Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Plea for Martha

Martha is up against Therese of Lisieux today in the first round of Lent Madness and I am completely partisan, having done the write-up for Martha (and as a big, big fan of hers). The Plea for Martha is not my own, however, but that of the Interpreter's Bible (1952), of which I am also a big, big fan. I mention one snip from this exposition in the Lent Madness write-up, but it is transcribed in full below.

The exposition is by Arthur John Gossip (1873-1954) who deserves a write-up of his own. He was a minister of the Free Church of Scotland and was a chaplain with the Glasgow Highlanders in WWI. He later served as professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Glasgow from 1939-1945.

N.B.: I'm not responsible for the "weaker nature" comments about Mary. Remember: the author is a 70-year-old Scotsman, born in the 1870's. I'm simply happy to share him as a fellow Martha fan. Enjoy. And vote for Martha!

Commentary on John 11:1-2
A Plea for Martha. -- Although in these verses Mary is mentioned first, as if she were the more important, everywhere else throughout the narrative precedence is given to Martha, who would appear to have been the eldest of the family, as Lazarus almost certainly was the youngest; and indeed, in Luke  10:38 we are told that the house was hers.

As the records unfold themselves in the N.T., it seems that we are obviously meant to regard Mary as the finer of the sisters. Yet, obstinately and distinctly, may not one prefer Martha as being both the stronger character and the more likable as well? She looks at us out of the pages, a curiously vivid personality; downright, honest, practical, unselfish; a little flustered at times, it may be, by the lesser rubs of life, but in a major crisis splendidly and unshakably calm and steady-eyed. While Mary is of a softer and much more emotional type, apt to be swept away into extravagances of mood and action, a little trying surely for those round her. Thus, although Martha is obviously deeply wounded by her brother's death, an iron self-restraint allows no outward show of feeling; which terrible silence is as a rule the sign and proof of the most poignant grief of all. "I tell you hopeless grief is passionless." [E.S. Purcell, Life of Cardinal Manning (New York: The Macmillan Co, 1896), I 123.] When Manning lost his dearest, "Do not speak to me," he said, "I can just bear it when I keep quite quiet." But Mary's weaker nature could and did find relief in recurrent bursts of passionate weeping (vss. 31,33).

Again, Martha is much the abler of the sisters. When she meets Christ (vss. 20-27), there is something vastly impressive in the stanchness [sic] of her loyalty, and the depth and reach and stability of her faith. Whereas Mary says nothing, except to repeat that cry of the heart, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died," which Martha had already used; making one feel that the two desolate souls had often said to one another in the days of waiting, "Oh, if only he were here!" Martha it is who does things needing to be done, who takes command of sudden situations, who meets emergencies and sees them through, who spends herself for others. And if, in Luke 10:40, distracted with much serving, with half a hundred things to see to, hot and rushed and bustled that their guest might lack for nothing, she allows herself to be irritated because her younger sister, cool and at her ease, seems to have no wish to lend a hand in what she must know has to be done, but sits there drinking in what Christ was saying, oblivious of the fact that her sister was missing it all, had she not a right to be annoyed? She too would have preferred to listen. But someone had to get the meal prepared and think of the guest's comfort. And so Martha forgot herself and did it. Yet she was surprised at her sister; and so are we.

No doubt our Lord's surely smiling half rebuke implies that this willing energetic soul was almost fussy in her kindness, as such good people can be, and a little overwhelming in her determination to give her very best and do all that was in her power. Still, in comparison with Martha's thoughtfulness for others, Mary seems selfish, or at least self-absorbed, now in her own grief, now in her own spiritual profiting. And one can be as selfish about spiritual things as about anything else. And Martha was not selfish. Neither at home nor at Simon the leper's, could she sit still, letting others serve, but had to be up and about, in and out of the kitchen; again, on thinks, perhaps a little fidgety and fussy, but actively helpful. And when the Master reached her house of mourning and she went out to meet him, much as it mattered to her to be with him, she did not keep him to herself, but broke away to call her sister, that Mary too might miss nothing of Jesus Christ, the sister who, on her side, could sit so absorbed in listening to him that she forgot Martha altogether!

In any case, it is Martha, and not Mary, who is the patron saint of this generation; she, and not the other, who represents the type of goodness which we can understand and which we would like to reproduce. To our shame be it spoken, we have small aptitude for contemplation, and not much liking for communion with the Master in the hush and secret of his presence; and, compared with our forefathers, not much zeal in prayer. But we would fain be helpful to our fellow men, and long to leave a saner and more brotherly world behind us. [yes, yes, forefathers, men, brotherly. 1950's.] If Christ can accept that from us, we are ready to offer it. All of which may to some appear rootless and superficial. Yet the tests Christ gives us, whereby the value of our faith and lives is to be assessed at his judgment seat, are dreadfully practical. Not how much time we spent in prayer, but what came of our prayers in actual unselfishness and helpfulness to others; not simply what did we believe, but did these beliefs of ours compel us to spend our lives for those who needed kindliness and succor. That is the note that constantly rings out in the N.T, e.g., in the epistles of John, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death....If any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth" (I John 3:14, 17-18). "He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also" (I John 4:20-21).

In any case, it is written that Jesus loved Martha. And no more is said of Mary. And indeed what better could be said?

Interpreter's Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1952). Volune 8 "Luke, John," pp. 636-637.

Go team Martha!


Anonymous said...

Bully, bully for Martha!!

Unknown said...


Lucille Alonzo said...

Dear Laura, I love your writeups. We oldtimers at Christ Church Rochester are so proud to say, we knew you when! Martha could certainly be the patron saint for female deacons.... I do think that Jesus rebuked Martha, the first time she entertained him, for trying to earn his love by being the perfect hostess, while Mary (who had possibly already been healed by Jesus and brought him and his disciples for an unannounced visit?) already knew that Jesus loved her unconditionally. Once Martha understood that Jesus loved her, she was free to be her outspoken self - and to serve in response to that love, instead of trying to earn it! Lucy

LKT said...

Lucy! How wonderful to hear from you. And what a terrific comment -- yes, I think that's true. Our essential nature stays the same while being transformed, healed, and freed from whatever binds us.

Give my love to everyone at Christ Church!