Martha or Mary?

This is my sermon for Sunday 17th July 2022 based on Colossians 1:15-28 and Luke 10:38-42. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it then. I probably didn’t have time to put the links to the bible passages and all the tags etc in setting. I just found it in my Drafts and as it links in with my next praying through the bible section which I will publish as soon as I have finished decorating the page, and include a link to this. The image I’ve chosen is one depicting many spinning plates which I did some time ago when considering why I was so tired….. doing too much…. And all I do needs to be empowered by God (the central plate).


I love the opening of Paul’s letter to the Colossians where he describes Jesus as being the image of the invisible God, through whom all things were created, and that everything in the world is his.

Stop and wonder – creation – stars, planets, the earth in all its glorious, wonderful varieties of creatures and scenery. All made by Jesus and for Jesus.

Paul describes Jesus as not only being the image of God but containing all the fulness of God.  Not just a bit like God, but all that God is, is in Jesus. Jesus became human, and although he was 100% human, he was still divine.  Mind blowing, I know. But I believe true. When we think about Jesus, the man in Galilee, going around healing people and announcing God’s acceptance of everyone, no matter who they are, that is God’s opinion, God’s view of the matter. Jesus was God walking on earth.

Stop and wonder – the incarnation – Jesus God become human but still fully God.

Not only that, but that all things somehow hold together in him.  He’s a sort of glue holding us all together. And that is especially true of the church, his body. He has reconciled us with God through his sacrifice on the cross. It doesn’t matter how bad we were, we are forgiven and made new in him.  And we know from Jesus’ farewell speech at the last supper, recorded by John, that we are in him and he in us.

Another reason to stop and wonder – if Jesus is the fulness of God and we are in him…. What does that mean about us?

I love the image of the vine and the branches. 

I used it when I did a school lesson this week. Year 4 at Dove – 8 or 9 years old. I’d been asked to go in and talk about what a vicar does in an average week. So I gave that some thought and then the teacher sent me the purpose of the lesson plus some questions that would be on the board for me to answer.  

These are the learning outcomes:

  • Make clear links between the calling of the first disciples and how Christians today try to follow Jesus and be ‘fishers of people’ 
  • Give examples of how Christians try to show love towards all, including how members of the clergy follow Jesus’ teaching 

The children had just been studying the Good Samaritan and we talked about that a bit too.  The pupils were also asked what they thought about the church’s purpose. I then spoke about all the things that St Michael’s church does – the worship, special events, social and fund raising events and community use of the building.  The whole life of the church I summed up in our Mission Statement: Know God’s Love: Show God’s Love: Share God’s Love

I also said who led the various things, whether it was congregation members or church leaders (lay or ordained).  And then I was asked if there was an order of importance for the various church activities.  I pointed out that all the good works of the church, the serving people in the community the practical ways of people showing God’s love in how they treat others and love their neighbour, all spring from our love of God. And that’s where I gave the illustration of being branches attached to the vine. Without the flow of God’s love through us we are no different from any social group. They understood what I was saying.

Then I was asked what the necessary qualities are that a person needs to be a fisher of people and what sort of people is Jesus looking for. The children came up with some good suggestions and were a little surprised when I added that Jesus is looking for anyone who wants to follow him and who wants to be a fisher of people.

All are invited, even the nasty and the not very good. All that is needed is a willingness to come to Jesus and be changed.  Like Zacchaeus. They knew that story too.

The children understand the importance of helping people and being kind. They have no difficulty with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  

And I think that today’s gospel story is linked to it.  Luke arranged his gospel in a particular way. We are in a section that is a journey towards Jerusalem.

Jesus had sent out the 72 to go and do some fishing for people – to do some healing and proclaiming the kingdom of God was near. They came back and at the de-brief Jesus said they were to rejoice that their names were written in heaven.  Jesus then thanked God for revealing things to those who have been handed over to him and to anyone else Jesus chooses to reveal God to. We then get the greatest commandment followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The point of that teaching is that our neighbour is anyone who is in need, and we are to help them and offer hospitality over and above any religious niceties.  The visit to Martha and Mary is immediately after the parable.  Significantly, it is out of chronological order.  The sisters live in Bethany which is almost in Jerusalem. Luke is arranging his material thematically and the theme is discipleship.

Martha is flustered and hot in the kitchen while Mary is praised for sitting at Jesus feet taking in all his teaching along with the male disciples and not in the proper place for a woman, doing the hospitality.

You are all familiar with this story I am sure and have heard many a sermon extolling the virtues of being prayerfully sitting at Jesus’ feet. Maybe if you are more of a Martha – the one in the kitchen baking the cakes and moving the chairs, doing the cleaning – you feel a bit overlooked, as if your ministry isn’t as important as those of us who spend more time in prayerful contemplation.

That isn’t the point that Jesus is making. After all, he had just given a parable indicating that practical help is more important than the religious stuff.  

He says that Martha is distracted, anxious and troubled.  The Greek word used here to denote being burdened, or exerting oneself, literally means being detached, too distracted from what matters most. 

Unfortunately, we know that we are often too busy and even if our intentions are good, we lose sight of the One for whom we exert ourselves: God and neighbour. 

If we look again at what she says we can see that her focus isn’t really on the tasks, nor on ensuring Jesus is well looked after, but on herself.

She says:  “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” me, me, me

I think we are too quick to jump to the conclusion that Jesus’ praise of Mary is an implicit criticism of Martha.  But his repetition of her name:  Martha, Martha – he is showing pity or compassion on her. Yes, he is praising Mary, but he is NOT criticising Martha’s undertaking of the practical tasks.

However, he is pointing out that she is distracted by them from the important focus: the guest for whom the tasks are being performed.

Many Christians feel they are expressing their faith most clearly when they are involved in doing practical tasks, AND that this helps them to learn and grow as disciples.

Jesus’ presence in the world changed many things.

  • Those of low status and on the margins of society need no longer be defined by their socially determined roles. Women can learn on an equal footing with men. There were a few setbacks with this one, and there are some places in the world where it still isn’t the case.
  • Our priority needs to be the guest before us, extending to Jesus and his messengers, the welcome of peace.

I want to end by reading a reflection on the consequences of this on the Catholic website Aleteia:

So how will I treat Jesus when he sits at my table this holiday?  Will I ignore him in favour of basting the turkey?

I hope not. I hope to sit down and take in his beautiful face. I hope to spoon him the mashed potatoes that have been sitting in my crockpot since that morning because even if I’m not a natural Martha or Mary, I’m faking it all the way.

Of course, “Mary chose the better part when she chose [Christ]” but since I want food on the table when my guests arrive I’ll agree with Cardinal Anastasio Ballestrero, the former archbishop of Turin: 

“In our house there is room for Martha and room for Mary, and we must occupy both places. We must be Mary because we are welcoming the Word, and we must be Martha because we are receiving the Son of Man.”

So the practical stuff and the helping of neighbour needs to be done—but they all need to focus on the One in whose name we do them. 

Or as Jesus’ puts it – we need to choose the better part.  The Greek phrase is symbolic of goodness, beauty, and something that gives joy and is good in the eyes of God and other people. Mary’s attitude does not indicate a lack of commitment to domestic duties, but an appropriate hierarchy of values: God and neighbour come first, and it is for them that we work.

We all need to strike the right balance between activism and contemplation, haste and a more natural rhythm, as well as noise and peaceful silence.

The words of St. Augustine are one of the most fitting comments on today’s Gospel.

“If God comes first, all is in the right place;”

(I would like to give my thanks to Ian Paul’s reflection on the gospel, plus some of the other bits on the catholic website mentioned above,)

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