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a modern Martha gets to work

As long as work – even work for the Lord – takes precedence over time spent with the Lord, we will lose our bearings

In the parable of the prodigal son, it is fascinating to see how many people, on reading the story, feel a bond not with the wanton son but with the elder dutiful sibling who remains behind and believes he is taken for granted. In the same way, many read the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10: 38-42) and instinctively side with Martha. Family history may have something to do with this. We recall the sibling with a PhD in freeloading, who always found a reason not to wash up after the meal or would leave clothes lying where they had taken them off, imperiously waiting for others to pick them up.


Is there any way of reclaiming the story of Mary and Martha for the over-scheduled person who glances sideways longingly at those who always seem to be unhurried and in the right place at the right time?

Part of the problem with this story is the way we approach it. In today’s febrile culture of activity, a life worth living is one full of movement and noise. The old Protestant work ethic, where people responded to the grace of God with a life of industry and good works has been stripped of its spiritual underpinning but re-fitted for today’s secular world. In wider society, the grace of God no longer features and the moral value of work is located largely in whether people pay taxes properly or claim benefits legitimately. We criticise those who show no inclination to work hard, which can lead to an unhealthy position where even those who work feel the burden to work harder and those who have no duty to work feel the need to say their lives are too busy whether they are or not. As Christian perceptions of work become dimmer across our culture, a more unforgiving and dishonest view has taken hold.


The way this story of Mary and Martha speaks into our culture is to tell it that waiting on God is a valid form of work. In listening to Jesus, Mary hadn’t exactly picked up the Sky remote to see what was recorded on planner as she uncorked a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to help her unwind. She had placed herself in a position where she could listen to what Jesus had to say in the intimate setting of a home. How many of us would grasp an opportunity physically to sit next to Jesus, to learn from him and share our deepest aspirations? How many of us would leave the housework and emails until later, to make the most of such a gift? The answer is, probably, all of us. It is funny then, how we treat the presence of Jesus with us at all times today in the opposite way, with such carelessness if not disdain. And so we see ourselves as Martha, not Mary. Work – even work for the Lord – takes precedence mostly over time spent with the Lord.


The story is usually interpreted in individual terms but it is worth asking yourselves the question which of these two characters – Mary or Martha – your own church is more closely allied to. Is yours a church which waits on God or a church which runs around Jesus doing stuff while he waits for you?


There are mitigating circumstances for Martha churches, no doubt, and here are some of them. We are activist because it has been forced on us by a declining volunteer base and fewer resources. Peretti’s principle seems to apply, where twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work. Our historic buildings, so admired by the wider community, are nevertheless left for us to care for and pay for as they age, meaning we spend more time and money on maintenance than mission; more time as Martha than Mary.


As the Church of England shrinks nationally, we feel the burden of filling our churches. If we are not careful, this becomes more out of concern for appearances than out of care for those who do not know how much God loves them. The work of the Gospel is challenging, and it is understandable that people feel doing something is better than doing nothing at any one moment, but a deeper audit is needed in our churches if we are to be true to our calling and fruitful in the ministry God has set us.


Psalm 84 was written by someone with a heart for waiting on God, who knew the blessings of resting in his presence: ‘a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere’ (verse 10). There is a longing for God and a delight in his presence that feels like young, intoxicating love, where we cannot bear to be apart from a lover and where time seems to stop when we embrace them again.


Christians and the churches they inhabit do not waste time waiting on God in prayer and worship. They offer God the devotion he is owed. They also find a new sense of poise and purpose in their work. Some of this they are conscious of: there may be a greater clarity in decision making, perhaps. Some of this they are not conscious of. In verse 6 of Psalm 84, it says of those who come from resting in the presence of God that ‘as they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs.’ An incidental detail of journeying through the day produces incalculable yet incidental blessings for those we pass. It is impossible to place a value on this kind of unconscious ministry, but it only comes from living like Mary rather than Martha.


Work still has to be done; pragmatic and organised Martha was right about that and could probably teach Mary a thing or two. But we don’t need to tell the world around us about the importance of working hard and staying on top of things because it is gripped by this impulse. The distinctive thing we offer is a rich and unquenchable source of grace and peace in the presence of God. Do our churches model Mary to their parishes? Do they have the courage to wait while others bolt at the sound of the starting pistol?

Anglicans begin their Eucharistic Prayers with the response:

The Lord is here

to which our actual response is:

We’d better get cracking then

That the real response is:

His Spirit is with us

suggests something very important about waiting in the presence of royalty before being commissioned for the role of ambassador. As we rediscover this, a new way of being Church is unfolded for all to aspire to.



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