Mary & Martha 'R Us

This is the 6th in our blog/podcast series of “On Further Reflection”. I’ve been exploring Jesus’ conversations with people as a way to learn more about how we may also converse with God. I’m inviting you on another imaginative journey exploring the lives of two of Jesus’ close friends. They have become binary examples of good and bad ways to engage Jesus, but I don’t believe that is fair or true.



 Our culture is dominated by extroverts and the introverts are undervalued – to our loss. This is the theme of Susan Cain’s bestselling book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. It struck a particular chord for me because one of her significant opinions is that North American religion is dominated by an extrovert culture as well.

 Cain believes that we have let an expressive style of communicating dominate our education, business and even community culture. We identify wisdom, leadership, character by force of personality and expression, not on the quality of our ideas. She lists some introverts who contributed so much to our culture – among them are Newton, Einstein, Yeats, Chopin, Proust, and Orwell.

 She says, “The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent – even though there’s zero correlation between the gift of the gab and good ideas.” (pg. 5)

 If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable in a welcoming, cheerful, church service where music, preaching and auditory and visual creativity comes at you in high definition and volume, you may have some level of introversion.

 Cain observes how we engage in spiritual and character formation practices and it is very applicable to our thoughts about conversations with Jesus in this blog. In her book Cain has a test to help us assess our place on the extrovert/introvert scale. My results showed me to be an “ominvert”. That isn’t illegal or fattening but it leaves me right in the middle. I often appear extroverted but have discovered a deep and growing need to feed my introvert side.


A friend from childhood recently told me that he has been surprised at my interest in quiet, contemplative prayer – “You seemed like the least likely candidate to be interested in, let alone an advocate for, this sort of spiritual expression.” He saw my extrovert persona but my need for quiet wasn’t so easily seen.

 We hunger for beauty, for goodness, for quiet moments of reflection. At the same time, we hunger for action, accomplishment and lots of noise and stimulus. Like the sisters in Jesus’ life we have a mixture of Mary and Martha tussling in our souls. It is different for each of us.

 So much of the longing is also for relationship with God in Jesus and with spouses, friends, colleagues and causes that reflect the presence of God in us and in the world. The speed and onslaught of information in our daily life mitigates against space for the very things that are at our core.

 In their own unique ways, the two sisters had deep but very different relationships with Jesus. They were his trusted friends, provided hospitality for him when he was most under attack and never seemed to lose their capacity for faith in him even when times were darkest.

 Jesus was at their home for dinner and Martha stomped around the kitchen, banging pots and pans in frustration as her sister sat enjoying quiet conversation with Jesus in the living room.


 On a retreat with some friends it was my turn to get dinner ready. They sat comfortably in conversation while I banged around in the kitchen. My brother called out “Does the banging of pots and pans mean our leader is annoyed with us?” That really ticked me off but he was right.

 The hilarious irony of it all was that we had a chef coming to prepare dinner and I was just straightening up the kitchen. The conversations among the others was exactly what I wanted to happen but I couldn’t see it because of my resentment that I was working alone.

 Let me invite you to explore the “fighting sisters” in our own inward journey and discover how they complement one another. They become healthy and fruitful contributors to our lives and that of our world. We need a mix of both because any attempt to become only one will lead to a stilted life.

 We have predispositions to be more or less introverted and reflective at different ages and stages of life but we will always have the competition between the “two sisters” in our inner journey. As individuals we have our own predispositions to one or the other and that is a good thing for us all. But to let only one tendency dominate completely also is unhealthy.

 Action without reflection is frenetic and often unprincipled and destructive. Reflection without action can become introverted, selfish and depressive. Both action and reflection need a centre from which to engage – and for me that center is Jesus. He will shape our character, inspire our integrity and give us eyes for serving the brokenness of the world in which he is already present.


 The story for which Mary and Martha are most famous is just one episode in their two or three years of friendship with Jesus. Seeing one episode in their lives as the only way to understand them is a trap we find ourselves in too frequently. Understanding Jesus out of one saying or one story really doesn't tell us much either. 

 In a Facebook world where so many are presenting their lives in episodic fashion, generally putting the best face on any experience creates a false image. Spending time in friendship through the dark and light moments of a lifetime of relationship creates a truer picture.

 There are many days when my darker side expresses itself. My “inside voice” may pop up and express something destructive or negative – but it isn’t the whole truth of who I am. It is a part of what is true but our lives wouldn’t produce the good fruit they often do if that was all we know of ourselves.

 This is true of understanding Jesus and his friends. Taking time to engage with them in all their variety teaches us much about Jesus, his friends and ourselves. In the story we are exploring right now, Mary had a good day and Martha a bad one.

 The story where Jesus tells Martha that Mary had made a better choice by sitting with him, needs to be put in a larger context. Perhaps for that one moment in time the choice was better and the pots could be banged later. But if you do a composite sketch of their recorded conversations, meals and miracles with Jesus, Martha demonstrates a remarkable strength for open conversation, immense faith and commanding hospitality in a hostile environment.


 When we are praying in this imaginative, meditative manner we are focusing on Jesus but we are also getting to know his friends, his enemies and the forces that are shaping the story. It takes time to see Mary and Martha in the different circumstances they face with Jesus involved. Listening to larger swathes of the gospels leads to a kind of immersion in the characters and a discovery, almost intuitively and naturally who they are.

 Jesus tells story after story, has innumerable conversations with women and men and with his Father. Becoming immersed in the stories shapes us differently than simple cognitive acquisition of knowledge – this shapes our character, our obedience, our freedom to love.

 The friends who mean most to us probably have shared many different stories in our experience of life together. We know them and they know us in ways that are natural, helpful and supportive. It is this long-term sort of relationship with Jesus and his friends that helps us in our understanding of ourselves and the God we serve.

 And now back to Mary and Martha. When their brother Lazarus became ill and died it was Martha who had the strength to find Jesus on his way to their town. Martha engages Jesus in conversation that combines elements of sorrow, accusation and powerful faith in the resurrection.

 She elicits Jesus’ powerful statement; “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” (John 11:25-26 NLT). Here she was, a woman in a culture that treated women as second-class citizens, engaging in one of the most powerful pronouncements of the mission of Christ.


 Martha is a strong character. She brings her sister to Jesus in her grief and together they experience their brother’s restoration to life from the grave. They operate differently, but at the core when they are operating at their best it is a thing of beauty.

 They host a dinner to celebrate Jesus’ relationship with them and to thank him for his miraculous intervention in their brother’s life. Martha is happily preparing and serving the meal while Lazarus sat at the table as the host of the celebration.

 And then the reflective Mary takes an expensive family resource, and annoying the onlookers, expresses her love and adoration for Jesus in dramatic fashion. She pours twelve ounces of costly perfume on his feet and dries them with her hair. Jesus silences the critics by telling them that Mary was preparing him for his burial – whether consciously or not she is as tuned in to Jesus’ mission as her sister but expresses it very differently. And in this case quite outside the introvert persona we have claimed for her.

 Back to the banging of pots and pans. Take some time to meditate on the story. What do you see, hear, experience?  Read it aloud a few times, slowly and let the sound of the words wash over you.  What is the atmosphere in the home? What household smells and sounds can you hear?

 “As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.” But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.””

Luke 10:38-42 NLT


 Imagine you are in the house, an extra guest. What is your impression of Jesus? Is he tired, smiling, relaxed in a chair? Allow yourself to become part of the story. Are you comfortable, welcome, not sure of yourself?

 One recent morning I was praying this story. I was sort of in the picture but I listened to the verbal and non-verbal exchanges that were happening. I began to smile at the siblings’ competitive nature.  My brother and I are very good friends but growing up we competed for fairness when pies or cakes were served. “He got a bigger piece than me” one of us always said even when the finest measuring tools could not have discovered a difference. It was a game but it had a serious side to it.

 I heard that echoing as I listened to the sounds and felt the atmosphere in the house. It wasn’t comfortable – tensions were building. But only in Martha. Mary seemed happy doing what she was doing – quietly listening to Jesus teach those of us in the room. I was a bit distracted though because Martha’s personality is strong, and the explosion seemed imminent.

At the same time, I was distracted as I prayed and my thoughts wandered to things on my “to do” list, concerns I had, frustrations I was feeling.

 We operate on so many levels in our journey with Jesus that I’m hopeful these podcasts will help bring some integration and connection for them all.

 And it all begins with our own conversation and response to Jesus’ invitation to follow him, to watch how he does things and engage the world as we are shaped by his presence and example in it all. Our inner journey, private devotions or whatever we choose to call it is not about escaping from reality into some safe little Harbour where there is no trouble or pain. We are responding and acting out of our deep longing for relationship with the God who loves us.


 “Oh, you want me to address my conversation in my journal to Jesus.”  This came over drinks with a prominent faith leader who is highly accomplished, successful as leader and public communicator. He only recently has been able to be quiet enough to truly experience the love of God in his conversations. He can study the gospels and understand the logical principles but has struggled to really engage Jesus in conversation.

 My first meeting with him elicited his painful experience that when he listened to gospel stories, even one full of Jesus’ compassion, he only heard condemnation. He is moving away from that in a healthy way and we discussed his journal practices which still stay in a propositional non-experiential mode.

 When I use my journal for prayer, I deliberately make it a conversation with God, even as I start with coffee in hand. I may review the previous days’ ups and downs, my own joys, sorrows, fears, envies or sins or just offer thanks. When I spend time in a gospel story, I continue this conversational mode by interacting with Jesus about what he is saying or doing. I tell him how he must be feeling in moments of attack, receptivity, anger in his audience or profound love from a recipient of his kindness and love. It helps me connect to him and after some silence I may even hear him respond.

 Listening in on Mary and Martha allow us freedom to express ourselves openly. “Jesus, it’s not fair that I am stuck doing this and someone else has an easier path”.  “Jesus, if you had showed up sooner, our brother would still be alive.”  These are two very common prayers which we have been trained to eliminate. They aren’t “spiritual” enough and yet they are exactly like the Psalms.

 God in Jesus allowed the wildest criticisms, calls for help, concerns about fairness and even received extravagant outpourings of love. This is something else that Mary and Martha teach us. Speaking with Jesus from the depths of our pain or in the midst of a joyful outburst of love is normal and healthy. Our conversations can include requests, expressions of confusion about Gods seeming absence in life or spontaneous gratitude for the blessings we have received.


 Take some time and browse the Mary & Martha stories in Luke 10 and John 11. Imitate whichever of them is closest to you but as you pray while sitting quietly or while banging pots and pans find the gentle God who wants to encourage you and offer courage to do good and walk in justice.

 Let me close with part of a prayer from A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie:

 Here I am, O God, humbly yours, lifting up my heart to you, before whom all created things are as dust and mist. You are hidden behind the curtain of our limited sight and hearing, incomprehensible in your greatness, mysterious in your almighty power; yet here I am speaking to you with the familiarity of a child to a parent, a friend to a friend. If I could not speak to you like this, then I would indeed be without hope in the world. I have little power to do or control anything; it is not my will that I am here or will one day pass away. Of all that will come to me today, very little will have been what I have chosen for myself.

 It is you, O hidden One, who has given me my heritage, and you determined the place of my birth. It is you who have given me the power to do one kind of work and have withheld the skill to do another. It is you who hold in your hand the threads of this day’s life and you alone who know what lies before me to do or to suffer. But because you are my Father, I am not afraid. Because it is your Spirit that stirs within my heart’s most secret room, I know that all is well. What I desire for myself I cannot achieve; but what you desire in me you can help me to achieve. That good I want to do, I fail to do, but you can give me the power to do good…. For Jesus’


Listen to the “On Further Reflection with Norm Allen” Podcast

I invite you to listen to “Mary & Martha ‘R Us”, and encourage you to share it with a friend or colleague.

Find it here on iTunes or below on SoundCloud