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Martha and Mary

I love it when prophecies are fulfilled - good ones. I have this rather ancient tea towel at home which is purple and it says ‘a woman’s place is in the house…of bishops’ and it was given me by my mother in law who was a great supporter of women’s ordination in the 80s and 90s. Well there’s a prophecy now fulfilled, as our very own Bishop Rachel is a member of the House of Lords, making history. We now have a woman prime minister again - just the second in our history; not even to speak of other female leaders or aspiring leaders in our world. How different the place of women is in the world today compared to the past - think of the story of Abraham that we heard, that typical scene of ancient Middle Eastern hospitality, with Abraham entertaining the strangers, the travellers, as was due to a traveller, while Sarah stayed out of sight in the tent - but no doubt doing all the work to provide the meal they were served. Not that Sarah’s role was really either hidden or insignificant of course - she was the one to conceive and carry and give birth to and to nurture, the son who would begin the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, none of it could happen apart from her.


Now in the gospel story of Martha and Mary we have another little cameo of domestic life which has often been misunderstood. Often it is suggested that Martha’s role in the kitchen is criticised or down played; or, that it means that women should be either in a domestic role or be religious contemplatives, nuns, like Mary at Jesus’ feet.  Well actually I think something more radical was taking place when you put it in context. What Mary did was extraordinary - or rather, what Jesus encouraged her to do. She was taking up the role of a disciple of Jesus, sitting at his feet, memorising his teaching. That was not a role that would have been open to women at the time. Discipleship was a male thing, the Jewish rabbis taught only men, the women were restricted in their level of education and activity. But Jesus challenges this as he challenged many conventions, and Luke, of all the gospel writers is particularly interested in how Jesus raised the status and respect of women. Jesus vindicates Mary’s choice to sit at his feet - it’s not about Martha doing the wrong thing, it’s about Mary stepping out of tradition, convention, expectation, culture, and daring to respond to Jesus as an individual person, not as a woman. Jesus makes a point of affirming that, and Luke makes a point of recording it.

Likewise in Acts and the epistles we find evidence of named women in leadership roles in the early church. That was suppressed later, maybe when the church was legitimised and institutionalised.  

Mary, you see, was not going to stay sitting there, all droopy eyed and adoring - she was learning in order to become a teacher herself, in order to live the life Jesus was living. To be a disciple, to follow in his way, to be like him. That way was going to involve her in a lot of activity; she was not representing the passive life as against the active one of Martha. To follow Jesus meant to engage with the world, to get stuck in, and to try to live as one truly in God’s image in the midst of a world of corruption, violence, deceit, and so on. Just like our world today.

I was lucky enough at a conference this last week to hear Rowan Williams give an address, and he was asked afterwards what his advice would be now to Teresa May. His subject was prayer, and he said I would advise her to pray that she will not lie - neither to herself, nor to others. To live and speak the truth.

Prayer, as Rowan sees it, brings us face to face with God the Truth, God who knows all the truth about me - and who is simultaneously unimpressed by me, and full of love for me. In that moment of prayer, if I am open to God, I may catch a glimpse of who I really am, of the truth about me. That’s what always leads us to confession at the start of a service of worship; and then leads us on in the Eucharist to take Christ into ourselves and to greet each other as members of the body of Christ. Mary at Jesus’ feet wasn't learning facts and figures; she was being formed in the image of Christ, re-formed as a disciple of Jesus. God takes all that we are, all the truth about us, and with our cooperation and commitment, works at turning us into his disciples, his followers, ones who walk in the world as Jesus walked. That is what prayer is for; it’s what the Eucharist is for; it’s what any leader should pray for as they undertake awesome responsibility and authority over others, which for Jesus and so for us, meant being the servant of others. Mary sitting there was soaking up everything that Jesus stood for, that he lived and died for. When she then got up and got on, she would do everything differently.

Abraham and Sarah didn't realise that they were entertaining the Lord in the three strangers. The reader knows that, as the narrator identifies them by saying ‘The Lord appeared to Abraham…he looked up and saw three men’. Mary and Martha knew who Jesus was - that is they had some idea of who he was. In both scenes God, the presence of God, accepts hospitality and shares food and drink. So too today as we gather around the table and feast together, we do so in the presence of the same God, the same Christ; not only that, we feed on him, men and women, young and old alike, the family of God, the people of the promise, the followers of the Way. May that food nourish us as disciples, may we today soak up more of the image of Christ, may we listen and learn in order to go out and work in his service.

Rev’d Jan