Last weekend’s Gospel of the Good Samaritan was an example of how a disciple should observe their surroundings and act compassionately. In this week’s story, Mary is an example of how a disciple should listen. Like the Samaritan, Mary is a marginalized person in society. And, both do what would not be expected of them. As a woman, Mary would be expected, like Martha, to do the “grunt” work of all that would be necessary to provide hospitality for a guest. But, here once again Jesus breaks with the social conventions of his time. Just as a Samaritan would not ordinarily be a model for neighborliness, so a woman would not sit with the men around the feet of a Master Teacher.
The brief story (it’s only 5 verses) of Mary and Martha has become something of a Rorschach Test. Interpreters down through the ages have taken sides with one or the other. Some see Mary as a model of the contemplative life. She was taking the role of a male disciple, so she is the darling of Feminist interpreters today. She has become the role model for women in seminaries pursuing a theological education.
Like Martha, we sometimes get caught up into warped thinking. We forget that the important thing is not in DO-ing but in BE-ing. Jesus teaches us to sit – to listen – to learn – to love. Martha welcomed Jesus into her house, and then went to the kitchen to fix dinner. Mary, Martha’s sister, did NOT go to the kitchen to help, but instead “sat at Jesus’ feet and heard his word. That seems OK and typical, doesn’t it? You can’t just seat the guest and then everyone abandon them to do all work in the kitchen. But it wasn’t OK with Martha. Luke says that Martha “was distracted with much serving.” Have you had her experience? Feeling like you are alone “in over your head” with the details of hospitality, or setting up for the workshop, or a concert gathering?
Martha needed help, but she didn’t know how to handle it. Because, honestly she (and maybe you) did like to work, and you usually pitch in and do your part. And, sometimes you end up working while others sit around chatting. So, you know how Martha felt. Can’t you see it: Martha, angry at being abandoned in the kitchen, came to Jesus and said, “Lord!” Now don’t miss that little word – “Lord.” The first word out of Martha’s mouth acknowledges Jesus as Lord. Good job, Martha!
But then Martha, who has just acknowledged Jesus as Lord, rebukes Him. First, she asks if Jesus doesn’t care that Mary isn’t helping. Then she gives Jesus an order: “Tell my lazy sister to get into the kitchen to help me.” Well, those aren’t the exact words that Luke uses to report this incident, but that’s what Martha meant! Now that kind of outburst has a tendency to make everyone angry. If you are Mary, you wonder why Martha didn’t just say – to you, rather than to Jesus – “Mary, I need some help.” And if you are the guest – like Jesus – it’s embarrassing to have your hostess blow up like that.
Now, we would not have handled the situation like Martha did. We might have muttered and murmured but we’ve had all the communication workshops. We could have coached Martha how to do it differently. She could have instead of stomping into the living room and chewing out Jesus and Mary, she could have taken a quiet minute in the kitchen and. prayed: “God, I’m so angry. Something is tempting me to go out there to spew my anger all over Jesus and Mary – but I know that’s wrong. Help me to feel love for Jesus, my guest, and Mary, my sister. And then help me to ask Mary nicely for help.”
We know that Mary’s focus on her relationship with Jesus was so right. At the same time we recognize Martha’s anger was so disruptive. Jesus said as much. He said: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
We can be such busy people, and we live in such a busy world. It’s easy to miss the important things. In light of all the violence in our world we may feel helpless… we can pray, yes and we can join the prayer crusade that stops one minute at 9 p.m. to pray for world peace but what else can we do? We’ve heard, and truly believe, peace begins at home. It begins with each one of us starting with our interactions with each other… in gentle direct communication. Hopefully we don’t engage in fist fights but we need to be on guard that we don’t “slap” another in the face with our voice tone, volume or hurtful words? We can quiet TV violence and noise pollution with the click of a remote button but once rude words escape our lips they reverberate in the atmosphere for all eternity.
The story of Martha and Mary reinforces our belief that there is value in sitting – in listening – in learning – in loving. When we are tempted, like Martha, to think the important thing is doing – remember Jesus’ teaching to sit – to listen – to learn – to love. Sit at God’s company to be quiet and listen – don’t fill every second with chatter. Treasure the moment. We may live in a Martha-world, but we don’t need to let it invade our walls. We need to take time to be Mary. Time to commune with the One we profess to love about all others … time for personal lectio, spiritual reading … time to BE and ask ourselves, “Do I really put God first in my life? Would my actions prove it? Jesus says that that’s the one thing that’s needed. He says that’s the good part that won’t be taken from us.
~Reflection by Sister Roberta Baily, OSB, Prioress