The Drama Triangle

Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-end

How many of you find this story difficult because, despite what Jesus says, your sympathy is actually with Martha? 

And how many of you find it difficult because your life is often busy, and it’s all very well to want to sit quietly and contemplate, but there is genuinely a lot to get done each day. 

And how many of you, if you’re honest, think that Jesus is being a bit harsh?

But what if this story isn’t really about whether Martha was too busy, or Jesus too harsh. 

What if this story is a very human, very ordinary story, describing the kind of situation we find ourselves in almost every day. I think this is a story about human relationships, jealousy and the low level conflicts that we all live with - and a story about how to do the relationship stuff better. I think this is a very practical story, with something for all of us, whether we identify with Martha or Mary.

Let me explain. It is clear that it’s not about Jesus criticising Martha for being too busy helping others. After all, it comes immediately after the story of the Good Samaritan, which is all about how we’re to serve those who need our care and attention, and to serve them with generosity. And just before that Jesus has sent his disciples out into the surrounding villages and told them to ‘eat and drink whatever you are given’ - which is only possible if people like Martha cook and serve them food. And later on in the gospel Jesus will say it even more explicitly, talking about himself; ‘The Son of Man came to not be served but to serve’ and then, in his final talk with his disciples before his death ‘Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves?’

Jesus came as a servant to the world, and we’re meant to be like Jesus, so we are called to serve. Just as Martha was serving. 

So this story cannot be Jesus saying - don’t serve other people, just pray more - or whatever critical version of that we might hear in it. 

So what is it about?

I think this story is about how we live our relationships well - especially the ordinary, everyday relationships; with our husbands and wives, our siblings, our co-workers and neighbours. 

You might have come across somethign called the ‘Drama triangle’. It suggests that many of the conflicts we find ourselves in - not just the big ones, but the niggly day to day ones - play out like this. Like a play, with specific roles which we pick up and act. 

Someone is a victim, they feel persecuted and in need of pity. ‘Poor me’ is what they feel. Someone else is a persecutor, who blames and criticises; ‘It’s all your fault’ they say. And the third person is the hero, or rescuer - they want to sort it out. ‘I’ll help’ is their mantra.

And the suggestion is that we often engage in a kind of dance around this triangle, taking different roles as the argument or conflict unfolds. We probably have a tendency towards one or other of the roles (which one are you) but we can work through them in different situations.

Here’s a practical example from a book on the subject. 

Dad comes home from work to find Mum and Junior engaged in a battle. Mum is currently the persecutor, Junior the Victim. “Clean up your room or else,” Mum threatens. Dad immediately comes to Junior’s rescue - as the hero. “give the boy a break” he might say, “He’s been at school all day.

Any one of several possibilities might follow. Perhaps Mum, feeling victimized by Dad, stays as persecutor and turns her wrath on him. In that case, she moves Dad from rescuer to victim. They then might do a few quick trips around the triangle with Junior on the sidelines.  Mum might say, ’What do you mean ‘give the boy a break’, he never tidies his room.’ . And the response comes back, (hear the victim in his words) ’Hey, don’t get mad, I was just trying to help

Or maybe Junior joins Dad in a persecutory “Let’s gang up on Mum” approach, moving her to the role of Victim, - ‘yeah Mum, I’ve been at school all day, you’re always going on at me’, or then again, maybe Junior will take up the hero role, turning on Dad and rescuing Mum with “Mind your own business, Dad. I don’t need your help!” 

So it goes, with endless variations, but always, pinging from corner to corner on the triangle. 

Recognise any of that? Does any of that sound like life in your household or your workplace?

So let’s look at the story of Martha and Mary through this drama triangle.

Martha welcomes Jesus into her house and wants to look after him well. Nothing wrong with that at all. Who here, if Jesus turned up at your house, wouldn’t want to prepare and serve a meal for him? 

But Martha, the story tells us, became ‘distracted by many tasks’. The word for distracted literally means ‘tangled up’. Martha’s mistake was not that she wanted to serve Jesus; Martha’s mistake was that got so tangled up in worry that she forgot what was going on. She was so anxious that she forgot she was serving Jesus.

And so, in her anxiety, she moves into the victim role - ‘poor me, I’ve got so much to do, and nobody is helping’. But a victim needs a persecutor. You can’t be a victim on your own - there has to be someone who is causing you the distress. And so now she’s on the hunt for someone to blame. 

Who could that be? Well Mary’s sitting there doing nothing at all - she fits the role perfectly. If only she got up and helped, everything would be fine.

So that’s two roles filled, Martha the victim, Mary the Persecutor - now, who could be the hero? Who could Martha enrol to be on her side against wicked, lazy Mary? Who can close the triangle and confirm to Martha that she’s right and Mary is wrong? 

‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work?’  Martha offers the part to Jesus.

And so the drama is set and ready to be played out. Mary could now get all defensive and become a victim herself, pushing Martha into the persecutor role - ‘Me, I haven’t done anything wrong. I’ve just been sitting listening to Jesus.’ or she could play the persecutor herself and build on Martha’s victim status - ‘How dare you! You’re always trying to win Jesus’ favour by busying around and being the goody goody! He wants me to sit here with him’. She could even play the hero and gang up with Martha against Jesus - ‘You’re right, Jesus is always distracting people from what really matters. Let’s get back to the kitchen and leave him here.’

But of course none of those things happen, and instead Jesus does what has to happen if we’re going to step out of the drama triangle and let those false roles drop. 

He refuses to play the game.

He will not be the hero she wants him to be - but nor will he persecute her in turn or make himself out to be the victim.

Martha, Martha’ he says - gently using her name twice, to reconnect her to herself (not victim, persecutor or hero, but Martha). ‘You are worried and distracted by many things’. A statement of fact which shows he has noticed her suffering, and can see what’s actually going on. ‘There is need of only one thing’ All the stuff filling your head and heart, all your blaming Mary, all the persecutor, victim stuff, is not needed. Only one thing is needed. 

What is the one thing?

It is to stay close to Jesus.

On our own, we are always drawn into competitive rivalries with each other, which is what lies at the heart of that triangle - the constant anxiety that, if you’ve got enough, that means I won’t have enough. If you’re doing well, I’m not. And the only tool we have to resolve those tensions is by playing the role of victim, persecutor or hero. 

But Jesus is free from all of that. He has no need to compete for anything with anyone. He is entirely free. In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and he knows, entirely and completely, that he is loved and safe. 

He does not need to take up a role, he does not need to compete, he does not need to play the game.

Jesus is the answer to the drama triangle - wherever and whenever it’s being played out; whether that’s with Martha and Mary or in our homes, communities or workplaces. 

So the next time you notice yourself feeling ‘poor me’ or ‘it’s their fault’ or ‘They need me’ ask Jesus to get involved. 

Because ‘there is need of only one thing.’

Jesus, only Jesus. 

Going Deeper

  1. Where do your sympathies lie in this story? Why?

  2. Can you apply the ‘Drama Triangle’ to your own experience of life?

  3. How does seeing the story of Martha and Mary through the lens of the Drama Triangle change how you understand the story?

  4. The sermon suggests that Jesus ‘refuses to play the game’. Can you think of other situations in the gospels when Jesus does this?

  5. How might staying close to Jesus and seeing things as he sees things help you in the ordinary, everyday ‘drama triangles’ you are part of?

  6. How can you stay close to Jesus this week?