Elinor and Marianne, Martha and Mary

Some of my readers will know that I am a big fan of the novels of Jane Austen, which is not an especially masculine thing to admit to, but what can I say? I think she has brilliant characters, witty dialogue, and is ‘a sound moralist’, as C.S. Lewis once observed to a friend.

Among Austen’s novels, one of my favourites is ‘Sense and Sensibility’, the story of the two sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood and the way their different personalities cause them to respond to the situations life sends them.

The title of the book is perhaps a little misleading today, as these words have changed their meaning in modern English. By ‘sensibility’, Austen means perhaps something closer to what we would now call ‘sensitivity’ – a temperament that is oriented toward the emotional and the intuitive. Marianne is the ‘sensible’ or ‘sensitive’ one; she wears her feelings on her sleeve all the time, is concerned always to be true to what is in her heart, and is impatient with the rational and the conventional.

The ‘sense’ in the title, on the other hand, refers to ‘common sense’ or (confusingly), what we would now think of as ‘being sensible’. This is Elinor, the older sister, the one who keeps her feelings to herself, gets on with  life and does what has to be done, and doesn’t make a big fuss about things. I have to say that all my sympathies here are with Elinor, which is perhaps what Jane Austen had in mind when she wrote the book!

Over the last few days, in the ‘New Daylight‘ Bible reading notes, we have been going through John chapters 9-11 under the excellent guidance of Maggi Dawn. It has occurred to me, as I’ve been reading the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11, that his two sisters Mary and Martha are in fact very like Marianne and Elinor.

Luke’s Gospel tells us the well-known story of how Jesus came to visit in the home of these two women (their brother Lazarus is not mentioned); when he arrived, Martha busied herself with preparing the meal and doing what needed to be done, and Mary just went into the living room and sat at Jesus’ feet to hear his teaching (breaking the conventional rules about the place of women in her society). Martha asked Jesus to rebuke Mary, but, interestingly, he refused to do so; “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42 NIV 2011).

But now let’s turn to the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead in John 11, which we have been reading for the past few days. What has struck me as I’ve been following this story is the way that Jesus is able to bring a different kind of comfort to each of these two sisters.

The story is a well-known one; Lazarus is ill, Jesus is notified about it, but he delays coming to help them (intentionally), and by the time he gets there Lazarus has been dead four days. On his arrival Jesus is met by each of the sisters in turn, and each of them greets him with exactly the same words: ‘”Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32).

But Jesus’ response to each of them is different. He first meets Martha, who, although grieving for her brother, is still apparently able to use her mind. Here’s how the story unfolds in John 11:21-27:

21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

So Martha receives comfort from Jesus in a theological conversation about the resurrection of the dead. She is able to draw on the resources of her Jewish belief system and of her faith in Jesus; she knows that on the last day God will raise the righteous dead to life, and she knows that her brother will be in that number. She even dares to hope that something can be done for him now (“…even now God will give you whatever you ask”). And so Jesus is able to lead her on, to a more definite belief in himself as the resurrection and the life, and she finds in this the comfort and strength she needs.

With Mary it is very different.

32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

There is no theological conversation with Mary; she is overcome with grief and cannot hear anything that Jesus would have to say. And so Jesus allows himself to enter into her grief (which, no doubt, he is feeling himself too, as Lazarus was his friend) so that (as the shortest verse in the Bible tells us) ‘Jesus wept’.

As I said at the beginning, my sympathies are all with Martha or, in Jane Austen’s story, with Elinor! In ‘Sense and Sensibility‘ it’s not that Elinor doesn’t have deep emotions – in fact, she feels things very deeply. But she tends to keep her emotions to herself, and she has the temperamental ability to put them on one side when something practical needs to be done – something that Marianne finds far more difficult.

I am like Elinor. I feel things very deeply, but I am also able to put my feelings ‘on hold’, so to speak, in order to do what needs to be done, and I find it very difficult to be sympathetic to people like Marianne or Mary who are paralysed by their emotions and don’t seem to be able to pull themselves together. I’ve even allowed myself to ‘feel superior’ to them.

Jesus, however, does not feel superior to either Mary or Martha. He is able to meet each sister where she is and give each one the comfort she needs. And I need to learn from that. God has created each of us with a particular temperament, and each temperament has its own characteristic strengths and weaknesses. Jesus is aware of  the strengths and weaknesses of each of these two sisters, Martha and Mary, and is able to meet each one where she is and give her the help that she needs. He does the same for us today. I pray that I may work harder at following his good example.

2 thoughts on “Elinor and Marianne, Martha and Mary

  1. Very perceptive comment – I’m reading Maggi’s notes too! I suspect one reason why you are more Elinor-like and able to put your feelings to one side, is that you are a man. The danger of course for people like this is that they can fail to recognize they have feelings at all…

  2. Tim Chesterton

    Um – don’t know if I agree with this, Veronica. It is of course a well-known stereotype, but I think the reality is less tidy. I’m thinking of a marriage I know, an elderly couple, in which he is definitely the Marianne and she is definitely the Elinor!

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