Over recent years, I have had a fascination with the great Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Vermeer had the rare artistic ability to capture a particular moment – and make it eternal. A little like the gospel writer, Luke.
Recently at the Auckland Taiwanese Presbyterian Church I preached on the story in Luke 10, of Jesus in Mary and Martha’s home. In 1655, Vermeer painted the scene in his painting “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”. 1655 was within the final years that the Netherlands controlled Formosa (Taiwan) as a colonial power.
Vermeer probably knew little about Formosa. But he knew about the gospel and about art. In this painting, he contrasts shadow and light to draw our attention to the faces of the figures. By doing so, he brings out the inner-meaning of the text.
The faces of Mary, Martha and Jesus are balanced in a kind of triangle: Jesus and Martha are looking at each other. Mary looks at Jesus. Eye contact, and the relationship between Mary and Martha is broken however. Their body language is tense. The triangle is held intact however, by Jesus pointing to Mary as he talks to Martha. Vermeer draws us in to the flow of conversation as our eyes drift around the triangle.
Jesus is dressed, as expected, in the clothes of the first century. Mary and Martha, however, are dressed as Dutch girls of the mid-17th century. Martha is carrying Dutch style bread.
Vermeer has lifted the passage out of the 1st century and placed it squarely in his own time.
Vermeer challenged his contemporaries. “Are you Mary – or Martha? Are you both – or neither?” “Are you listening to Jesus and/or serving him? Are you distracted from what is necessary? What is “the one thing that is needed”? (Luke 10:42)
I am sticking up for Martha. A Taiwanese (and Dutch no doubt) Christian housewife in a position like hers, would be deeply embarrassed. Not to be able to offer adequate hospitality to guests in her home would be totally unthinkable. And here she is, faced with, not only Jesus, honoured guest that he is, but in all probability, the 12 disciples as well.
Of course, she wants and needs help. She has 13 big, important blokes as her guests in her home. What is she supposed to do? In the end however, it is all a matter of timing and opportunity.
I find it striking (a word that Prof. Maurice Andrew often used to describe something of deep significance embedded in a text) that Mary and Martha then spend their energy accusing, not each other, but Jesus. In Luke 10:40. Martha lays in to Jesus: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by himself? Tell her to help me.”
The J.B. Phillips translation also has a subtle, accusatory edge: “Lord, don’t you mind that my sister has left me to do everything by myself? Tell her to get up and help me!” Vermeer captures the expression on Martha’s face of restrained exasperation and resentment. She delivers a fair whack to Jesus here, with a deflected strike at Mary, merely calling her “my sister”.
In John 11:21, in the story of the raising of their brother Lazarus from the dead. Martha again accuses Jesus. ‘“Lord”, Martha said to Jesus, “if you have been here, my brother would not have died.”’ Then Mary accuses Jesus of exactly the same thing and in the same words in verse 32.
Through all this, as John 11:5 states clearly: “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Jesus does not return any accusation in either passage. In fact, his answer to Martha is tender, as he repeats her name twice: “Martha, Martha”.
So then, I think it is ok to “accuse” Jesus and get a bit hot under the collar with him. Despite prayers for decades, Taiwan is still excluded from the UN and other international organisations. Last year, under pressure from the People’s Republic of China, Emirates Airlines tried to force their Taiwanese aircrew to wear the PRC flag on their lapels, and not their own Taiwanese flag, to indicate that they spoke Chinese. Taiwan competes at the Olympics under the ridiculous title “Chinese Taipei”. The Taiwanese are petitioning for “Team Taiwan”, which is at least better.
So, yes, I reckon it is ok to get mad at Jesus. Nevertheless, as Martha said: “But I know that even now, God will give you whatever you ask.” (John 11:22). Jesus did eventually raise Lazarus. But he first asked Martha what she believed: “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come in to the world.” (John 11:27)
A brilliant answer. If we reflect on that answer, and make it our own in whatever way we are led, then anything is possible. People can rediscover Jesus and “choose what is better”. The old argument between salvation by faith or works falls away. As Luther said, “By faith alone, but faith is never alone”. Vermeer and Luke understood this. So should we.
Or we might just say “Go, Team Jesus.”