July 18, 2010
The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Intent: Purity; A day of devotion to the Holy Spirit
Mary and Martha were not twins and yet invariably we think of them together, not unlike Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Frik and Frak, Bene and Mickey or whatever. You get the idea. It is impossible to think of one without the other, and yet one of the points of this great story is that they are two quite different individuals. It is this difference that gathers our attention toward them. And even as difficult as it is to not think of them together, it is equally as difficult not to choose between the two of them.
Mary and Martha are the most familiar set of sisters in the Bible. Both St. Luke and St. John describe them as friends of Jesus. Luke's story, though only four verses long, has been a complex source of inspiration, interpretation, and debate for centuries. John's story, which says the sisters had a brother named Lazarus, spans seventy verses. Though some earlier interpreters blended the person of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman of Luke, current scholars believe she was a different person. According to Luke, Martha was head of the household; she welcomed Jesus into her home. Mary was probably younger. Like most sisters, these two women had conflicts which emerged because of their different personalities, roles, and simply the fact that they were siblings.
Modern readers often regard Martha as a "homemaker" type of woman, concerned with household details. Some also view her as hospitable, a highly esteemed practice in Jesus' day. Mary often is seen as a more scholarly or spiritual woman, with a feminist personality. That she sat at Jesus' feet, means that she was his student or disciple
The story begins with Jesus and 72 of his male disciples entering a village where a woman named Martha lives and has a home. Luke tells us that Martha opens up her home to Jesus and his companions. When I read this passage of scripture I get the image of a house busy with people engaged in numerous conversations around the house. Martha is running about trying to figure out how everybody is going to get fed and coordinating the logistics of cooking for all the people.
Our natural sympathies are with Martha. We recognize her condition. The text gives a clear picture of her situation, and there is no reason to believe that Jesus was expected when he came to call. The text says that “she received him”, which may mean little more than that she opened the door to his knock. If that is so, then there was indeed much to be done, for hospitality was expected for any and every guest, and the more unexpected guest, the more lavish and bountiful hospitality ought to be. Any person can put out a good party when he has invited the guests and is prepared to entertain them; it is a special kind of person who can entertain the unexpected. Such hospitality is the hallmark of the Jewish home, were even that Passover a spare chair is left for Elijah, should he come to call and partake of the family’s meal. Hospitality in the East is not a casual affair, it is the ultimate act of civility, and a house that did not show fitting hospitality was ashamed and embarrassed.
Somewhere in a secluded corner the Lord Jesus Christ is calmly teaching a handful of people who are intently listening to His every word. Mary is sitting at His feet, very content and very settled. But, Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made and then at some point becomes irritated with her sister, Mary for sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to what he is saying instead of helping with all of the preparations that need to be made for this large group of men. And, although the text does not say so, I suspect that she was slightly irritated with Jesus as well.
What in the heck was Jesus thinking? Why didn’t he tell Mary to get up off her lazy you know what and get in there and help Martha? Is Jesus exalting Mary over Martha? Does he mean it is better to be contemplative than to be actively serving? That doesn’t exactly jive with some of the other stuff that he has said about being a servant! We too might be irritated when Jesus says to us to relax, as he seems to say to Martha. We want to be rewarded for our efforts, or at least we want a little sympathy for all the effort it takes to keep up this level of activity and anxiety. Does he not understand how difficult it is to be a sensible, sincere, and caring adult in these times?
Some suggest Jesus went against Jewish culture by teaching Mary, saying that women were forbidden to learn the Torah. I believe, as usual, Jesus was turning things upside down and inside out. Just like that, Jesus liberates Mary from her socially defined status of inferiority and marginalization. And by following Jesus, not only was Mary transformed, but the world she inhabited was transformed.
Remember, Jesus told us to seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. That’s what Mary did. She sought Jesus first. But Martha was concerned about ‘What shall we eat?’ or, ‘What shall we drink?’.
Martha is so put out by the situation that she goes to Jesus and says to him “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” And Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus gently rebukes Martha for being "worried and distracted" by her many tasks and her resentment of Mary's behavior. Jesus tells her that she has lost her focus; she needs only one thing. And what is that one thing? The answer is in the story of the Good Samaritan, which as we read last week, precedes this one. Martha needs to focus on loving God and her neighbor as herself; to do this one thing is to choose the better part, to be a disciple of Jesus.
It is important to note in our text but Jesus does not deny the value of what Martha is or of what she is doing. He does not say to her that everything is all right and that there is nothing to do or to worry about. It is not that the work is unimportant; it is not that Jesus does not appreciate work, for he knows, as we do, that society would fall apart without the activity and anxiety of the Martha's of this world. No, he says to her, in essence, you have your priorities wrong. Your sister knows that she has something to learn from me; don't just do something, stand there, and listen to me.
At this point, someone usually teaches a lesson about how important it is not to get so busy that we forget to spend quiet, contemplative time with Jesus. And while I think that is a good lesson I have a feeling we may be missing the point of what Jesus is talking about.
You see, I think what has to be addressed is that both Jesus and Mary were committing a social taboo. Women could serve men, but it was inappropriate for them to join in with the guys the way that Mary was doing. Women weren’t supposed to be taught by Rabbis or sit in the room with a bunch of men discussing the Torah. So I think it would be a logical assumption to think the people hearing this story would have been much more shocked about Mary assuming the role of a religious disciple than her not helping in the kitchen…and that is what Jesus was referring to.
God used the story of two well-known women in the Bible, Martha and Mary, to demonstrate the type of relationship He wants with each of us. The two sisters had contrasting approaches to their walk with God, and thus got difference results. Martha was anxious and un-trusting. Mary got alone with God and worshipped at Jesus’ feet. Martha frantically rushes over to interrupt the intimate gathering. Everyone casually looks up at her as the Lord easily sets the record straight. Feeling compassion for Martha, He reassuringly says, “Martha, Martha … you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." After all, if Jesus could feed the 4,000 and 5,000, then certainly He could handle supper for a house full of people.
Sometimes we just forget how big our God is and we run around with what we shall call the “Martha Syndrome” trying to make everything just right when all we need to do is just Trust in the Lord with all of our heart and not rely on our own understanding.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.