Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The worth of Martha - excerpts from service for 5 . 2 . 12

From ‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.
Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?

Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42)

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village.  And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.  But Martha was distracted with much serving.  And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me.”  But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

It was two weeks ago Friday when I called in at church with my slow cooker which was needed for the crock-pot New Year lunch and I saw a small band of people busily preparing the food. It called to mind the Martha and Mary story from Luke 10.  I am sure that most of you are familiar with the names Martha and Mary being used to describe someone.  A Martha person is someone who spends more time doing than praying and a Mary person of course is considered to be more spiritual and more content to spend their time exploring thoughts and ideas than say doing the housework or cooking meals.  As a result of the interpretation in Luke it is often thought that there is more worth for the Mary’s of this world than maybe the Martha figures and this idea is perpetuated in poems and stories about them.  And I suppose that in a way I am as guilty as most in the perpetuation of this view, considering myself to be more of a Mary and undervaluing the Martha’s of this world but today I want to turn that thinking around and speak up for the Martha’s of this world.


But first I want to consider the two women, Martha and Mary as they appear in the bible.  As far as I can tell they appear in three different stories spread over a period of time which suggests that they were quite prominent in Jesus’ life.  They are the sisters of Lazarus who is also mentioned and was raised from the dead by Jesus.  Mary and Martha feature in this story too and once again Martha is the pro-active sister going off to seek Jesus out and then remonstrating with him when he arrives too late.    Mary is also mentioned as the woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with perfume to the annoyance of the disciples and once again Martha is cast in the role of hostess preparing the meal and making the home ready. 

One of the problems with stories in the bible is that they are very short – no more than a few verses each so we have to use our imaginations to flesh out the characters and the stories.

So we can imagine Martha, probably the eldest sister and the mistress of the house.  It is no wonder that she is preoccupied with preparing the house and the food for this rather special guest, and probably she would like nothing more than to sit and listen to his words. But I am sure we all sympathise with Martha because we know what it is like when we are expecting guests.  I know that I for one get the hoover out and rush around dusting and tidying and if I am offering a meal then it takes preparing and often guests are entertained by others while the food is prepared and served.  And of course Mary, the younger sister, may not feel that same pressure and thinks nothing of sitting and listening to Jesus instead of helping Martha.  And I am sure that we can all understand Martha’s irritation with her sister because no doubt many of us have felt a similar irritation when we wish that someone else would have thought to pick up a duster or peel a potato.  And I might even go as far as saying that I understand how it is portrayed that Mary has the better part – after all the Bible gospels were written largely by men and may not understand the women’s part.  There is a poem that I found that offers this view – it is quite different from most of the poems about the sisters.
MARTHA AND MARY (unknown author)
When Martha, in her disgruntlement,
was left making tea whilst her sister
sat comfortably and listened to the word,
she couldn't have foreseen that one far day,
women around the world would take her part
(for who's on Mary's side?).
There are always
things we should be doing instead of what
we are doing; but who will do the latter
if not us? I look back along the
generations, seeing the vegetable
patches which must be dug and hoed and
watered, the cows which must be milked and fed
and taken out and led in; the babies
who must be changed and cuddled and taught; the
pies and stews and cheese and bread and wine and
ale which must be made; the washing and the
mending and the shopping; the sheer labour
of keeping civilisation going
and the sacrament of it, and I think, well,
you can tell that Jesus was a man.

Then, again,
I think perhaps he knew that all our
proper thinking is done with hands full,
against the clock; and that you can write a
poem or develop a philosophy
or see an angel whilst you are weeding
or ironing or doing French homework;
and that possibly it was really Mary
who needed working on. . . .

Maybe Mary was not as unthinking and inconsiderate of Martha as we are led to think though. In another poetic version U. A. Fanthorpe imagines Mary talking about her sister Martha and what 'Josh' said to her (Jesus’ name is a form of Joshua).  

Unauthorised version’ by U.A. Fanthorpe

Of course he meant it kindly. I know that.
I know Josh—as well as anyone can know
The Son of God. All the same, he slipped up
Over this one. After all, a Son is only a son
When you come to think about it. And this
Was between sisters. Marty and me,
We understand each other. For instance, when Lazzie died,
We didn’t need to spell it out between us,
Just knew how to fix the scenario
So Josh could do his bit—raising Lazzie, I mean,
From the dead. He has his own way of doing things,
Has to muddle people first, so then the miracle
Comes as a miracle. If he’d just walked in
When Lazzie was iII, and said OK, Lazzie,
You’re off the sick list now — that’d have lacked impact.
But all this weeping, and groaning, and moving of stones,
And praying in public, and Mart saying I believe, etcetera,
Then Lazarus, come forth! and out comes Lazzie
In his shroud. Well, even a halfwit could see
Something out of the ordinary was going on.
But this was just ordinary. A lot of company,
A lot of hungry men, not many helpers,
And Mart had a go at me in front of Josh,
Saying I’m all on my own out there. Can’t you
Tell that sister of mine to take her finger out,
And lend a hand? Well, the thing about men is,
They don’t realise how temperamental good cooks are.
And Mart is very good. Believe you me.
She was just blowing her top. No harm in it.
I knew that. But then Josh gives her
This monumental dressing-down, and really,
It wasn’t fair. The trouble with theology is, it features
Too much miraculous catering. Those ravens feeding Elijah,
For instance. I ask you! They’d have been far more likely
To eat him. And all those heaven-sent fast-food take-aways—
Quail, and manna, and that. And Josh himself
The famous fish-butty picnic, and that miraculous
Draught of fishes. What poor old Mart could have done with
Was a miraculous draught of coffee and sandwiches
Instead of a ticking-off. And the men weren’t much help.
Not a thank you among them, and never a thought
Of help with the washing-up.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course I love Josh,
Wonder, admire, believe. He knows I do.
But to give Marty such a rocket
As if she was a Pharisee, or that sort of type,
The ones he has it in for. It wasn’t right.
Still, Josh himself, as I said—well, he is only
The Son of God, not the Daughter; so how could he know?
And when it comes to the truth, I’m Marty’s sister.
I was there; I heard what was said, and
I knew what was meant. The men will write it up later
From their angle, of course. But this is me, Mary,
Setting the record straight.

‘Unauthorised version’, From U.A. Fanthorpe, Collected Poems 1978-2003, (Calstock, Cornwall: Peterloo Poets, 2005)

In the end, I don’t think we need to polarize the two sisters as much as we do. Martha and Mary can be brought together.  There are elements of both in all of us and sometimes we just need to recognise that.  A few hundred years ago a monk named Brother Lawrence did just that. Brother Lawrence joined a monastery because he wanted to devote his time to quiet prayer and meditation. 

Once in the monastery guess where Brother Lawrence found himself? He was assigned to run the kitchen. So much for quiet. But in the middle of all of his activity, getting up early to collect eggs, haggling at the marketplace, picking vegetables, and fixing meals, he discovered that God was with him in all the noise and busyness of his life. 

He said, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess GOD in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”  

And I found a poem that speaks of the value of the Martha characteristic, it is called:

The Martha Church (by W.S. Beattie)

Here is a pair of hands.
And here
Within the Martha church
Are things to do, time-honoured, recognised.
And these are good,
They bind us to a fellowship of service,
Give us stability, a place, a limit,
A defence against the vastness
That else might overwhelm.
Take on this discipline,
Accept its irksomeness,
Or else who knows
What labour of Prometheus
Might swallow you.
Or else you might be lost
Living within a formless void
Perplexed to choose and purposeless.
Rest yourself here
In useful labour.
Occupy the time.
But do not doubt
That in the end all limits fail.
Be glad to know
That even here the wind may blow.     

And ok so I may be more of a Mary person, but isn’t that the nature of my role?  In spite of this though I know one thing for sure, and that is, I am glad I serve in what is very much a Martha Church which was very evident that Friday when I found a small band of willing Martha’s preparing what turned out to be a wonderful meal.
 Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet says:
Work is love made visible 
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, . . .
It is to build a house with affection, . . .
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.

Work truly is love made visible.