St Bride's: Sermons

Mary and Martha

Luke 10: 38-42

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38 Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.

39 And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word.

40 But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.

41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

Mary and Martha
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I wonder if you have ever done one of those personality tests, the psychometric questionnaires designed to measure how we perceive the world and make decisions. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or the Enneagram, or any of the other profiling tests and systems that employers and headhunters and even the church now seem to use all the time in interview and selection processes.

The MBTI system is based on the work of Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst who said that there are four basic psychological functions by which we experience the world - sensation and intuition, (irrational, perceiving functions), feeling and thinking (rational judging functions) and that in each person one of these four functions is dominant most of the time and is expressed primarily in either an extroverted or an introverted form.

From this basic premise Isabel Myers and Katharine Briggs, working during World War II, proposed 16 possible psychological types which are referred to by an abbreviation of four letters: for instance you might be an ESTJ (extraversion, sensing, thinking, judgement) or an INFP (introversion, intuition, feeling, perception).

If you are as ESTJ, you are a hard working traditionalist, a born organiser, orderly, abiding by the rules, conscientious. You like to get things done and you like structure and predictability.

If, on the other hand, you are an INFP, you are an idealist, you pursue truth and meaning, you are sensitive, individualistic, non-judgemental, unconcerned with deadlines and the needs of the diary, perhaps a bit of a dreamer.

And so on through the other 14 types. You can see on the chart the full range and a title that sums up each personality type. It's fun to decide which type best fits your personality, but like all these tests, it's not an exact science, only an indicator of the sort of personality you are.

Luke, in our Gospel reading, give us a snapshot of two such contrasting types, in the incident at Bethany at the house of Martha and Mary. Martha is busy in the kitchen, bustling in and out, getting the meal ready for Jesus and his friends. Mary, her sister sits at the feet of Jesus rapt in attention to his words, oblivious to the tasks that need to be done. And Martha is more than a bit fed up with Mary and she lets her irritation show.

Now, we probably all know a Martha and a Mary amongst our acquaintances. They more or less correspond to the personality types I have just mentioned: ESTJ - hard working organiser, conscientious, liking structure. That's Martha. And INFP, an idealist, individualistic, unorganised, a bit of a dreamer. That's Mary.

Sometimes, as with Martha, you just want to say 'for goodness sake just stop your busyness, sit down and talk to me!' And, as with Mary, 'It's all very well us having this wonderful conversation, but how about putting the kettle on because I'm dying for a cup of tea!'

In the Christian tradition, Martha and Mary have been seen as models of the 'active' and 'contemplative' styles of spirituality with the implication that Mary has chosen the better part, that the life of prayer and contemplation is the superior Christian option. Actually, Jesus' remark that  Mary has chosen the better part is meant to underscore balance - Jesus is saying in the midst of busy lives, sometimes stop what you're doing and reclaim your still centre. What's it all for? How does your life fit into the larger picture? If we're all Martha's, we are in danger of burning ourselves out: if we're all Mary's, then so many good important and worthwhile things go undone.

The Gospel calls us to find balance in our lives. So if we identify ourselves as a certain personality type - say an outgoing organising activist, it's important to see that this is only a snapshot at a point in time. We all need to develop elements of other types to become fully rounded people. All Marthas need to play Mary's role in their lives and vice versa. Mary and Martha are not opposites, and we should not separate them. They are, if you like, the yin and yang of a balanced spiritual life.

So be active, be involved, be a doer of good works as Martha undoubtedly was, but always remember to cultivate your inner Mary, the reflective side of your personality, because the one thing necessary as Jesus reminds us Martha's is to be open and prepared for mystery, for the presence of God in your life and to respond. Amen.

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