Mary AND Martha
As they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.”
When you think about the set-up of this gospel, of Jesus arriving at someone’s house, you have to ask, why would Luke pay attention to whose house this was? Who cares that the two women who lived there had sibling rivalry issues with each other? It seems like pretty incidental stuff.
Luke cared about these details and there are reasons for that, which may help us understand how Luke conveyed this incident not merely as history but as catechesis, and as an insight into the deeper meaning of Christ’s mission.
One fairly obvious thing to note would be that the home belongs to Martha, and it is she, not some male figure, who welcomes Jesus and his immediate followers into her home. She has a sister, named Mary, it says, who seems to be the only other resident – this was not unknown but it would not have been the norm in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. This acknowledgement of women as autonomous home-owners and partners in the mission of Jesus is significant to note. This is one of those passages that can make women cringe, due to the tendency to portray one kind of woman as good and another as bad. So let it be said that both women are significant in the meaning of this event and the Gospel in general.
I would suggest that both women are portrayed in a positive light — Martha as a take-charge, competent sort of woman, who graciously opens her home to Christ at a time of need, and organizes hospitality for what was probably a large group of weary travellers, and Mary, whose intense interest in the message and meaning of the Gospel honours the presence and significance of Christ as the one guest who deserves our absolute attention. These two women are definitely persons in their own right.
One of the questions being raised by today’s readings is: How do we get closer to God?
One answer is: by doing things, acting in faith, being responsible. As Psalm 15 asks: “Lord, who may come close to you? Who may ascend to the place where you dwell?” And the answer is: “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right.” The lawyer in last week’s Gospel typifies this approach. And of course his question to Jesus is: What do I have to do? It seems to me that Jesus doesn’t indicate there is anything essentially wrong with this approach.
As the apostle James suggests, without people who act on their faith, we wouldn’t get anywhere and faith would become quite meaningless. In the first reading today, the prophet Amos shows us what happens when people act in irresponsible and self-serving ways, as he relates the breakdown of community in his time.
Luke, by remembering this woman, Martha, by name, by recounting her actions in this situation, identifies her as a key part of Jesus’ ministry and table fellowship. Both women and meals seem to have been important in Luke’s mind, so any simplistic put-down of Martha’s response would be unjustified.
Martha’s actions are very clearly serving a good purpose, and furthering the cause. She is a model of the responsible and caring person, the person who is keen to do the right thing, to make sure things happen as they should. We need people like that around, because very few things can function without them. They are essential to the life of the Church (even monasteries can’t run without them) and in any given week in this parish I could point to numerous positive examples of people (both men and women) who make that effort to do the right thing, for the right reason.
But the question: How do we get closer to God? is also answered in another way, by another response, that is often made secondary. Mary’s response suggests that we get nearer to God by simply being still. But because it is extremely counter-intuitive to suggest that the way to get nearer to God is simply to sit there and do nothing, we typically dismiss this approach.
Our world is tilted heavily in the direction of usefulness, productivity, and economic benefit, and in recent years, we have been designated more as tax payers, economic units, and consumers than as persons or citizens. Woe to you if you aren’t doing something that grows the GDP! Seeing people strictly in economic terms, we relegate a lot of people to the realm of the useless: the old; the homeless; the unemployed; First Nations people; poets, artists; philosophers; prophets; and in many ways the Church as a whole (and the Church itself relegated people like mystics and women, and eventually monks and nuns, to the sidelines).
There are times when we can get so busy with our agendas that we fail to connect with our inner self; we can get into formulas, habits and routines and neglect to make time to listen for God’s voice and God’s word, which can be found in silence, in solitude, in contemplation and quiet reflection. As important as many of our activities are, they tend to lose focus and purpose if we have let go of our primary purpose, which is in one way or another simply to sit at the feet of Jesus.
Women have so often been the victim of stereotypes, subjected to definitions and roles which neither suit them nor allow them to explore options. Jesus give this woman permission to sit and be – not to be ashamed for being a certain kind of woman and not another.
I have been guided for many years by the saying: “Action without prayer is presumption. Prayer without action is hypocrisy.” Both women and both approaches are valid and essential; we can serve God in faithful acts; we can serve God in quiet reflection. Why, in this case, does Jesus suggest Mary has made the better choice?
As I said last week, part of the lesson of Luke’s telling of the Good Samaritan story has to do with the willingness to deviate from your own path in order to encounter and serve the Lord. Neither the priest nor the Levite was prepared to deviate from his chosen path but the Samaritan was, and Jesus suggests that this is the kind of person who breaks through into the new way of relating that Jesus was calling the Kingdom of God.
The focus is upon making the right choice, discerning what to do in a particular situation, and having the capacity to deviate from prescribed ways of doing things, to improvise and adapt, rather than carry on with a fixed agenda even when something really important arrives right in front of us. In that moment, with the Son of God in their midst, Mary made the right choice in recognizing that was the place she needed to be, as the Good Samaritan made the right choice in stopping to care for the man wounded by the road.
Mary is the unexpected and surprising star of this event partly because she chose to deviate from the apparent expectations of a woman in that situation (as voiced by Martha) and situates herself among the men. It would seem that Jesus was creating a more egalitarian kind of community in which women could serve in significant and substantial ways, and not be obliged to conform to stereotypical and conventional roles. The passage challenges us to see women in a new light (see also Luke 8: 1—3).
As Richard Rohr says: “God sees in wholes; we see in parts” – specifically our own parts. I don’t think this Gospel is trying to paint an either/or picture but simply making a statement about the need to tend to our inner life as well as our outer life – to find the proper balance for us. Some of us lean more in the direction of action and some lean more in the direction of reflection – both are necessary, and in the larger community these qualities must both be given their proper place ( as other passages in Luke oblige us to look differently at the sick, the poor, the handicapped, the oppressed, immoral people, children, Gentiles as well as Jews, even our enemies).
As my New Testament professor, Dr Reginald H. Fuller, said: “we must recognize that some have a primary vocation to be Mary, others to be Martha.”
There are times when an emphasis on one aspect or the other is appropriate. Neither extreme of this spectrum is particularly attractive – at one end you have what used to be called scrupulosity; at the other end you have what used to be called sloth. Always at the centre is Christ – arms extended in both directions
One of the great things about Jesus is that he brought very different people together – insurrectionists and conspirators, educated and uneducated, insiders and outsiders, tradespeople and intellectuals, believers and agnostics, men and women — and obliged them to be with each other and to learn from each other, even as they learned from him. This continues to be one of the significant blessings of parish life – that it is not an association of like-minded people. As Jesus taught, there is no spiritual or ethical value in loving people who are exactly the same as you are – the value is in learning to respect and appreciate the gifts of others who may challenge and even threaten us. We avoid and shun each other to our own detriment, and the loss of the integrity of the Body of Christ.
We can forget at times that the God of the great eagle is also God of the sparrow; that the God of the great Martha’s of the world is also God of the quiet and unobtrusive Mary’s. Each in their own way contributes something essential to the bigger picture, and reminds us that action and reflection, extravert and introvert, Type A and Type B, etc. are essential and related aspects of a meaningful Christian life.
St Paul “you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death” In Mary and Martha I think we are meant to see something of this division and the need and the potential for a synthesis of the human spirit;
Let’s remember that these two are related – they are sisters. In the two women, we see a kind of dialogue about the relationship between being and doing, and the importance of seeing Christ as the meeting place, the mediator, the centre, in whom we and the world may become whole.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
RCL-appointed readings: Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 15 Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”