by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Luke 10: 38-42
Once again, context is vital to a clear understanding of today’s gospel-reading. Last week’s story from Jesus of the Good Samaritan was triggered by questions put to Jesus by a lawyer. His first question was: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit everlasting life?” As we heard, Jesus immediately turned the lawyer’s question back to him: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The lawyer’s answer could not have been better, for he quoted perfectly the Great Commandment recorded in Deuteronomy (6: 5) and echoed in Leviticus (19: 18), pointing out that loving one’s neighbour as oneself was a logical consequence of loving God with all of one’s heart, soul, strength and mind. The lawyer’s follow-up question: “And who is my neighbour?” prompted Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan.
Luke follows that immediately with an account of what happened when Jesus, still making his way to Jerusalem, visited the house of Martha and found himself being asked to deal with some domestic tension between her and her sister. Instead of taking sides, Jesus took the opportunity to give a lesson on how to give one’s attention to loving God. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today’s first reading from Genesis introduces what becomes the central theme of today’s gospel-reading.
The account of the hospitality which Abraham and Sarah extended to the three strangers who unexpectedly turned up at their dwelling, highlights an unwritten rule rigorously observed in the Middle East, then and even now, that passers-by, be they friends or strangers, must be afforded the utmost in welcome and hospitality. That includes that those who are suddenly put into the role of being hosts are expected to give priority to the needs and wants of their newly-arrived guests. Today’s Genesis reading reveals that Abraham and Sarah had unwittingly welcomed and extended hospitality to three of God’s angels, whose gratitude was expressed by a promise that Sarah would be blessed with a child. (The fifteenth century Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev wrote/created an icon of the three visitors, presenting them as a metaphor of the Triune God, whom he saw as the embodiment of spiritual unity, peace, harmony, mutual love and humility.)
The urgency evident in Jesus at the start of his journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9, 51-62, 13th Sunday in Ordinary) persists in today’s gospel-reading and into those we will hear in the weeks ahead. It is as though Jesus is mentally calculating all he still has to teach his disciples and how little time remains for him to do it. We hear today how Martha wanted Jesus to side with her in her complaint against Mary for not doing her expected share of kitchen duties. But Jesus has other things on his mind and, because he is a guest, his hosts have a responsibility to attend to his needs and wants as first priority.
Let’s then look closely at what is unfolding. Martha is intent on providing the guest with a substantial, meal, but realises that she needs Mary’s help. Mary has come to appreciate Jesus’ status and the significance of his teaching. Moreover, Jesus is intent on grasping every opportunity to teach and to proclaim his message and Mary is more than happy to provide a listening ear, and accepts Jesus’ offer to her to sit at his feet. That Jesus allowed her to sit at his feet was a breach of accepted practice. Only disciples were permitted to sit at the feet of a teacher, rabbi or recognised prophet, and women were not recognised as disciples. That was a role allowed to men only. It seems that Martha agreed with accepted practice and wanted her sister with her in the kitchen where custom and practice decreed that she should be. On top of that she violated social etiquette by pressuring a guest to intervene in a domestic disagreement.
Even though she had already embarrassed herself by speaking out as she did, Jesus did not add to her embarrassment by criticising her. He merely said that Mary had made a better decision by putting first the needs of their guest, which were to take the opportunity to share the message of God’s love with any and all who were prepared to stop and listen to him. Jesus was not prepared to support the view that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. Moreover, he chose to ignore the prevailing view that there was no place for women to be disciples.
The twin parts of the Great Commandment proclaimed by Moses were for all to be mindful of loving God with one’s total being and loving one’s neighbour as oneself. We saw last week an illustration from Jesus, with his story of the Good Samaritan, of what was involved in loving one’s neighbour. Today’s gospel-reading makes it clear that love of God involves giving time to be present to God, to invite God into our lives. Whenever we risk inviting God to be a guest in our lives, it is vital that we give time to listening to God, to hear what God’s priorities are, what God is asking of us. That means giving time to set aside distractions and preoccupations, to allow ample time to listen to a God who speaks to us in the depths of our being. It calls for being sensitive to a need we all have to make the kind of time we were once asked to set aside as Sabbath rest. This story of Martha and Mary, then, is not a celebration of doing nothing or of simply sitting still, but an invitation to make time for quietening ourselves, for being open to listen to God and to savour and be grateful for the many ways in which God has blessed us; to make what we might call “sabbath space” even on our busiest days.
While Luke, in his Gospel consistently made the point that women were prominent as disciples of Jesus, the gospel-readings of last week and this illustrate powerfully what is meant by love of neighbour and what is involved in love of God – the two essential responsibilities for disciples The Samaritan had learned what is meant by love of neighbour and proceeded to put it into action. Mary had come to know and love Jesus. To be a disciple means that one loves both. But there is something shocking, even scandalous, about a Samaritan reaching out in compassion to a Jew lying helpless in a ditch and a woman sitting at the feet of Jesus, in a place where male disciples only are allowed to sit. We have already spent time on the Good Samaritan. This week, Luke opens the way for women to sit at the feet of Jesus to learn and delight, not at the expense of Martha, but rather for her benefit and for the benefit of any community or church in need of liberation from narrow, one-track, closed-system thinking.
And let’s not forget that hospitality is first and foremost an attitude of mind and heart. Luke gives hospitality special attention in today’s gospel-reading. At least a decade before Luke compiled his Gospel, Paul, in his letter to the Romans had urged his audience: “Make hospitality your special care!” (Romans 12: 13). There is a cost to us when we invite God into our lives. We might be asked for something we’re reluctant to give.