Ordinary XVI: Mary and Martha
Jesus was the recipient of many expressions of hospitality during his ministry. Some invitations were offered from more genuine motives than others and all provided for very eventful encounters indeed. The story of Mary and Martha is one that, in the space of a few verses, sends the religious and cultural stereotypes of the day into a swirl and gives occasion for us to reflect and reassess how we discern the paths we take living out our Christian faith.
Martha, understandably, wants everything to go well for the master’s visit. For some of the invitations Jesus accepted resulted in monumental failures of hospitality. For example, he was preaching at a house in Capernaum when the roof was torn open and a paralytic man lowered through it by friends seeking his healing. Then there was the time Jesus suffered the indignity of being at a wedding where the wine ran out. There were also those occasions where his hosts failed to provide the most basic signs of welcome - oil for anointing or water to wash their dusty feet. Martha is trying to insure that no such disasters befall her offer of hospitality.
Mary, we are told, takes the better way. Rather than worrying over the preparations Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. As one author says, listening to one’s quests is indeed the greatest gift of hospitality. It might seem that Jesus is choosing reflection above action but there is something else going on in this drama. Jesus says nothing about the respective roles of Mary and Martha until Martha complains to him. She says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”. Jesus replies, “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.” It is not Martha’s desire to provide hospitality that is the problem, but rather her attitude to it. She is not really offering hospitality at all but doing mere “work”. True, the New Testament word used here in Greek is diakonia, a word often translated as “service” rather than “work”. And it is the same word from which we derive the Holy Order of deacon. Perhaps it is translated “work” in some English editions to catch Martha’s feeling of being put upon or taken advantage of, rather offering the genuine service of hospitality. Does Martha feel that if she had the assistance of her sister she could be rid of these “jobs that must be done” so she too could sit at Jesus’ feet. We are told Martha is distracted by her preparations, but in Jesus’ response to her he says she is worried and distracted, or even upset.
Mary has chosen the better part. Whatever the pressures upon her to fulfil social norms: to do the tasks expected of a woman; to offer culturally acceptable hospitality; to do her utmost to help her sister; or because she was a woman, to abstain from sitting at the master’s feet, Mary overcomes these burdens to take her rightful place at the feet of Jesus as his disciple.
Mary has chosen the best part, but who of us has not found ourselves in Martha’s position feeling put upon to do the menial tasks while others reap the benefits? And beyond these everyday experiences, I wonder if you like me have agonised over what our faith demands of us in the complex situations presented to us by modern life. The story of Mary and Martha also has lessons for us as community of faith more broadly. There seems so much to fret about concerning the state and the very future of our Church. Declining congregations, diminishing social prestige, dwindling political influence, devolving cultural relevance, demoralising failures and abuses of leadership, all give cause for worry and distraction.
From a global perspective there is much more to give us great cause for anxiety. In some countries our brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering horrendous persecution. On Boxing Day last year the British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt commissioned a review focusing on the global persecution of Christians. An Interim Report was released at Easter this year. Just at the time of the attack on churches in Sri Lanka. It makes harrowing reading:
Given the scale of persecution of Christians today, indications that it is getting worse and that its impact involves the decimation of some of the faith group’s oldest and most enduring communities, the need for governments to give increasing priority and specific targeted support to this faith community is not only necessary but increasingly urgent.
One author has picked up on a current of thought that likens our age to the time of Benedict of Nursia. Benedict died in 550 AD. In his bestselling book, The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher sees a new Dark Age looming. Christianity, he claims, survived the first Dark Age through the efforts of monks who followed St Benedict’s Rule. The Rule gave those living the monastic life discipline and purpose and encouraged a humane and balanced community life. The Rule of St Benedict, Dreher believes, can provide modern Christians with pathway to face a time when people might not just be apathetic towards Christians, but outwardly hostile. He is not positing that we all “get thee to a monastery” but he does challenge Christians to reflect critically on their life in the world by prioritising their faith – a faith robustly informed by the Rule of St Benedict, and the liturgy, tradition and fellowship of the Church. As he applies his rule to the central human activities of work, relationships, sexuality and attitudes to technology he comes to more conservative conclusions than I would, for example, he suggests that members of churches make the effort to live closer to each other so they might offer fellowship and support more readily. He does however warn against fundamentalism and implores that the new faith-centred communities, schools and churches need to be open, welcoming and witnessing to the world rather than closed, self-serving and frightened ghettos. Dreher gives an insight into the qualities that living by the Benedict option could engender:
Think of teachers who make sure kids learn things they won’t learn in government schools. Think of writers who write what they really believe and find ways to get it to the public, no matter what the cost. Think of priests and pastors who find a way to live out religious life despite condemnation and legal obstacles, and artists who don’t give a rip for official opinion. Think of young people who decide not to care about success in society’s eyes and who drop out to pursue a life of integrity, no matter what it costs them. These people who refuse to assimilate and instead build their own structures are living the Benedict Option. P.95
To me it is as though Dreher is saying we must face the challenges that confront us as Mary did, sitting quietly at the feet of the master, rather than as Martha did, worried and distracted by the enormity of the task. But having thrown off the expectations of society there is the very real likelihood that negative responses and even persecution could result.
There is much that could worry and distract us. There is the temptation to look for that program that will revitalise the church, that strategy that will grow the church, that miracle will save the church or that vicar who will achieve all of these. Rather than programs, strategies and high-achievers, we have this great gift of this simple image of the humble figure of Mary sitting at her master’s feet even while all was swirling around her. The choice is not between action and reflection but between anxiety and the courage to be disciples of Jesus amid all the myriad distractions that surround us.