The story of Mary and Martha speaks to so many people, in so many ways. Do we have any “Marys” in the room? Guys, it’s OK to raise your hands. How about “Marthas?” Guys? It’s OK in either case, you know.
Luke tells us that, “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This was not his first trip to Jerusalem, but it would be his last. In this case, Jerusalem would be, for Jesus, less a place than a destination, his final earthly destination. And of course, as he made his way towards Jerusalem, Jesus kept on doing what he always did: preaching… teaching… healing… calling the people to repentance and proclaiming the Good News of God’s kingdom.
So today, we find Jesus in “a certain village,” which is almost certainly Bethany, which is about a mile and a half east of Jerusalem on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives. He had friends there. Of course, Jesus had friends all over the place, but Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus were special. They didn’t press him for miracles… or for inside information about whether or not he was the long-awaited Messiah. They just accepted him as he was… and were there for him when he was worn out from ministering to others and just needed a place to escape. That’s a rare sort of friendship, don’t you think? But all Luke gives us is the bare bones of Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Martha. We sense that Martha was a “doer,” while Mary was a “be-er.” And we read that Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he said. But what did he say? And how did she respond? And what was going on around them during this period of relative quiet and respite as Jesus travelled his own appointed road to kingdom come? I’m going to read you a bit of “midrash” from Walter Wangerin’s Book of God that might inform our understanding in this regard. Some here may have heard this story. Members of St. James’ Sunday morning adult-ed class may remember that midrash is a method of biblical interpretation, common in Jewish tradition, that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at in Scripture. Our story today is narrated by Mary of Bethany:
JESUS WILL SOMETIMES find lodging with us. He arrives unannounced, often in the middle of the night. We rise up in the morning and find him sitting in our courtyard under the grape arbor, resting. He says he rests best sitting up.
My sister is immediately delighted to see him. “Well!” she says, clapping her hands and causing every soft part of her body to wobble: “Well, then! We must make cakes!”
During these last three years he has usually come in the company of his disciples. He first makes sure that they all have food and places to sleep in Bethany, then he slips silently into our courtyard.
But in the years before there were disciples— and several times since, truly— he has arrived completely alone.
I am convinced that Jesus spends the odd night under our arbor then steals away before the sunrise while we’re still sleeping. Martha denies it. She says a man as civil as Jesus would never neglect the proprieties of a guest, greetings and eatings and compliments, permitting a host, she says, to be a host. But I think he prays here. And he leaves something of his spirit behind when he has gone. I seem to smell it. It is like a scent on the morning air.
Our little village lies about a mile and a half from Jerusalem, on the far side of the Mount of Olives. It’s a convenient distance from the city— and Jesus must come to Jerusalem. He cannot keep away. Passover draws him. Passover has always drawn him here. And Pentecost, at the end of the barley harvest. And the Feast of Tabernacles. Last year, on the last day of that feast, Martha and I were there when Jesus suddenly stood up in the porches of Solomon and cried out, If you are thirsty, come to me! All who believe in me, come and drink! For it is as the Scripture has said: “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water!”
That saying caused a furious division among the people. Some of them questioned whether the Christ could possibly do any more signs than Jesus was doing. This was such a wonderful word that it caused the soles of my feet to tingle. At the same time there were rumors that the chief priests had sent officers into the Temple precincts to arrest Jesus. They didn’t. The feast ended peaceably. But he was busy every day until the end— and that’s the point. Jesus is always busy in Jerusalem, exhausted by the evening, in need of a quiet place apart. A sleepy village, an enclosed courtyard, a grape arbor.
He did not come to the Feast of Tabernacles this year. Maybe he knew there would be violence. I should ask him.
But he came to the Feast of Dedication. Hanukkah. Winter. Dreary, cold, wet December. But these were good days, after all. Even in my sleep I knew he had come.
“Martha,” I said before either one of us had gotten up. “Martha, Jesus is here.”
She was immediately awake. “How do you know?” she said.
“I can smell him,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter how I know,” I said. “What matters is how we meet him. Martha?”
“Please allow the man to rest. Let him arrange his day the way it pleases him best. Martha?”
She didn’t answer. She gave her blankets a rough tug, got up, and went to the stove to kindle a fire.
Jesus was there, of course, hunched beneath the arbor. His arms were folded across his chest, his head leaning to the side, his wide brow frowning, his eyes closed. Sleeping, I think. And shivering for cold. I had just gone into the back room for a blanket, when I heard my sister start clucking like a hen:
“Jesus, Jesus, you’ll catch your death out here. Come inside. It’s going to rain. I’ve a good fire going— and we must make cakes.”
So then I saw them both enter the house, Jesus first, bowing his head slightly at the low lintel and then smiling to see me. Martha second, a small storm of helpfulness.
I have always liked the fact that the Master shaves his face. When he smiles I can see all the lines. His cheeks wreathe from the high bone to the chin. It’s a generous smile, even when his eyes— as lately they do— remain solemn.
So Jesus entered, smiling at me. I smiled back and shrugged, and we both measured our love for my sister Martha, who was oblivious of such communications, who was already bustling toward the clay stove to feel the sides of it for heat. No one is better than Martha for the consistency of a barley dough and the perfect temperature of a stove.
Olives were ripe. They were pressing them even then at Gethsemane. Martha went out to get fresh oil.
While she was gone, Jesus sat on a low stool. I sank down on the floor before him, and we began to talk.
I asked him about praying, how he does it when he is alone. I was thinking of the grape arbor.
“Lord,” I said, “teach me to pray.”
He has the eyes of evening suns in autumn. There is something of the far horizon underneath his looking.
He said, “When you pray, say ‘Father.’”
“Father?” I said. And I thought, Call the Lord God Father?
Jesus put his wrist to his chin and continued, “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread—” He smiled suddenly, wreathing his cheeks, and his eyes came very near. I think he was thinking of Martha and her daily cakes. Then he said, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive every one who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.
“I tell you, Mary,” Jesus said, leaning slightly forward, “if you ask, it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened to you. What father gives a serpent to children who ask for a fish? Well, if human parents know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?”
I nodded and nodded all the while that Jesus was speaking. When something moves me deeply, I forget my face and my flesh. I seem to rise and inhabit the words as if they were huge rooms, warm mansions. Ah, Lord Jesus, immensely generous!
Martha bustled into the house, her arms full, her cheeks jiggling with haste and work and pleasure.
“I told Lazarus that the Master was here,” she announced. “He’ll be coming over for cakes,” she said. “So much, so much to do!”
And do she did. The very air changes when my sister gets busy. It snaps as if cluttered by tiny lightning. It takes my breath away.
Soon the fresh oil was crackling and we began to smell fish. Where had she found fish so early in the morning?
“My sister,” I called out loud. “The miracle worker!”
There came a sudden thump, dough thrown on a wooden board. When I turned, I saw Martha standing behind me, her fists on her hips, her expression hard and dark.
“Lord,” she said, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? This morning she ordered me not to intrude upon your life. She said you needed rest. But here she sits, talking and listening, the perfect private pupil, keeping you to herself. So which of us is intruding after all!”
In that moment I realized that I had been wrong: Martha is not oblivious to the subtle communications that pass between the Master and me. She loves him, too. I know that. But I always thought it a more robust love, tougher and less tender. Ah, now I think that I have sinned against her.
Martha said, “Tell Mary to let you alone. Tell her to get up and help me.”
But Jesus did not remove his gaze from her.
“Martha, Martha,” he said, “you are anxious and troubled about many things. Only one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion which shall never be taken away from her.”
We ate her meal in a heavy silence after that.
When our brother Lazarus came into the house, he knew immediately not to ask questions. Martha’s jowls were shaking; the flesh of her neck was blotchy red. We learned long ago to heed the signs of our sister’s moods.
But shortly after breakfast Jesus went to her and touched her shoulder and said, “Martha, come with me.”
He invited Lazarus and me in the same manner, calling us by name and saying, “It’s the Feast of Dedication. Put on warm robes and walk with me into Jerusalem.”
We did. We walked up over the ridge of the Mount of Olives, and I felt very good then. The sight of the Temple there— the porches, the high walls of massive stone, the pinnacles above them, and the great doors of the sanctuary itself— always fills me with comfort and assurances.
By now it was apparent to me that this was one of Jesus’ private visits, a personal withdrawal. He must have left his disciples across the Jordan in Perea. Whether he had planned to sacrifice his privacy by taking the three of us with him to the Temple— well, that’s another matter. I think it was the morning’s mood that persuaded him.
But the generous Lord was talking also as we walked.
“Martha,” he said, “how often have you repeated the Psalm, The Lord is my shepherd? Well, think of me as your good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired hand, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and runs away. He leaves the sheep to be snatched and scattered by the wolf. He flees because he cares nothing for the sheep. I will never do that to you.”
Jesus walked with a long, slow stride. I know that he was moderating his speed for Martha’s sake. Her legs are short and, though she is a strong woman, after all, the hills cause her to puff.
Jesus’ black hair had a fine dusting of mist on it.
Now he spoke in a lower tone, terribly intimate, and it seemed to me that his words were very heavy.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father. Martha, I will lay down my life for my sheep. This is the reason why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one will take it from me, but I will lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This is the charge I have received from my Father.” Jesus fell silent, then, and we, too, were very quiet after that, all three of us, each thinking our own thoughts.
I felt afraid. He led us into the Temple by way of the northeast corner, the gate through which the priests lead out the red heifer for sacrificing on the Mount of Olives.
A cold wind was blowing from the east. It had been to our backs while we walked; now it cut through our clothing, and I saw that Lazarus looked ashen. Martha’s teeth had begun to chatter. Her eyes were swollen— because of what Jesus had said, I think. He led us into Solomon’s portico, which was walled on its eastern side, a good protection against the weather.
As we walked among the great colonnades, people began to follow us. Many recognized Jesus. Soon a crowd had gathered, and we could hardly walk anymore.
Then a man called out, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us so in plain words!”
I felt Martha grow tense beside me. Her breath whistled in her nose. Jesus looked at the man who had challenged him and called out over the heads of the multitude, “I told you, sir, and you do not believe!”
His tone was absolute. He was not arguing. This was not a debate. Jesus was making a declaration as elemental as a mountain.
“The works I do in my Father’s name,” he called, “bear witness to me. But you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.”
Jesus reached and took Martha’s hand in his. I doubt anyone saw the gesture but me. Her face flamed.
Now Jesus shook back his long hair and called out for the whole multitude to hear: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me, and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand! My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one!”
Some of the people broke into howling when they heard that, as if they were in pain. Others bared their teeth and picked up stones and drew back to throw them at Jesus.
His eyes flashed. “I’ve shown you many good works,” he cried. “For which of them do you stone me now?”
“Not for good works,” they yelled back, “but for blasphemy. You’re a man, but you’re making yourself out to be God!”
“If I am not doing the works of my Father,” Jesus cried, “then don’t believe me. But if I am doing them, even though you don’t believe me, believe the works, that you may know that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
Just then three officers of the Temple came plowing through the crowds, their left arms wrapped in ropes with which to bind a prisoner— Jesus, by the look in their eyes. Many people roared approval and made a way for them. Others tried to block their progress.
One of the officers outpaced the other two. He broke through alone and lunged at Jesus— but then ran straight into the folded fists of my dear sister Martha, who brought them up beneath his jaw with such wonderful force that his teeth snapped together on the tip of his tongue. For a moment he stood drooling and bleeding and bewildered. Martha was so short he couldn’t tell where the hit had come from.
In that moment, Jesus vanished. No one saw him leave. No one saw him anymore.
So we went home alone, bending our heads against the dreary wind and holding close to one another, all of us thoughtful, though Martha seemed to have overcome her shivering.
All this took place two months ago. We haven’t seen Jesus since then. But we’ve heard that he and his disciples are just over Jordan, in the same place where John first baptized at the beginning of his ministry.
And yesterday our brother Lazarus lay down on his bed and could not get up again. He’s very sick. Martha thinks we should tell Jesus right now.
I myself, I think we ought to let him alone a while— let him arrange his days as he sees best.
So, what is the takeaway? Hopefully, this expanded story of Mary and Martha, this midrash, provides you with a “window” through which you can see Jesus Immanuel, God with us, more clearly, and hear with greater clarity what he has to say to you about love, and prayer and the coming of God’s Kingdom. I guess the biggest change in my own thinking brought about by this midrash was that Jesus wasn’t telling Martha that Mary was right and that she, Martha, was wrong. Each was doing what she felt called to do in the moment. I think Jesus was telling Martha that it was OK to be Martha… but to let Mary be Mary. Mary might help her sister cook breakfast on another day… but not today. Jesus had a special word for Mary at that particular place and time. When I apply that logic to my own life, I see that the times I get most aggravated with people, particularly with those I love, is when I think they ought to be doing what I think they ought to be doing… without regard to what they might need to be doing at the time. Jesus tells us to take time to listen… and to take it easy on each other, and on ourselves. In the story today, we learned that Jesus also had a word for Martha, every bit as special as Mary’s, but given in the time and place when Martha needed it most. Jesus is amazing in that way. And Jesus has a word for you. Listen… be gentle with yourself and you’ll hear what Jesus has to say to you… in God’s time.
Walter Wangerin, Jr, The Book of God: The Bible as a Novel (Zondervan: Kindle Edition, 2010), 553-8.