We heard from the 1 Corinthians text (1 Cor 12:3-13) that as Christians we are given different Gifts, Services, and activities. Here today, we are sisters in Christ. Women called by God, gifted by the Holy Spirit, and active in ministry. Sisters, on a common journey. Sisters, each having been given by the Spirit, some of these manifestations of the Spirit, for the common good.
As we come to our scripture in Luke 10:38-42 today, we find Jesus and his disciples traveling to the village of Bethany, where two sisters, Martha and Mary lived. Jesus knows and loves Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus, whom we meet over in the book of John chapter 11. Martha, is the sister who takes charge of organizing and preparing the fellowship dinners both here in Luke’s gospel and over in John’s gospel, and Martha is the one who invites Jesus to come and stay at her house.
It is no surprise to us that Martha, the sister who knows how to get things done, is the one who reaches out and offers hospitality to Jesus, and takes up the challenge of preparing dinner for Jesus and his group of disciples. Martha is organized, detail oriented, punctual, successful. Every committee chairperson at the local house church wanted Martha on their committee. She knows how to cook, find a good deal on craigslist, wash the clothes, balance the checkbook, supervise the people doing the yard, barter at the market, and hold a garage sale, probably all on the same day with the right help. If we could give Martha a quick test to see which of the four personality types she is, should would probably be what is called a powerful choleric.
Powerful cholerics get more done than the other temperaments. They exhibit a take-charge attitude early in life, and are born leaders. They also straighten the pictures hanging in other people’s houses, and, if you are standing next to one, they will straighten your collar if it is tucked under.
One time, a powerful choleric was in the kitchen helping a friend with the dishes, when she noticed the silver was all mixed up in the silverware drawer. She dumped out the drawer and organized it, sorting all the pieces into the proper compartments. When her friend came in, she exclaimed, “ooh! now I see why those trays have all those little sections!” Powerful cholerics fix things.
Powerful cholerics naturally see the practical answers to life’s problems and can’t imagine why no one else has come up with the right idea. They are masters at quick, practical organization. If you go to visit a friend who is a powerful choleric, expect her to be polishing, rearranging, folding, or cleaning the kitchen while you are chatting. And, if you tell a powerful choleric that something is impossible, it just whets their appetite.
A powerful choleric named Joe had a wife named Lorna. Lorna figured Joe out. Whenever Joe would ignore a certain household task on his honey-do list, she would say “Your mother was over yesterday, and I told her that you were going to hang those curtains.” Your mother said “Why, Joe doesn’t know how to do that!” Guess what? Joe got right up and proved he knew how to hang those curtains.
So, Martha, our powerful choleric, has invited Jesus into her home. All she needs to do is get dinner ready. Dinner for Jesus, her and her sister Mary and brother Lazarus, and all those disciples who are traveling with Jesus. That is quite a lot of mouths to feed. There is a lot to be done. And Martha knows just how to organize it. Her sister Mary is there and between the two of them they can do it.
Wait. Where is Mary? Mary, whom Martha had expected to help her manage the kitchen? She is daring to sit in there at Jesus feet, where disciples sit, and she is listening to him teach.
If we were to give Mary our personality test, she would probably be a peaceful phlegmatic. Peaceful phlegmatics make great friends. They are easygoing, relaxed, calm, cool, well balanced, patient, consistent, peaceful, inoffensive, and pleasant. What more could we ask for in a sister? A peaceful phlegmatic always has time for you.
I heard about a peaceful phlegmatic friend who was a great mom to her several kids, but housework was not a high priority. If a friend dropped by in the middle of the morning, the kitchen table would still have the cereal bowls, the open boxes, and the milk from breakfast. The friends would sit down, push the breakfast debris to one side, making room for their elbows, and enjoy each other’s company. The mess just didn’t bother her.
Martha’s sister, Mary, is a peaceful phlegmatic. She is able to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching, and the fact that dinner needs to be prepared just doesn’t bother her. On her schedule for the day, helping Martha and listening to Jesus are not conflicting events. Right now Jesus is teaching, and she is listening, and that is all that matters.
Remember how the story goes from there? Martha, who focuses on getting organized and getting things done, becomes frustrated with her sister Mary whose focus at that moment is on listening and spending time with Jesus, their guest. When Martha asks Jesus for help in getting Mary into the kitchen, Jesus tells Martha that she is the one who is distracted and Mary is the one who is focused correctly in that moment.
Now, this is disturbing. We expect Jesus to affirm the sister who welcomes them into her home and prepares all that is needed to make them comfortable. Our instincts tell us that Mary should help her sister. Our instincts also tell us that Jesus should not lament over Martha wanting her sister to help with preparing dinner. If Martha is a bit distracted by her many tasks, who among us wouldn’t be distracted and busy with a houseful of guests? And, why does Jesus add insult to injury by praising Mary for choosing “the better part?” This story is disturbing.
Perhaps this story calls us to look a little deeper at ourselves. To look a little deeper at the parts of our personality that often causes us to stumble in relationships with God and with each other.
Powerful cholerics like Martha, you see, feel guilty when they are not getting something done. One of the hardest disciplines for a powerful choleric is to keep from trying to fix everyone else’s problems. If taken to extremes, the powerful choleric can be bossy, controlling, and manipulative. Martha could get so focused on getting dinner ready and wanting to fix Mary that she neglects to hear Jesus’ teaching on that day.
Peaceful phlegmatics like Mary resist change, often procrastinate, and yet have a quiet will of iron. Once a peaceful phlegmatic makes a decision, there is little hope of changing it. If taken to extremes, the peaceful phlegmatic Mary can get to where she doesn’t care about doing anything and is indifferent and indecisive. She can seem lazy, stubborn, and unwilling to communicate. Mary could stay peacefully at home over in John’s gospel, and miss seeing Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, except that Jesus sent Martha to get her.
These stories of our sisters Mary and Martha suggests that our instincts aren’t always right. These stories suggest that our feelings and our emotions and our thoughts and our best laid plans can lead us to the wrong conclusions. These stories suggest that there is something we can learn from our sisters, no matter how different in personality we may be.
Martha can learn from Mary that it’s ok to relax without feeling guilty.
Martha can learn from Mary how to stop working sometimes so people can enjoy her company.
Martha can learn from Mary how to relax when she is not in charge, and how to allow others a turn to make some decisions and organize something.
As for Mary…
Mary can learn from Martha how to push herself to set goals in order to get things done.
Mary can receive motivation and encouragement from Martha.
Mary can learn to step up and lead in some areas from Martha.
Mary and Martha are sisters. Sisters who live out their faith differently, authentically, according to who they are created and called to be. God could have created us all as powerful cholerics. We would have been all set to lead, but impatient that no one would follow. God could have created us all as peaceful phlegmatics. We would have had a peaceful life but not much bubbling enthusiasm or organization. We need each temperament, each different personality, for the total function of the church as the body of Christ. Jesus had the best of each temperament. He had both the administrative ability of the powerful choleric and the calm nature of the peaceful phlegmatic. There are two additional personality types. If you didn’t find yourself among the descriptions of Mary and Martha, perhaps that’s because you are either a popular sanguine or a perfect melancholy. Jesus also had the storytelling gifts of the popular sanguine, and the depth and sensitivity of the perfect melancholy. No matter which personality description fits us, we are called to see the Christ, and to learn from the Christ we see, in each of our sisters.