerned about human love, important at that is.
The Mary and Martha story is primarily concerned about Christian
discipleship and listening to the voice of God and Jesus. To focus,
to center, to concentrate, on Christ and the words and spirit of
Christ. By analogy, I take these same binoculars and turn around and
focus these binoculars on the image of Jesus on the altar. The
binoculars blot out everything before Christ, behind Christ, and
around Christ. I am now focused directly and totally on the image of
Christ. And that is what is important to Christian discipleship:
listening to Jesus Christ. To blot out all of my past busyness and
all the clutter of my mind from yesterday. To blot out all my future
busyness and all the clutter of activities that I am going to do
this afternoon or night. To blot out all the current distractions of
what is going on in the moment. Like Martha, we all get so busy and
distracted with living life, so totally preoccupied with living
life, that we have lost the art of listening. You know that this is
true of your life, and I know it is true of my life. It
is an art to listen to the voice of Jesus Christ in a sermon such as
right now. It is an art to listen to the voice of Jesus Christ in
our prayers when our minds are tempted to run so fast and far away.
It is an art to listen to the voice of Christ as we are absorbed in
reading the Bible when our minds are tempted to think about other
things. Listening is a gift of oneself to the other, a centering, a
concentrating of oneself on the other, on Jesus Christ, and
listening to his voice. Mary knew how to listen to Christ, and we
are encouraged to do the same.
I like the response
of Eileen Miles after the first service today. Eileen is as active
and busy and energetic person, mother, school teacher, and Christian
as you would ever find and she said to me:
“This is one Martha who needed to hear the sermon for
was coming to dinner at Mary and Martha’s house. The most famous
rabbi in the land was coming to sit at their table, and even though
he was the most famous rabbi of the land, he was their dearest
friend. Instantly, Martha’s mind went to work and she was soon
busy planning the menu, busy cleaning the house, busy weeding the
gardens, so distracted and pleased that she was living life to the
fullest. The meal was ready and Jesus knocked on the door, and she
knew he would be impressed with the meal, impressed with the
cleanliness of the house, impressed with the immaculate condition of
her gardens. And so they sat down to dinner and Mary remained at the
feet of Jesus, listening to him, focusing on him, concentrating on
his words and spirit. Jesus was most pleased with Mary’s attitudes
and he commended her for it. Amen.