Practical Dreamers

The Mary-Martha Complex

Colin Gibson


Colin Gibson's sermon, given at our Mornington Church on July 19, raises interesting questions about
traditional perceptions of Mary & Martha. It also contains an illuminating quote from U.A.Fanthorpe's poem, "Unauthorised Version."


When Jesus reached the scatter of houses that formed the small village of Bethany, the group of disciples at once knew where he was heading. The home of Lazarus, and his two sisters, Martha and Mary. They were all friends from way back, and Bethany, still a village just under two miles from Jerusalem, was a convenient stopover for the traveling group, hot and dusty from a long day’s walking.

Jesus knocks on the door, and there is Martha, delighted to see them all. ‘Come in, come in’, she says. ‘Something to drink and eat? You look as though you need it.’ They all crowd in, and several of them sit down wherever there’s a place. How good to get off their feet!

That was when Mary comes into the room and Martha head for the kitchen. ‘Now you talk to them while I go and get something ready in the kitchen. A drink, first, perhaps?’ she says to her sister.

It was all perfectly normal; just the way it always is when a friend comes calling. Just the way it was on Wednesday afternoon, when I was beginning to get this sermon prepared and in walked an old family friend, to hare some time with us and catch up on the news. I checked what she wanted to drink—a coffee in her case—and retired to the kitchen, leaving my wife Jeanette to get on with the conversation. When I came back with a tray loaded with three coffees and a plate of biscuits, how easy it was to imagine the room in the little house at Bethany, crowded, filled with talk, and Martha out there getting it all ready for a dozen or more hungry, thirsty, tired people.

Who remembered what happened next, long enough for it to become one of the stories told about Jesus, passed on into the communities that later recorded every precious memory? I reckon it was Martha: wouldn’t you remember a rebuke from a dear friend who later died? She couldn’t have written it down; village women weren’t taught to write. But somehow, years later (perhaps 80 years later), the story reached Luke the Greek, who set it down in his orderly, tidy way, as part of his record of ‘the events that were fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us from those who from the beginning were the earliest eyewitnesses and servants of the Word’ Luke 1: 1-4). ‘Eyewitness and servant of the Lord’: that could be an exact description of Martha.


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. And Jesus answered and said unto her, ‘Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part.’ (King James Bible)

I doubt that Jesus could ever have imagined what later generations would make of that moment. Hungry for significance in every action and word that fell from Jesus’ lips —after all, he was the Son of God, wasn’t he?—they constructed the story as a lesson in correct religious behaviour.

It became all so clear, especially to church communities where men were beginning to take over, and assign women a subordinate role. The sisters were each given a symbolic status: they were to signify how all women were to be seen—and hadn’t Jesus turned a co-operative sisterhood, a perfectly normal ‘you do the talking while I get a cup of tea’ relationship, into a rank order of value? Quiet, adoring, listening Mary: that’s how women should be. Busy, over-worked Martha, interrupting her sister’s soul-to-soul encounter with Jesus with her plea for a hand in the kitchen: that was at best—second-best. Surely Mary belonged to the world of the spiritual: hers was ‘the better part’. Martha belonged to the active life (which we might describe as ordinary living); hers was the undervalued part. Human life neatly divided into opposites: absolute opposites. Hadn’t Jesus said so? And that became the authorized version.

Mary would become the model for Christian nuns leaving the ordinary world behind for devotion and contemplation— for listening to Jesus. Martha would become the model for housewives and home-keepers: preoccupied with the cares of the ordinary; just a cheerful, hard-working hospitable soul.

Both women were awarded sainthoods by medieval Christians. Mary—soon confused with several other Marys mentioned in the gospels—has her feast day on 22 July. Her symbol is a pot of ointment; she is the patron saint of repentant sinners and of the contemplative life. Martha is the patron saint of housewives and lay sisters. Her symbol is a ladle, a broom or a bunch of keys. (Though if you’re a fan of Martha you’ll be glad to know that she sometimes appears in paintings with a dragon, which according to a Provencal legend she tamed, by sprinkling the ferocious beast with holy water and throwing her sash over its head.) Her feast is on the 29th of July.

But listen now to another version of the same event, told by a modern woman, the first woman to be nominated for the position of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University for 315 years. U. A. Fanthorpe calls her poem ‘Unauthorised Version’; she imagines Mary talking about her sister Martha and what Josh said to her (remember that Jesus’ name is a form of Joshua). Fanthorpe is an English poet, so her Mary talks in an ordinary English voice.


Of course he meant it kindly. I know that.
I know Josh—as well as anyone can know
The Son of God. All the same, he slipped up
Over this one. After all, a Son is only a son
When you come to think about it. And this
Was between sisters. Marty and me,
We understand each other. For instance, when Lazzie died,
We didn't need to spell it out between us,
Just knew how to fix the scenario
So Josh could do his bit—raising Lazzie, I mean,
From the dead. He has his own way of doing things,
Has to muddle people first, so then the miracle
Comes as a miracle. If he'd just walked in
When Lazzie was iII, and said OK, Lazzie,
You're off the sick list now — that'd have lacked impact.
But all this weeping, and groaning, and moving of stones,
And praying in public, and Mart saying I believe, etcetera,
Then Lazarus, come forth! and out comes Lazzie
In his shroud. Well, even a halfwit could see
Something out of the ordinary was going on.
But this was just ordinary. A lot of company,
A lot of hungry men, not many helpers,
And Mart had a go at me in front of Josh,
Saying I'm all on my own out there. Can't you
Tell that sister of mine to take her finger out,
And lend a hand? Well, the thing about men is,
They don't realise how temperamental good cooks are.
And Mart is very good. Believe you me.
She was just blowing her top. No harm in it.
I knew that. But then Josh gives her
This monumental dressing-down, and really,
It wasn't fair. The trouble with theology is, it features
Too much miraculous catering. Those ravens feeding Elijah,
For instance. I ask you! They'd have been far more likely
To eat him. And all those heaven-sent fast-food take-aways—
Quail, and manna, and that. And Josh himself
The famous fish-butty picnic, and that miraculous
Draught of fishes. What poor old Mart could have done with
Was a miraculous draught of coffee and sandwiches
Instead of a ticking-off. And the men weren't much help.
Not a thank you among them, and never a thought
Of help with the washing-up.
Don't get me wrong. Of course I love Josh,
Wonder, admire, believe. He knows I do.
But to give Marty such a rocket
As if she was a Pharisee, or that sort of type,
The ones he has it in for. It wasn't right.
Still, Josh himself, as I said—well, he is only
The Son of God, not the Daughter; so how could he know?
And when it comes to the truth, I'm Marty's sister.
I was there; I heard what was said, and
I knew what was meant. The men will write it up later
From their angle, of course. But this is me, Mary,
Setting the record straight.
‘Unauthorised version’, From U.A.Fanthorpe, Collected Poems 1978-2003, (Calstock, Cornwall: Peterloo Poets, 2005)

One of the things that comes across powerfully for me from the poem is the natural flow of sympathy between the two women. Mary is fighting the very distinction that Luke and later Christians made so much of. These are women, sisters, united against the posturing of men, valuing each other’s abilities, loving and believing in ‘Josh’, then getting on with washing up the dishes.

If I need to draw out a moral lesson from all of this it would be simply that anyone of us may be the one; we are all special for the unique person we are; in the eyes of God we are no more beloved or important for our deeply spiritual nature, than we are for our instinct for practical and loving service to others.

And if I read her correctly, the biblical Martha shows us—and Fanthorpe’s Mary hints—that every human being is a mixture of natural piety and practicality; there are times for all of us when we respond deeply to the world of the spirit, other times when we are caught up in the practicalities of daily living.

The same Martha who interrupted her sister and ‘got a ticking off’ from Jesus comes fully alive in this way in John’s account of the raising of Lazarus (11: 1-45). When she hears Jesus is coming to their house she it is who rushes out to greet him, leaving her sister paralysed with grief at home. Later Mary does the weeping; Martha does the asking for help. Martha worries about the stench of a four-day-old corpse (she’s a realist); but it is her steady faith in the afterlife that draws forth Jesus’ s famous declaration, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ and Martha’s simple and profound response to Jesus’s question, Do you believe this?’ is ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God, come into the world.’

At that moment, Martha is the one—the big surprise to us and probably to herself—but I reckon it was also she who took her brother home, and tidied him up and gave him a cup of tea. We are all Marthas—some of us are Marys—so pamper your spiritual side if you haven’t nourished it lately; and roll up your sleeves and wash the dishes if you are too inclined to dream.





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