St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Mary and Martha

Sermon Preached by Fr Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 21, 2010

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. 

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We all know the story of Jesus’ first visit to the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Jesus is invited to the house, Martha is busy doing what a good Middle Eastern hostess would do, she is serving mazza and, more than likely preparing a nice meal for their special guest. Her sister Mary is sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus listening to his words attentively.

At first all was going well.  Everything was going as planned until Martha became angry at her sister because she was not helping in the kitchen!  St. John tells us that Martha become so worked up that she lashed out, in a classic passive/aggressive way, at Jesus!  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me serve alone?  Therefore, tell her to help me!” 

I can see myself doing in her place, veins popping out, hands flailing around, gesticulating like a madman to emphasize the point.  There were far better ways to ask for a little help than to blow up the party and lambast the guest of honor!

What was the cause of Martha’s anger?  Was it the behavior of her sister?  Was it Jesus’ lack of concern?  Was it the amount of work? No, it was none of those things.  The cause of distress is never outside of us, it comes from within.  St. John tells us what went wrong in a few short words: “But Martha was distracted with much serving.”  Jesus says to her, “Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things.  Only one thing is needful.”  Martha tried to do two contradictory things at the same time: serving Jesus and herself!  Remember what Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.”  The difference between the sisters was simple. Martha got distracted.  Mary did not.

Distracted from what?  Distracted from serving.  She turned her attention from the needs of her guest to her own needs. Her original, and good, intent to serve Jesus turned into an impassioned attempt to serve herself. She made herself the center of attention.  To do so she was willing to humiliate both Jesus and her sister.  Out came those colorful tail feathers for everyone to see!  What a demonstration it must have been! She ended up making a fool of herself.  Had she not gotten distracted and had stayed focused on serving, Jesus would have said to her as he did to Mary, “Martha, Martha you have found the good portion which shall not be taken away from you.” No one would have suffered.

Now, of course, we would be naïve to think that the two types of behavior were not part of the sisters’ personalities.  More than likely, Mary had a contemplative kind of personality and probably had to be prodded a bit to get off her derrière and do a little housework.  Martha’s tendency probably leaned toward the workaholic side. Neither are bad.  Both are important qualities in reasonable doses. As always, balance is best.  Too much of one means lazy and too much of the other means crazy, neither of which makes for good company.  Remember when their brother Lazarus died and Mary was first to meet Jesus when they heard he was coming?  I’ll bet dimes to dollars, Mary was sitting around moping and Martha was cooking up and storm and cleaning house.  They were probably ready to kill each other!  Everybody needs a little transformation.

Usually, commentators say that this story demonstrates the difference between the admirable contemplative life and the slightly less admirable active life.  I disagree.  I think it is a call for focus and balance. All of life is mean to be spiritual and can be if done with singleness of mind.  Both contemplation and activity are necessary and good, two sides of a single coin called “the spiritual life”.  Most of us do not have the option of sitting around being contemplative all the time.  I have news for you.  Neither do contemplatives!  Balance is necessary for everyone. Everybody has work to do.  Even hermits straighten up their caves! It is how we pray and how we work that matters.  In fact, our Orthodox faith sees all of life as spiritual.

If we live with conscious awareness, keeping our minds still and attentive, everything takes on a truly spiritual dimension.  Try it.  You’ll see.  Stay concentrated on whatever you are doing and all of sudden prayer begins to happen.  God reveals himself as present when we become present.  As one spiritual writer has said, “Stay present and you will run into the Presence.”  Whether contemplating or working or playing we can, through mindfulness, wed ourselves to God.

It is essential to have times of meditation and prayer everyday.  It is like lifting weights to build up a specific set of muscles.  When we work out a few days a week over time the other dimensions of life are affected as well.  But it works the other way around too.  If we focus attentively to the everyday things we have to do deliberately and consistently, over time, when we come to pray or work we discover that we do a better job.  Contemplation and activity are really two sides of the same coin.  Whatever we are doing we need to remember that it is “the one needful thing” at that very moment.  Life becomes prayer and prayer becomes life and we become prayer itself rather than just pray-ers.

The instruction of St. Paul to “pray without ceasing” begins to make more sense this way.  It actually becomes doable for all of us.