Monday, July 19, 2010

Martha the Missionary & Mary the Mystic

      The relationship between Christ and Martha & Mary, the sisters of Lazarus (John 11:1) is one of the most interesting in the Gospels. Many papers have been published and sermons preached in an effort to understand just who Martha and Mary are and what they have to say to Christians regarding relationships. Their story helps us understand individual relationships with Christ, Christian community relationships, and cultural / societal relationships. Much can be learned from Martha and Mary. I believe understanding Martha & Mary provides us a clear example the diaconal relationship all believers have with Christ (Craddock); the satisfaction of service displayed by Martha and the joy of spiritual union found in Mary’s close relationship with Christ. This dichotomy is often a source of tension, both within individuals and within the church.

     For the 14th century mystic and theologian Miester Eckhart, Martha is the perfect example of a life of Christian service and hospitality. A woman dedicated to tending to the needs of Christ and His followers and to proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; truly a missionary. Eckhart sees her sister Mary as representative of the contemplative life, dedicated to prayer and worship. Mary seeks, as all true mystics do, to always be in the presence of God. Preacher and scholar
Fred Craddock sums this up best in his commentary on Luke:
 There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment. If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us…His answer would probably be yes .

     Let me give my definition of missionary & mystic. In our Christian tradition, a missionary is one who serves God by serving others. Missionaries feed the hungry, seek justice for the poor, and proclaim salvation through Jesus Christ. A Christian mystic is one who seeks to be in the presence of God at all times, through prayer, worship, and meditation.

We first encounter with Martha & Mary in Luke 10:38-42. Luke’s story introduces us to this missionary / mystic tension:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
41"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

     It is easy here to draw the wrong conclusions about Martha & Mary unless we read the text carefully. There is much more to this exchange than a simple disagreement between sisters over housework. Saint Augustine wrote:
…the Lord was received by a religious woman into her house, and her name was Martha. And while she was occupied in the care of serving, her sister Mary was sitting at the Lord's Feet, and hearing His Word. The one was busy, the other was still; one was giving out, the other was being filled.

     Martha was doing so much more than household chores or preparing a meal. She was literally serving Christ. Martha had the rarest of opportunities; she had Christ as a guest in her home and was tending to His needs. While her sister Mary was feeding on Christ’s words, Martha was feeding His body. Martha was in service, Mary was in prayer. Here we see the missionary and the mystic; one serving Christ, the other being served by Christ.

In the Gospel of John, we find 2 stories of Jesus and His friends, Martha & Mary. The second story, John 12: 1-10, we learn that Jesus has retreated from persecution of the Jews in Jerusalem to a familiar refuge in the nearby town of Bethany, the home of His friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Martha is being Martha, showing her love for Jesus by preparing a feast in His honor.
William Barclay describes the scene beautifully:
…she (Martha) was a practical woman; and the only way she could show her love was by the work of her hands. Martha always gave what she could.
…It is just as possible to serve Jesus in the kitchen as on the public platform or in a career which is lived in the eyes of men.
Again, Martha the missionary puts the needs of others before her own.

     But Mary, being Mary, soon does something quite unusual and controversial for her time. She retrieves a pint of expensive nard, loosens her hair and anoints the feet of Christ wiping the nard away with her hair. Any of these acts would have been scandalous in first century Palestine, but for Mary to do all four was unthinkable. Mary showed her extravagant love for Christ. “She took everything she possessed and spent it all on Jesus. Love is not love if it nicely calculates the cost” (Barclay). Mary knows the time is coming for Jesus to depart this world so she does not waste this rare opportunity to show her love for Christ while He is still with her. As a mystic, Mary makes the most of her time in the presence of God.

Miester Eckhart gives a wonderful explanation of the relationship between Martha and her younger sister Mary.
She (Martha) saw how Mary was possessed with a longing for her soul’s satisfaction. Martha knew Mary better than Mary knew Martha, for she had lived long and well, and life gives the finest understanding.

Martha knew what Mary was experiencing, but Martha had grown from being into doing.

     While some Christians may be more a missionary than a mystic, or vice a versa, we should all posses at least some traits of both Martha and Mary. As James 2:18-21 reminds us:
18But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds."
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
19You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[a]? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? (NIV)

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