It’s easy to forget that ‘a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home’. It was Martha’s home and Jesus was her guest. And when it’s our home, we’re in charge and we expect our guests to be grateful for our hospitality.
Furthermore, when our guest is someone important like Jesus, we would probably put a lot of thought into how we would like the visit to go. We wouldn’t just have a tidy round; we would think carefully about the food we might serve and the seating arrangements.
This might require a special outing to the shops, or at least to the allotment, to get the ingredients we will need. In the sort of humble home that Martha could have lived in, we might need to call upon our neighbours to lend us some of their cooking pots and cutlery, or extra chairs, or even their dining table.
We haven’t actually had too many famous visitors to our house. One I do remember was the actor David Kossoff. He stopped acting a long time ago, to write and tell Bible stories on the radio - in the faith slot on what has now become Radio 2 - and to draw attention to the dangers of drug abuse after the death of his son from a drug overdose. But I promise you he was properly famous in his time and acted with the likes of Bernard Cribbins and Peter Sellers.
In any event, he came to our house, because we had arranged a performance of his one-man show about the risks that drug abuse poses. He would need a light meal before the performance and, after careful thought, we decided to offer him a ham salad. Fortunately, a colleague - now living in this circuit - happened to drop by and reminded us, on the morning of the great man’s visit, that David Kossoff was Jewish, so averting - at the eleventh hour - a potentially very embarrassing social gaffe! I guess it was with the same air of anticipation that Martha prepared for the visit of Jesus, swept the flowers, plumped up the cushions, picked fresh flowers and prepared the dinner.
Was Martha the older of the two sisters—or the younger one who had been left behind to look after her parents in their old age? Almost certainly, she was the keeper of the house, even if she had a younger brother, Lazarus, waiting to inherit when he came of age, and that makes her the dominant family figure in this story, as she is also in the story about her in John chapter 11?
Was Mary there by Martha’s invitation? Perhaps she had come over from her marital home to help with the catering for this special occasion, which would make her lack of support all the more galling for Martha as the temperature rose in the kitchen and the tasks piled up for Mary to do. Or perhaps Mary had never intended to help. Perhaps she had only come along so that she too could meet Jesus. Perhaps she thought Matha was going to too much trouble and had got her priorities wrong. Jesus would only be this close to them for a short time, so would it not be best to concentrate on what he had to say and serve him only the simplest, plainest food - bread and cheese, perhaps, with a few figs for dessert?
Whereas Simon the Pharisee simply 'invited’ Jesus into his home but did not offer to wash his feet, we’re told that Martha ‘welcomed’ Jesus. Luke doesn’t go into details, but presumably a welcome to a special guest did include foot washing, otherwise Simon wouldn’t have been reproached by Jesus for not washing his feet. One commentator points out that ‘we don’t know who did the foot-washing on this occasion, but we do know that ‘Mary sat at Jesus’ feet.’
Did Martha intend to get Jesus’ attention and approval all for herself by playing the role of the generous and hard working host? If so, things now began to backfire, because while Martha busied herself with getting the meal ready, the culmination of tasks which may have taken several hours, Mary obstinately remained at Jesus’ feet, apparently hanging on every word he uttered, and in doing so she began to deflect attention from the very different way in which Martha was being attentive to him.
Perhaps Martha felt she was being sidelined and cast in an unfavourable light by Mary’s very different way of expressing her devotion. After all, none of us likes to be taken for granted or to have someone else ‘take the Mickey’ out of us!
Whatever Martha’s motives may have been, Jesus took Mary’s side when Martha intervened. He publicly rebuked his host, telling Martha - somewhat ungratefully I feel - that Mary had chosen ‘the better part’. As the commentator puts it, ‘Rather than wanting Jesus to look at her and be impressed by all her hard work, Mary was content to listen and discover all that she could about Jesus’ [message].’
Martha felt that she was looking after and supporting Jesus, whereas Mary was looking to him for support. Perhaps, therefore, the story is supposed to show us that discipleship is about attending to Jesus’ words and example, not about attending on him or doing things for him, or even just to make a good impression.
The mistake people often make is to imagine that discipleship is primarily about us making a decision to follow Jesus and then - by extension - about what we can do for him, or for the church, or to spread the Gospel.
In fact, discipleship must begin with Jesus and what he can do for us. We have to begin by receiving rather than giving, otherwise what we have to offer will fall short of what we could give back if it were truly inspired by him.
That said, discipleship is about giving, and giving things up. It isn’t just a passive thing. It isn’t just about ourselves, about being fed. So there needs to be a balance. We need to begin by being like Mary and then move on to becoming more like Martha, but not exactly like her.
We don’t want to become people weighed down by a sense of obligation, burdened by all the things we have on our To Do list, anxious and jaded, emptied of joy and wonder, no longer able to celebrate and be glad. Neither do we want to become people so obsessed with our own spiritual journey, our moments of enlightenment, our sense of liberation and inner peace, that we’re deaf to the needs of others or the call of Jesus to serve them in practical ways and share the good news with them.
I don’t know whether Martha and Mary were mothers but perhaps motherhood offers us an insight into their two very different approaches and how to combine them. With Martha we see someone selfless, nurturing, prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of someone else, even if - on this occasion - it was only a matter of sacrificing the chance to sit at Jesus’ feet in her own home. With Mary we see someone with the humility to recognise her own need of Jesus, someone anxious to understand him, able to appreciate what he could bring to her life and ready to believe in him. All of these qualities, the ones exemplified by both Martha and Mary, are ones which we celebrate as different aspects of motherhood. Perhaps they are different aspects of discipleship too.