William Wilberforce and Mary and Martha?

Rev Daniel Irvine


Today our lectionary, while keeping to the readings of the day, set aside a little note in them to say that are the optional commemorations of Mary and Martha from Bethany, as well as William Wilberforce and all social reformers.


Now it might seem an odd combination but I think that they actually could go quite well together, and fit, by chance or not, with the gospel reading for today. And instead of simply give you a rerun of Sunday’s sermon (which had almost the same passage from the gospel) I thought I might just draw you attention to these characters and what we might learn from them.


To begin with, a little bit about William Wilberforce, who you may know of in connection to the abolitionist movement in the late 18th and early 19th century. Along with others, like Thomas Clarkson, Wilberforce worked tirelessly to put an end to the British slave trade and the pain and misery that it caused (1807), and eventually, to the abolition of slavery as an institution throughout most of the then British Empire with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, just three days before his death.


It was a work that was momentous for the time and the consequences of which we are still feeling around the world as protesters and civil rights leaders try to continue his work through movements like Black Lives Matter, and even now governments are still trying to frustrate their efforts by banning rallies for safety concerns, while having no problems allowing tens of thousands of screaming fans to attend football matches.


Now Wilberforce’s work in campaigns like this did not occur on a whim or a fancy but on a deeply held theological position which he took as a treasure or pearl of great price, from a prayerful and considered study of faith and scripture. Scripture, which if read superficially and literally might, indeed, has been used (and in some places continues to be used) to support ideas of slavery, inequality and injustice.


And it is with this in mind that we turn and consider Mary and Martha and we consider the need to not conflate the different gospel recollections of these women. And I think in particular about the story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s Gospel (10.38-42). In this recollection there is no mention of a brother Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. No, in Luke we have the famous story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus in their house and how Martha was distracted by the tasks of hospitality while Mary sat and listened at Jesus’ feet.


Now whenever the gospel writers use the material available to them differently it is always worth asking what Luke might have been getting at beyond the obvious. This passage in particular was a part of my studies last year and the lecturer helped point out some obvious connections which 2,000 years of history and cultural change might cause us to miss.


So let us sort through the scene again and pick up on a detail or two.


We have two women, who own and run a household (not something particularly common in first century Palestine).


In this house hold they prepare a meal for disciples at which Jesus is present.


Now keeping in mind that the early church, and certainly the communities to whom Luke was writing, assembled together in the household of their leaders the meaning, hidden to us would most likely have been quite obvious to a first century Christian in Luke’s communities.


Two women, presiding at a gathering where Jesus is present for a meal.


I think that when we dig into the Bible with open hearts and open minds, without the baggage of our cultural traditions, then we could truly be amazed at what we might find.


William Wilberforce found the inspiration and the gospel truth that the practice of slavery, although often mentioned and never denounced in the Bible, was repugnant to the values of the kingdom of God.


Let us pray that as we search the scriptures daily we might be led to new discoveries of where the gospel really needs to be proclaimed in our world, and where old cultural burdens need to finally be set down.


As I read from the Mothers’ Union Prayer Dairy last night I came across these words from Anglican priest and theologian John Stott which I felt summed up the message.


“We must allow the word of God to confront us, to disturb our security, to undermine our complacency and to overthrow our patterns of thought and behaviour.”


In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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