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A tale of two sisters

Updated: Jul 4, 2018

Jesus’ circle of friends included a family of three siblings- Mary, Martha and Lazarus – who lived in the village of Bethany, on the east slope of the Mount of Olives. It appears from the gospel accounts that Jesus was a frequent visitor to their home, and enjoyed both their fellowship and hospitality.

Like most families, this household was a microcosm of the world at large, mirroring the tensions and rivalries between people and nations. In fact, Jesus’ first visit lifted the lid on a feud which, I suspect, had been simmering for many years.

Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”

And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-41).

Although the Scripture doesn’t indicate the sequence of the siblings’ ages, the pattern of their responses suggests that Martha may have been the eldest and Mary may have been the youngest. Martha was certainly the more responsible of the two, and her very demeanour connotes a well-organised, systematic, highly efficient manager who plans ahead and measures success in terms of actual results.

Mary, on the other hand, is a free spirit – a ‘party girl’ if you will – who lives for the moment and measures success in terms of emotional connection. From all appearances she is a girl who loves passionately, laughs easily, and lives indulgently. She is creative and artistic, sensitive and spontaneous; definitely from the left bank of the Seine!

And in the presence of Jesus these two worldviews collided – probably not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. Overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility, Martha cried, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.” Meanwhile, Mary continued to sit blissfully at Jesus’ feet, totally absorbed in the spirit of the moment.

Martha is usually depicted as the villain of the story – worldly, materialistic, and nonspiritual. Mary, on the other hand, is seen as the saintly heroine – a true worshipper, who valued the things of the Spirit more than the things of the flesh. However, a closer examination of the circumstances tells a somewhat different tale.

In John chapter 11 we read that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” There was obviously something in Martha’s character that delighted the Son of God. When Jesus came to Bethany four days after Lazarus had died, it was Martha who went out to meet him while Mary sat brooding in the house. And it was Martha who believed that he had the power to raise Lazarus from the dead, even at this late stage, while Mary could only reproach him for not being there when they needed him.

And when Jesus commanded the people to take away the stone from the mouth of the burial cave, it was Martha, practical as ever, who said, “But Lord, what about the stench?” Ah Martha, careful, wonderful Martha, always thinking of the implications and consequences!

Mary’s propensity for spontaneous extravagance was demonstrated when Jesus visited the family home shortly before Passover.

Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.

Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. Then Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.” (John 12:1-8)

Spikenard was a rose-red, fragrant ointment prepared from the dried roots and woolly stems of the Nard plant, native to the Himalaya mountains in Northern India. A small flask of the pure ointment was valued at more than 300 denarii, equivalent to the annual salary of a day labourer!

John tells us that Mary - our capricious and carefree Mary – in a moment of Holy Spirit inspired impetuosity, grabbed the alabaster flask and poured its precious contents over Jesus’ feet. In effect, she blew a whole year’s wages in one act of unrestrained passion! Was she reprimanded for this excessive behaviour? No, certainly not. On the contrary, she was commended for worshipping the Son of God with joyful abandon.

I’m sure Martha was thinking to herself, “Oh, Mary, how embarrassing! Why do you have to be so extravagant?” And therein rests the conundrum of Mary and Martha. Who was right and who was wrong? They were both right and they were both wrong. Martha, so devout and so correct, so efficient and so responsible, had forgotten how to laugh – how to let go and give herself over to the spirit of the moment. Mary, so conscious and so spontaneous, so creative and so unpredictable, had forgotten how to prepare – how to set goals, make plans, and take action.

And somewhere in the middle of these two extremes stood Jesus - reaching out and encouraging the sisters to grow beyond their self-imposed limitations. In reality, Mary needed a bit more ‘Martha’ in her character, and Martha needed a bit more ‘Mary’ in her character. Is such a thing possible? Can God so develop us that we embody both freedom and responsibility?

Addressing this issue, the apostle Paul wrote: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22). The fruit of the Spirit (the product of a life that is controlled and empowered by the Holy Spirit) is love, joy, peace – that’s Mary – faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – that’s Martha.

It’s not a matter of either/or. God’s desire is that we may grow up into Christ in all things (Eph. 4:15), regardless of our temperament or disposition. For by grace we have been saved, and by grace we are being changed into His image, from glory to glory, by the Spirit of the Lord!

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