Mary and Martha - A Personality Profile

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Christ's concern for Martha's resentment

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Illustration: “The Wrong Train”

Some years ago, The Archbishop of Canterbury was rushing to catch a train in London. In his haste, he accidentally jumped on the wrong passenger car and found himself on a car full of inmates from a mental hospital. They were all dressed in mental hospital clothing. Just as the train pulled out of the station, an orderly came in and began to count the inmates, “1-2-3-4…”… when suddenly he saw this distinguished looking gentleman there wearing a business suit and a clerical collar.
The orderly asked him: “Who are you?”
The answer came back: “I am the Archbishop of Canterbury!” And the orderly said: “Ah… 5-6-7-8.” The point of that story is this: It is so important to know who we are and who other people are. If we know what makes us tick… and what makes other people tick… we get along better. There is more compassion, more empathy and more kindness. More acceptance that it’s ok to be different.

Background Info: Personality Tests

That’s why in recent years we have heard so much about personality tests. Businesses, counselors, and other groups are using them effectively. You may have heard of the Birkman Personality Profile. It’s fairly popular because the test is fairly short and provides decent results. I think it might be helpful to use it this morning as a way to study our passage of scripture: So, let’s try it out.
First, let’s outline the four basic personalities suggested by Dr. Birkman. See if you can find yourself or someone you know somewhere between the lines. 1. First, there is the action-oriented doer. This person is bubbling with energy and is often strong-willed. The doer means creating results and everybody else better get out of the way. 2. Second, there is the detailed planner. This person “plans the work” and then works the plan. The detailed planner’s personality is precisely what the name implies – one who thinks things through in great detail, one who plans ahead, one who wants things done neatly, orderly and systematically. The detailed planner does really well… as long as no one messes up the plan. 3. The third personality style according to Dr. Birkman is the enthusiastic communicator. This person often has no plan. But, they are a “people person” who operates on personality. They possess the strong ability to wow people and win them over and sell them on his or her ideas and dreams. 4. A fourth personality style suggested by the Birkman profile is the artistic poetic philosopher. This person is more “soulful,” more tuned in to beauty, reverence and awe. The artistic poetic philosopher is creative; one who enjoys quiet and pensive moments of solitude, one who can tune in to the wonders of the universe, one who can experience a sunset or a Brahms melody and feel in that experience the presence of God. The point of Roger Birkman’s computer personality profile is this: We are different and when we recognize, understand, respect and celebrate our differences we get along better. It’s a great idea and also one that happens to be rooted deeply in the Bible. It is one of the key themes of Paul’s letter to the church of Corinth. Some are prophets and some are teachers. Some are action-oriented, while others are pensive and thoughtful. Some are poetic and some give commands. Some are loud and some are quiet. We are different people with different personalities, different styles, different temperaments. And, that’s okay!
He says, “Imagine that you have nine cats in a house and that your task is to get the cats out of the house. How would you do it?” Now these go overboard a bit, perhaps, but they give you an idea:
How would the action-oriented doer handle this? Well, obviously the action-oriented doer would take charge and say “scat!” and the cats had better get out if they know what’s good for them!
The detailed planner on the other hand, would number the cats, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9… in calligraphy!… with neat tags attached to the right side of each cat’s collar.
Then the detailed planner would make nine neat holes in the wall and number them 1 through 9 in calligraphy. Cat One must go out Hole One, Cat Two must go out Hole Two, Cat Three must go out Hole Three and if Cat Four runs out Hole Seven, then the detailed planner’s whole world is thrown out of whack!
The enthusiastic communicator would say, “No problem, piece of cake, I can handle this.” Then he or she would open all the doors and windows, get some warm milk and cat food, go outside and say “Here Kitty! Kitty!…” and convince the cats that they are a lot better off outside anyway!
Meanwhile, the artistic poetic philosopher would say: “What in the world am I doing worrying about cats??” The point of Roger Birkman’s computer personality profile is this: We are different and when we recognize, understand, respect and celebrate our differences we get along better. It’s a great idea and also one that happens to be rooted deeply in the Bible. It is one of the key themes of Paul’s letter to the church of Corinth. Some are prophets and some are teachers. Some are action-oriented, while others are pensive and thoughtful. Some are poetic and some give commands. Some are loud and some are quiet. We are different people with different personalities, different styles, different temperaments. And, that’s okay!

Engaging the Text

Now, with this as a backdrop for our thinking, let’s take a look at this story from . Let’s see if we can figure out Mary an Martha’s personality styles within the story.
To do that, let’s imagine the story together a bit, shall we?
All morning long there had been excitement within the home in Bethany. A guest was coming for dinner… and you know what leads up to a guest coming for dinner. Likely since daybreak, Martha had been sweeping, scrubbing, dusting, checking recipes, going in and out of the kitchen as she frantically prepared food and her home for a special guest. Every hour… every minute was precious. Time was slipping by. There was too much to do with less and less time to do it in.
Then, the guest arrives. It’s Jesus. And then, look at what happens:
Mary comes in and she takes over as hostess. She welcomes Jesus and the disciples, and she brings them into the living room while Martha continues to work feverishly. And in the background of the scene… there is a sense of urgency. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem… on his way to the cross. He begins to talk to his friends… there is so much to teach them and so little time.
The disciples listen to him… more or less anyway. They probably inserted their own ideas and plans of what Jesus could or should do next. Discouraging him of his strange talk about the Son of God having to die.
Looking throughout the room, we see it’s not just the disciples listening in… Mary also listens—quite intently from what we can tell. Mary has positioned herself at the feet of Jesus and she is drinking in His every word. How good to have Him here, she thinks. How good to hear Him again! How good it is just to be in His presence! Meanwhile, Martha is out in the kitchen, slaving away… preparing the meal, polishing the silverware, cutting up the fruits and vegetables, checking the last minute details, doing the one hundred and one things which in her super-efficient mind needed to be done. But here is what I suspect the problem is: While Martha is working feverishly, she has an anger building within her. She gets more and more aggravated, more and more frustrated… She feels more and more put upon, more and more stressed out.
“Where is Mary? Why isn’t she in here helping me? Who does she think she is… sitting in there with our guests… and leaving all the dirty work to me? Surely, Jesus can see the injustice of this situation,” You can just about hear Martha’s reasoning… and perhaps… perhaps we might even agree with her.
Finally, unable to contain herself any long, her resentment erupts… and she bursts out of the kitchen… into the living room and she makes a scene! She cries: “Look at this Lord. I’m having to do all the work here. Don’t you care that my sister Mary has left me to serve alone? You get on to her now. Tell her to get out here in the kitchen and help me!”
In this moment when Martha finally felt justified that she was able to point out the laziness of her sister compared to her own work ethic, Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by too many things. Relax. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
End of story.

Analyzing the Story

Now, looking at these personality styles. Have you figured them out?
What about Mary? Well, of course, she is the artistic poetic philosopher, who is thrilled to just bask in the moment. She is stirred, thrilled, touched and inspired by the presence of Jesus.
How about Martha? Well, I think she’s a bit of a combination. She is certainly a doer, but I think she is also the detailed planner. She has planned this event to the nth degree. She has covered every detail. She has worked her fingers to the bone in her super-efficient way. Yet, here in the story, Jesus rebukes Martha. It’s a gentle rebuke, but nevertheless He did speak words that compared Martha unfavorably with her less practical sister Mary… and the question that explodes out of this story is “Why?” Now, I want to caution us for a moment… I don’t believe that Jesus was unappreciative of Martha’s intense desire for a job well done. Nor do I believe that Jesus thinks artistic poetic philosophers are better than detailed planners. No! Not that at all.
In fact… I suspect that if Mary had been seething about Martha spending all of her time in the kitchen rather than with the guests then Jesus would have rebuked Mary.
You see, Jesus was not concerned about what Martha was doing outwardly, but rather about what she was feeling inwardly! His concern was for Martha herself! He was concerned about her anger. Let me hurry to say: This is no criticism of detailed planner or doer personalities. We need them. Every church, every business, every family needs Marthas. We need detailed planner personalities. But, when Jesus looked at Martha that day in that emotional scene, he saw some red flags, some warning signals, some destructive attitudes within her which were more harmful to Martha herself than to anyone else.
Remember, Jesus loved Martha. They were good friends… and that day, He saw in her some harmful attitudes that were working in her. And if we look at those attitudes carefully, we may find ourselves… or someone we know… somewhere between the lines. When Jesus looked at Martha that day, he saw what I believe to be three primary attitudes that he was concerned about.

Three Big Concerns

Resentment, narrowness, and unkindness.


Martha was resenting Mary. In my opinion, there are few things more destructive in our life together as Christ’s disciples than resentment. It can absolutely ruin a community as well as cause destruction in a person’s individual life.
In Greek, there are two primary words used for anger. The first is Thumos which is a quick anger that blazes up and then back down again. Then there is “Orge” which is a kind of “seething” anger which persists. It’s the kind of anger that festers and doesn’t seem to die. It’s the kind of anger that we look for reasons to become even more angry—we seek out reasons to be justified in our frustration. That is the kind of anger we see in resentment.
Resentment is devastating. We see it here in the Mary and Martha story in a couple of dramatic ways: 1. First, notice the words used to describe Martha… three words – distracted, anxious, troubled. That’s what resentment does to you!
But, even more, her resentment cut her off from her sister. The same thing happened to the Elder Brother in the Prodigal Son Parable. He resented his younger brother to the point that he couldn’t even celebrate his brother’s return. That’s how resentment affects us and that is why it is so dangerous. It separates us from one another and breaks down our life together. Resentment, especially resentment that we feel justified for, acts like a poison in our life.


Martha is done in by her narrow perspective. The issue is not that Martha is wrong in caring for the household or preparing the meal… the issue is that she believes the only thing of importance going on is her own work. She gets so caught up in the details of what she is in the middle of that she misses the life going on around her as well as the gifts of ministry occurring.
Again, Mary could have fallen into the same trap if she had tried to force Martha to stop “doing” what she was doing and try to take on the poetic persona.
It is very easy to forget that we are all unique... that we are individuals with different gifts and are called to different ways of serving. Part of the joy that I get in reading scripture is seeing how God relates to different people in different ways. Sometimes we forget that God is big enough to relate to each of us differently, individually, uniquely, and personally.
Let me share a story I came across. Some years ago in another church a party was given to recognize a married couple for their outstanding work in the church’s youth program. Let me tell you about this couple. We’ll call them Betty and Bill. They had very different personalities. Betty was vivacious, out-going, gregarious, affectionate... a hugger. If you gave her a “bow ribbon,” she would jump up and down and squeal with delight and then run around and hug and kiss everybody in the room. Bill, on the other hand, was the opposite. He was quiet, reserved, shy, stable, balanced. If you gave him a Mercedes and a trip to Hawaii, all he could do is say a quiet and sincere “Thank you.”
Now, on this particular night Betty and Bill were given a surprise party. The young people jumped out from their hiding places, shouted “Surprise!” and then gave Betty and Bill a present. It was a beautiful plaque. Do you know what Betty did? She read the plaque out loud. She squealed with delight. She cried. She jumped up and down and then ran around the room hugging and kissing everybody in sight. Meanwhile, Bill waited… and when she was through he said quietly: “I want to thank you also!” But that is not the end of the story. Betty turned on Bill. She got mad at him… and she made a scene: “Look at you Bill. You don’t appreciate anything. If you did, you would act like it. You would do like I do!”
But, you see Bill can’t act that way. He just isn’t made that way. He is not wired up like Betty is. He can’t act like her, can’t respond that way. If he did, it would be fake, artificial, embarrassing. You want to say: “Betty, Betty, leave him alone. Don’t force your way on him. Let him do it his way. Let him be Bill!”
Now, I have to tell you hugs and kisses are great, but I also know that Bill’s quiet “thank you” is just as real, just as genuine, just as valid. In this episode with Mary and Martha, we can see the frustration of a narrow view causing discord.


Martha tried to make herself look good by making Mary look bad and it “boomeranged” on her and she came out (in this instance) looking worse for it. Ultimately, it happens every time. Our harsh, condemning judgments come back to haunt us. When we are unkind to others, we are the ones who end up looking bad.


Some time ago, there was an article on marriage…a rather routine article, except for one great statement, one of the greatest statements about marriage relationships. It said this: “If you are ever in a situation where you have to choose between making either yourself or your mate look good, ALWAYS CHOOSE TO MAKE YOUR MATE LOOK GOOD RATHER THAN YOURSELF!”
Finally, Martha responds to her frustration not with patience with Mary’s approach but instead with a deep unkindness. She looks for Jesus to admonish Mary for not being the hard worker that Martha is.
Jesus would have liked that counsel… and He would have enhanced it by saying, “Always choose to make other people look good rather than yourself!” That kind of kindness “boomerangs” too. It comes back to bless. I know a woman who lives like that… always bragging on others and encouraging others, always making others look good rather than herself. And the fascinating thing is that everybody who knows her loves her and respects her and appreciates her and admires her because of her unwavering kindness. The point is clear: What we send out comes back! If we send out unkindness, it comes back to haunt us. If we send out grace and love and compassion, those come back to bless us. In the Mary and Martha story, Jesus is teaching us a great lesson about our inner attitudes and He is saying… Beware of resentment, beware of narrowness and beware of unkindness. Choose instead the way of grace and love and compassion.
Martha hopes, in some sense, to be seen as the good worker who is deserving of Christ’s teachings—instead of Mary who simply sits and soaks it in rather than being engaged in the way Martha thinks she should be.
Unfortunately for Martha, her unkind attempt boomeranged on her and instead she was the one who showed in the negative.
I know an elderly woman who has always put others before her… always lifting up what others are doing and being extraordinarily appreciative of everyone around her. Interestingly enough, that boomerangs on her as well. Those around her lift her up as the extraordinary person that she is. Kindness tends to be repaid with kindness. The boomerangs that we throw, whether positive or negative, eventually come back.


So the gospel lesson today is less about Jesus lifting up Mary’s way of discipleship over Martha’s. But rather it is a reminder that we are each made by God as unique individuals with unique gifts. And as we remember that, we too will act with more compassion, more empathy, more kindness… and more acceptance that it’s ok to be different—and in fact, it’s good to celebrate that we are indeed unique. And we might also be reminded that God celebrates the uniqueness that we each were created with.
Blessings to you, in your unique ways of being parents, or siblings, or friends… or yes… your unique way of being a disciple of Christ. I pray that we may each live with the compassion, empathy, kindness, and acceptance that Christ first offered us. Peace be with you. Amen.
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