Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 18, 2010 – St. John’s, Goshen
This little story about Martha and Mary has often puzzled readers and hearers of St. Luke’s Gospel, the only one of the four that includes it. Natural sympathies seem almost always to go toward Martha, who was very busy taking proper care of her great guest, while Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to him. (It’s perhaps worth noting that she wasn’t sitting and vacantly staring at a TV screen!) But when she appeals to Jesus to decide between her and her sister, Martha receives a gentle but affectionate rebuke: “Martha, Martha, you are fretting over many things, but only one is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.” Remember the rule of thumb: If you find you don’t like some word of Jesus, consider that it was written down for your sake. So if we sympathize with Martha, let’s try to understand why her complaint is not accepted by Christ.
Perhaps St. Augustine sensed that similar sympathy and similar complaints might arise among his congregation. If Martha’s service was itself being criticized by the Lord, then “people ought to stop ministering to the needy; they ought to choose ‘the better part,’ which will not be taken from them; they ought to devote themselves to the word, be eager for the pleasant teaching; occupy themselves with the knowledge that saves; not care whether there is a stranger in town, who there might need bread and who clothing, who needs to be visited, who bought back, who buried. Stop doing the works of mercy and give yourself to knowledge alone.” Clearly Jesus could not have meant that; think only of the parable of the Last Judgement where serving Christ in the hungry and thirsty, the sick and the naked, and the homeless and imprisoned is the criterion by which our lives will be measured.
Well, then, what does Christ mean? St. Augustine followed the explanation that Jesus himself gave: “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” Mary’s part is better because it will not be taken away. What Martha is doing belongs to this age, but one day, in the Kingdom, there will be no hungry people to feed, no thirsty people to give water to, no naked people to clothe, no strangers to take in, no dead people to bury. No one will be in such need and so Martha’s kind of activity will be taken away, will cease, whereas Mary’s activity will continue as delight in the full banquet of truth, only crumbs of which she now enjoys as she sits at the feet of Truth himself and listens to him. “We are where Martha was;” Augustine told his people, “we hope for what Mary was. Let us do well what Martha did so that we can have fully what Mary had.”
Then he offered an application to the relationship between him and his congregation, in effect saying that by trying to feed his people with Christ’s word, he was playing Martha’s role, while theirs was the role of Mary. Had they not left their ordinary business behind, set aside their household chores, in order to come to church and to listen to Christ? Augustine, meanwhile, was a Martha, preparing food for their minds and hearts. He tried to get them to recognize themselves in Mary: If he said something they recognized as true, he could see what delight they took in it. It was not delight of the senses at a beautiful sound or shape or movement. No, the delight he saw on their faces, and perhaps in their exclamations, was delight in the truth, in insight, in wisdom. That delight, Mary’s delight, Augustine concluded, will be so much greater in the Kingdom: “If delight in the truth is so pleasant now, how much more pleasant will it be then. ‘Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.’”
I was struck by how close this interpretation of today’s episode is to what Scripture scholars say about it today. The Jesuit scholar, Joseph Fitzmyer, for example, says that the story means that “listening to the ‘word’ [is] the ‘one thing’ needed….. Priority is given to the hearing of the word coming from God’s messenger over preoccupation with all other concerns. Martha wanted to honor Jesus with an elaborate meal, but Jesus reminds her that it is more important to listen to what he has to say. The proper ‘service’ of Jesus is attention to his instruction, not an elaborate provision for his physical needs… A diakonia that bypasses the word is one that will never have lasting character; whereas listening to Jesus’ word is the lasting ‘good’ that will not be taken away from the listener.”
Later in our tradition Martha and Mary will become symbols respectively of the active and contemplative lives, and Jesus’ statement would even be used to argue that contemplative religious communities or orders have chosen “the better part” and are, therefore, themselves “better” than active orders or communities. But the early interpretations don’t institutionalize the difference between Martha and Mary. For St. Augustine the women stand for two lives, yes, but the one life is the one all of us are living now while the other is the life that all of us hope to live one day. Martha symbolizes present tasks and Mary anticipates future delights. The women stand for the two ages, the present world, and the world to come. With St. Gregory the Great, almost two centuries later, the symbolism has altered a bit, and the women now symbolize the difference between action and contemplation, but, Gregory hastens to add, Christ united the two types of life himself, “working miracles in the city, and spending the night in prayer on the mountain.” He did so to provide us all an example, teaching us not, out of love of contemplation, to neglect the care of our neighbors, nor again so to engage in care of our neighbors that we abandon contemplative pursuits; but to keep the two together in our minds so that the love of our neighbor does not interfere with the love of God and the love of God, transcendent as it is, does not cast out the love of our neighbors.”
Surely this is correct, and we experience it in our ordinary lives. All of us have obligations of various sorts: earning a living, caring for a household, raising children, engaging in works of charity and justice. Even when we don’t feel it or refer to it as a rat-race or the daily grind, we may experience ourselves being pulled apart by our various responsibilities and tasks, so that we feel the need for some quiet time, personal time, a mental health day, as a friend once called it. There has to be a certain rhythm to our daily lives.
Well, the same thing should be true of our Christian lives, too. I hope that you don’t think of your lives as Christians simply as a set of commandments to obey, sins to avoid, tasks to perform, duties to meet. Of course, the Christian life is demanding, no more so than when, as in last Sunday’s Gospel, we next encounter a neighbor in need along the road of life. But we are supposed to live our Christian lives out of joy, out of delight, in the truth that God has revealed to us in Christ. Augustine thought he could discern delight on the faces of his congregation when Christ gave him something true to feed them. Well, how much delight do we feel in our Christian lives? If the answer is not much, perhaps it’s because with respect to our Christian lives, we have become like grumbling Martha and maybe it’s time to quiet ourselves down and sit at the feet of Christ and listen for his word. Perhaps especially we need to make sure that we give some quiet time to the Lord for silent prayer, for reading the Scriptures privately, for reading some other books or magazines or articles, through any one of which Christ may speak to us. Is an hour a week possible? A day of recollection every couple of months? A retreat every year or two?
One of the Psalms has the line: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). The first verb could also be translated “Let go,” “Take time to”–in the Latin translation it’s the word from which “vacation” comes. Some times we have to let go, stop the busy work, take time out, if we are going to learn anything. Some times what God has to say to us can only be heard in ready silence.
Isn’t it true that most of us are Marthas most of the time, and don’t we sympathize with her complaint? If so, the Lord is asking whether we oughtn’t, every once in a while at least, to try to be more like Mary.