Today the Church remembers Mary, Martha and Lazarus, companions and friends of Jesus. The Anglican collect this morning reminds those praying it of the ways their love for each other was shown, and the ways Jesus revealed God’s love and God’s life to them.
“God our Father,
whose Son enjoyed the love of his friends,
Mary, Martha and Lazarus,
in learning, argument and hospitality:
may we so rejoice in your love
that the world may come to know
the depths of your wisdom, the wonder of your compassion,
and your power to bring life out of death;
through the merits of Jesus Christ,
our friend and brother,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.”
The emphasis on love picks up on a theme in the Biblical passages which mention Mary, Martha and Lazarus. When Lazarus was dangerously ill, “the sisters sent a message to Jesus. ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’” When Jesus arrived and was met by Mary saying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”, the Gospel notes “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply loved” before stating famously “Jesus wept.”
As many commentators have pointed out, Jesus’ subsequent raising of Lazarus back to life is not presented in John’s Gospel as a simple solution to the inconvenience of mortality, just as Jesus’ own death is not an easy piece of divine sleight-of-hand. Jesus’ own grief, which comes from his love, is related as a real part of his identity. This prayer suggests that it is through love that God can be discerned, and that wisdom, compassion and power will be understood via love.
It also has an echo of 1 John’s declaration that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them”, and here that love is presented as more (and more difficult) than a general warm benevolence: it is found in specific personal relationships. There’s also an implication that the love which the four people shared could show something about the nature of God.
The mention of “argument” in the description of how that loved was shared is striking, even jarring. It might seem out of place for a celebration of the friends’ time together to mention arguing (it certainly made me pause in prayers this morning.) But the other famous story (alongside the raising of Lazarus) involving these figures appears in Luke’s Gospel and does involve an argument:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
This was the Gospel reading for the Sunday service a couple of weeks ago, and both Twitter and pulpits were full of discussions about what this passage suggests for our lives. One of the crucial details (as many scholars note) is that Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet”: this is more than a cliché implying that she listened very quietly and humbly. It’s a reference to the traditional position of a rabbi and their student, where the favoured listener could hear and repeat back the teachings being given, as well as asking questions or making objections. (I’ve mentioned this elsewhere when writing about Margaret of Scotland.) When Paul came to assert his scholarship in the Jewish Law, he used the same phrase, declaring that he had “sat at the feet of Gamaliel” and knowing that his readers would understand the implication that he was an accepted and respected student.
This kind of teaching was highly verbal, and probably involved statements, repetitions, dialectic and debate. Certainly the form in which the teachings of the later rabbis have been recorded are highly focused around discussion and disagreement. A quick skim through my copy of Norman Solomon’s selections from the Talmud provides a mass of phrases such as “With whom does this observation made by Rav Hanan bar Rabba in Rav’s name agree?…With whom? With none of them! Clearly, Rabbi Josiah disagrees with both Rav Huna and Rav Hanan bar Rabba”… “An objection was raised to Rabbi Ammi’s view”… “”Abbaye said to him, ‘If that is so…’”
So the “argument” mentioned in the prayer would have been part of the process of learning and coming closer to wisdom, which was made possible by Mary’s studies with Jesus. Shai Cherry uses the phrase “holy vacillations, the give and take of Talmud Torah” to describe the active kind of discussion which the rabbinic tradition prizes. There is another argument, though, in the passage I quoted, when Martha complains to (and even criticizes) Jesus: “she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her…”
Here I think “argument” has another significance, and one which places Martha in a long line of figures who disputed with God. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles at night with a mysterious figure who refuses to reveal his own name, but who tells him “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have striven with God”. Abraham disputes with God verbally in Genesis 18, declaring “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”, and arguing God down on the number of righteous people needed to save the cities. In some Jewish readings of the story of Noah, he is presented as morally failing because he did not attempt to argue God out of sending the Flood, but agreed that his was the only family worth saving.
So Martha’s words to Jesus can be read as part of this long tradition of “striving with God”, revealing him as God and her actions as a continuation of the Old Testament tradition. The unexpected mention of “argument” in the relationships between the four may open up a much more profound reading of their time together than just squabbling between friend. Like their love, it might have deep theological significance.
Nancy Wallace said:
Thank you for this very helpful post. I had not previously thought about Martha as part of the long tradition of ‘striving’ or arguing with God. I’ve just added an update to my post on the same topic with a link recommending people to read your post.
I’m glad you found it interesting – it was really just an attempt to work out why the prayer was worded that way.
An interestingly original interpretation of the Luke passage was given by the medieval theologian Meister Eckhart. He said that Martha was more spiritually advanced than Mary, because she could carry an awareness of God into daily life whereas Mary wasn’t yet able to. By saying that she’s chosen what’s better, Jesus was saying to Mary that she will become like Martha:
“Martha was afraid her sister would remain clinging to consolation and sweetness, and she wished her to become as she herself was. This is why Christ said, “She has chosen the best part,” as if to say, “Cheer up, Martha; this will leave her. The most sublime thing that can happen to a creature shall happen to her: She shall become as happy as you”
That’s intriguing – thanks for sharing it!