16th Sunday Ordinary Time Mass Readings and Reflections Martha and Mary

All the Mass readings for this Sunday are here

The Gospel  from Luke relates the story of two sisters Martha and Mary ( their brother was Lazarus and they had a home in Bethany near Jerusalem.

Jesus entered a village
where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
She had a sister named Mary
who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,
"Lord, do you not care
that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me."
The Lord said to her in reply,
"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."

Every woman is both Mary and Martha at different times on different days of the week and different times of our lives. The problem in our lives is finding out which one needs to take priority at any one time.
The resentment we feel when we are too busy and active is because we know that there is a Mary inside us who is the contemplative part of us that is desperately needing nourishment and expression. 
The other problem is other people not realising when we need to change from one role to another; we are often stereotyped by other people's expectations into one single role.

Martha is the uber hausfrau, Domestic Goddess, Nigella Lawson, Stepford Wife  - all wrapped up in one and her inner Mary is starved . 

She is wrestling with the realisation that she is missing out.

I think Martha got the rough end of the wedge in this parable - she was only doing what any good Jew of her time would do – providing hospitality and serving a guest. Her problem was that she gave in to resentment over Mary’s choice. 
Mary’s actions were quite controversial at the time as the place of sitting at a Rabbi’s feet was usually reserved only for disciples of that teacher and disciples would be men not women. Yet here is a woman paying focused attention not on Jesus’ practical needs of food and drink, but to his words. 
“Martha, Martha”, Jesus said. How many times have we Stress Junkies been a Martha?

So much to do, so much to do!
We know the routine for Martha. As soon as she learned that Jesus was coming, she went into high gear planning the menu, scrubbing, mopping, dusting, tidying. Of course, there was shopping to do, food to prepare…the list seemingly endless. And why not, she’s the older sister, the practical one, the responsible one. It’s what she does.

The big day arrives, and we can picture the scene...

Martha’s in the kitchen. She slaves away over hot pots in a hot room. She sets the table, brings out trays of food, refills glasses…Mary sits at the feet of the guest of honor, listening, laughing. She’s enjoying the time. No wonder Martha finally loses it. She complains to Jesus that Mary should come and help her.

Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things…” 

Picture this, you’ve been killing yourself for days, everyone is in YOUR house, eating YOUR food, and drinking YOUR wine. 
This party is all about Jesus, and here he is, he’s putting YOU on the spot for making sure everything is perfect? 
And in front of EVERYONE  he rebukes you -  It's a bit much.

Jesus knows Martha has a big problem; one that leaves her helplessly devoted to cooking, cleaning, serving, worrying, hurrying, and troubled.,a product of  others expectations, her dominant personality, her decisions; for Martha, who lived two thousand years ago, was Type A.
Stress Junkies are notorious for always looking for what's next, rather than what's happening right now. But Martha was aware of that and didn't really like being reminded of her predicament .
Her response might have been along the lines of ...................
"Stop and smell the roses they say, and why not? 
Why not stop, smell the roses, and ...while I'm there, I'll deadhead the spent blooms, pull a few weeds, and add some fertilizer. Strike a balance!  Heck, I know what I need but I can't get away from the rut I'm in."

Martha, takes on the typical role of Jewish matriarch and hostess energetically using her time to prepare a meal for her honoured guest – the teacher and rabbi.
Mary, takes upon herself not the role of hostess, but that of devotee or disciple. She sits at the teacher’s feet.

This short passage illustrates in many ways the contemplative’s heartfelt desire and longing for communion with God – intimacy, relationship, time, devotion, prayer, listening. 
The contemplative is almost driven to put aside the business of daily life and find time and space to set aside to contemplating the wonder,  tenderness and love of Jesus. 

Usually in the history of world religions the contemplative vocation has been considered a ‘high’ one. Yet, to be a contemplative is in some ways an anti-social, rejection of ordinary life. Instead it is a choice to find the insights of transcendence in solitude, quiet and apparent inactivity.
  • what she has chosen in those precious moments of closeness with an extraordinary teacher is the contemplative  heart. 

  • She chooses stillness, devotion and attention to the presence and words of a unique divine messenger. 

  • Mary and Martha managed to make Jesus feel totally welcome in their house in Bethany. They did it by successfully juggling two seemingly conflicting priorities: Mary entertained His divinity while Martha entertained His humanity.
  • Contemplatives follow in this ancient tradition of spending time at the "feet of God."  
  • The two sisters are contrasted in their responses to the presence of Jesus in their home but both showed genuine  hospitality of the heart

God is searching for modern “houses of Bethany” that have credibility in both divine and human terms and in our own lives we all seek the same balance where compassion for humanity on the horizontal plane of our lives intersects with passion for divinity on the vertical plane of eternity. 

This is the cross of Jesus that we carry because our modern society leaves little space for the fulfilment of both.
Mary makes herself spiritually and emotionally available to Jesus and and in that moment He acknowledged her as His follower. More importantly Jesus said that part would never be taken from her.

I would not have been a poet
except that I have been in love
alive in this mortal world,
or an essayist except that I
have been bewildered and afraid,
or a storyteller had I not heard
stories passing to me through the air,
or a writer at all except
I have been wakeful at night
and words have come to me
out of their deep caves
needing to be remembered.

But on the days I am lucky
or blessed, I am silent.

I go into the one body
that two make in making marriage
that for all our trying, all
our deaf-and-dumb of speech,
has no tongue. Or I give myself
to gravity, light, and air
and am carried back
to solitary work in fields
and woods, where my hands
rest upon a world unnamed,
complete, unanswerable, and final
as our daily bread and meat.

The way of love leads all ways
to life beyond words, silent
and secret. To serve that triumph
I have done all the rest.

Wendell Berry – from the poem 1994

The New Being by Paul Tillich is worth a read from here.


Tim said...

Phil, the conflict you lay out here with such exegetical finesse is one that troubles us all. Should I be busy? Should I be still? Doing or listening? And the truth that slips between the Mary/Martha dualism, I think, is that when we're Mary, we long to be Martha on many levels, and vice-versa. The grass is always greener, as they say.

One way to resolve this dilemma, perhaps, is to focus on what we're learning. I've found in my own experience that when I do things just to get them done, I'm basically running on autopilot, not attending to lessons and nuances that I need to discover. The same goes when I let things go to make time for listening. My disengagement from activity can easily lapse into passive hearing, not intently engaged comprehension.

For me, the litmus is whether or not I'm learning--or re-learning--a useful thing. If not, it's probably time to shut down the Martha side and fire up Mary, or pull Mary away and get back in the kitchen with Martha.

This post speaks to me in a much-needed way. Thank you!


Philomena Ewing said...

Thanks Tim. You speak words of wisdom here. I know I oscillate between the two -multi-tasking becomes a way of life for us all these days and discernment is much needed.
Bless you