Sermon - 22nd July 2018
Taken for granted
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
St Teresa of Avila is quoted as saying: “Know that even when you are in the kitchen, our Lord moves among the pots and pans”. Perhaps this insight was what Martha really wanted to hear from Jesus when they exchanged their few words in today’s reading.
These few short verses from Luke’s gospel seem to have an impact far beyond what we might expect. The story about a pair of sisters who live together with their brother Lazarus, and welcome Jesus as their guest, reveals something about simple human nature which speaks to us, and often turns out to be one of the bible stories which people vaguely recall they may have heard - somewhere, sometime.
Martha and Mary are not mentioned in the two gospels which were written prior to Luke, namely Mark and Matthew. But something about this story appeals to Luke and it must add value on some level to the message he is trying to convey.
John’s Gospel, written after Luke, uses the sisters’ names in his gospel, but he takes off in a very different direction with his story about them. Luke shows us a glimpse of something very personal and sympathetic. And because the story is so compact, and the dialogue is so compressed, there are different views on what the purpose of the story might be.
Just quickly read through the text, and we often come away with the impression that Mary is favoured by Jesus because of the total attention she devotes to him, while Martha is somehow sent back to her pots and pans.
This idea is played upon in a 20th century novel by Margaret Atwood, called The Handmaid’s Tale which has recently been serialised on television. In the biblically-inspired, highly-regimented world described by the book, the cooks and household workers attached by the state to the wealthy and powerful families are called ‘Marthas’. In that world, their only value to the household comes from what they can achieve with their pots and pans and their other housekeeping skills.
But there is more depth to the Gospel incident than may first appear. George Caird, one of the most famous 20th century commentators on Luke’s gospel says that few stories in the gospels have been as consistently mishandled as this one.
He argues that the story is not intended to give priority to Mary, it is really intended to give some insights into Martha. He warns us not to overlook that fact that Martha is the central figure. It is her house; she is the host; she is a stronger character and a more mature disciple than her sister and she works hard for the coming Kingdom.
Martha was listening to Jesus’s teaching as well, but she kept being distracted because she wanted to be a good host. It is Martha who raises the issue of fairness, and it is to Martha that Jesus replies.
This whole story is Martha’s experience. It celebrates the work, dedication and achievement of a strong, organised and influential woman; and yet the text has been used since the Middle Ages as one of the biblical proof-texts that Jesus calls women to a contemplative way of life, confined within the walls of a convent, simply because of that one phrase, “Mary has chosen the right thing”.
Perhaps what we fail to recognise is that Martha had also chosen the right thing and she deserved to be affirmed for it.
All who work for the coming of God’s kingdom deserve to be affirmed, no matter what kind of gifts they may bring to the task. Martha’s words to Jesus may mean that she felt she was being taken for granted.
Interestingly, in another story, Luke portrays two brothers who are very different in character, but where the elder brother explodes with anger because he feels he has been taken for granted. He has been the loyal hard-working one, dedicated to the family business, just getting on with what needed to be done, while his younger brother waltzed off with his share of the family wealth and spent it all on outrageous living.
There is a parallel here. In the same way that the brothers’ father had to convince the elder brother that his hard work and loyalty to the family business are truly valued, so Jesus had to convince Martha that her devotion and dedication have not been overlooked.
But it can take a lot of persuasion to convince someone who feels they have been taken for granted that, in reality, they are deeply valued. Perhaps the challenge for our daily lives is the recognition that we need to affirm people, thank them, and celebrate their achievements more often than we do, and critically before they start feeling taken for granted.
People work quietly and conscientiously behind the scenes in every family, firm, community and organisation that we belong to. In Teresa’s words, they work among the pots and pans of the group; and sometimes they will feel taken for granted or undervalued, because out of sight can so often also mean out of mind.
Yet, like Martha, these people are often the ones who create the environment in which the rest of us can grow, and love, and go about our lives.
Sometimes we need to look at a situation, rather like George Caird did, and determine who the story is really about and who is at the core of the message being shared. Short stories are often more about what is not said rather than what is. If that short story about Martha and Mary continues to be memorable to us, if it reflects how we ourselves have been treated, or how we may have treated others, perhaps we need to think more deeply about the human nature that it reveals.
There is a long tradition, within our faith, of focusing on a particular text and allowing God to use our imaginations to add colour, context and extra depth to the words of scripture.
I’m not convinced that Jesus’s rather short response to Martha tells the full story of that encounter. Jesus regarded the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus in Bethany as one of his favourite retreats from the world. This was where he found time for himself and where he could let go of the constant demands of his public mission.
Luke reported what had come down to him through the tradition of his community; but I think Jesus has much more to say to Martha than that; and the following passage is an imaginary reflection on how the conversation might have gone in the emotion of the moment.
After listening to her outburst, and understanding exactly why she spoke as she did, Jesus took Martha into a quiet corner of the house, sat with her, took her hands in his, and said:
“Martha, I do not tell you as often as I should do how much you mean to me, and how valuable you are to our cause. You work tirelessly in the background to make us comfortable, to feed us, to care for us; you run a loving and quietly efficient household so that half the time we don’t even have to ask for things - they just appear.
“We take you for granted: and we shouldn’t. You are a talented and gifted woman; and, because everything runs so smoothly, we tend to lose sight of the dedicated and devoted disciple who quietly and lovingly makes everything happen around us.
“You and Mary are as different as chalk and cheese, and yet you complement each other. Please don’t think that I value one of you more highly than the other - I need both of you, and you each add so much to my life. I see you getting frustrated with each other sometimes when you come at things from totally different directions; but that is just how your differing gifts and talents play out against each other.
“You were both right earlier this evening. We were all taking you for granted - again - and you were right to complain. We should all have been helping you, not just Mary.
But you know as well as I do that when Mary enters her own inner world of dreams and thoughts and visions, she can’t easily be brought back into the world of everyday things. That’s how she is, and I want her to be happy with how she is: that’s why I said earlier that Mary had made the right choice, because I know there is no point trying to drag her back from those places where her spirit leads her once her spirit has taken flight.
“But none of that takes anything away from the respect and affection I hold for you.
“We probably don’t deserve you, Martha; and I suspect that’s exactly how you feel sometimes. But I know I am powerfully blessed to have you in my life, and I hope you can believe me when I say that.
“You bring something unique and irreplaceable to the time I spend here. I’m sorry you became upset earlier.
“Please don’t ever believe that I undervalue in any way your personal attributes, your affection for me, or your dedication to our cause. And forgive me, especially when I try my best to allow Mary to follow the path where I can see her spirit is leading her.
“Nothing I do is ever intended to diminish how I feel about the two of you.”
In one of our hymns we sing the words, “Many the gifts, many the people, many the hearts that yearn to belong” ('Christ be our light' - Bernadette Farrell). There will be people here today who feel taken for granted or believe that their gifts are not valued in the places where they are trying to belong.
To those of us who feel like that remember that, just as with Martha and Mary, Jesus knows our human feelings, and he affirms each one of us in everything we do for the coming of his kingdom.
Or, in words from the reflection: “We probably don’t deserve you; and I suspect that’s exactly how you feel sometimes. But we know we are powerfully blessed to have you in our lives, and we hope you can believe us when we say that."