|Martha and Mary, by He Qi, 1969|
Then there is “the better part,” of which much has been made, with the busy Martha set against the contemplative Mary, as though one were to be imitated and the other rebuked. But how is that view helpful? Both Martha and Mary are offering to their friend Jesus the hospitality of their home. We are not meant to miss this, because we hear in the first reading the story of Abraham and the strangers at the terebinth of Mamre, where Abraham entertains angels unawares, and is rewarded with a son in his old age. That this hospitality is the point of the story is further elucidated by the following story about the savage lack of hospitality in Sodom and Gomorrah, about which I wrote just a week ago. For their lack of hospitality, and their disregard and impious treatment of the strangers, that city is destroyed. (That is the un-narrated outcome of next week’s pericope from Gen. 18, the famous tale of Abraham bargaining with God to spare the city.)
So both women are offering to Jesus hospitality. They have different expectations of each other in this. They are both acting as deacons; one is engaged in the ministry of charity, the other is engaged in the ministry of the word and prayer, attending to the words of the Rabbi. Luke’s Jesus significantly praises Mary, the minister of the word. I have a feeling, and it’s just that, a feeling — I’m not a scripture scholar — that we’re meant to hear it as a validation of apostolic ministry for women in the Christian community. That is, the purpose of women in the Church is not merely to serve the food and make the men comfortable so they can pray and teach; the role of women and men is the same. The new creation that we are in Christ means there is no woman or man, slave or free, all are one in Christ. While it’s all right to hear “the better part” as meaning that there has to be a grounding in the word before action has meaning, it is more significant that Mary is affirmed in it, and not told by Jesus to go help with the food!
This gospel passage resounded in me with the one in which someone in the crowd calls out to Jesus when he’s preaching at home, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that fed you.” “Rather,” Jesus replies, “blessed is she who heard the word of God, and acted on it.” Even the Mother of Jesus was not blessed because of what she did so much as because of her faith, that is, her attending to the word of God, and then doing God’s will. Faith precedes work, even good work, and makes it possible. It has to be this way if there is a God. Our good words are a response to God’s kindness to us; our faith is a response to God’s faith in us.
Action, apostolic activity, whether it is charitable work, teaching, social gathering, or even liturgical prayer, is the genius of Catholicism. While a clear understanding of the Reformation and counter-Reformation thought on faith and good works reveals that in our hearts we understand the relationship between faith and works in much the same way as our Protestant neighbors, it remains the case that we’re an active bunch, and we retain the letter of James for much this very reason. We are saved by faith, there is no question about that, because God is faith’s initiator and its object, and without God there is nothing. But activity that is a person’s response to faith is the sacrament, the outward sign, of that invisible reality of salvation. How do we know this? Because God is love, and love is other-oriented. Without movement toward the other, there is no love. Furthermore, our faith tells us that, in God, being (faith) and doing (works) are one and the same. Thus, the Christian, reborn in the Spirit as the living Christ, also becomes a new creation that is a sacrament of the invisible, no longer I, but Christ in me.
Marthas and Marys in the apostolic community of the first century or the twenty-first century are both equally members of that great body of Christ in which we’re all gifted in different ways for the good of the whole. Just because I’m not an eye, says St. Paul, doesn’t mean I’m not part of the body. If everyone were an eye, where would the hearing be? If everyone were a mouth, how could we see? Marys need to work a little. Marthas need to listen some. But our gifts are such that we “make up what is lacking” in others, as St. Paul speaks of his own suffering in the reading from Colossians today. Our action needs to be grounded in the word of God, in contemplation on God’s action in our common life. Our contemplation of God’s goodness and living word needs to move us to some kind of action: even contemplative monastics let their work take some form of charity for others.
Hospitality gives us the opportunity to be like Christ in that unique way; both to attend to the heart of the person with a listening ear, and offer refreshment for the journey. I have an idea - let’s have a party this week, and do a little bit of both. Welcoming other persons into our home, or wherever we are, is a way of opening ourselves to the surprise of God’s presence. As the story of Abraham, Sarah, and the three strangers teaches us, in doing so, some have welcomed visitors from heaven. The more I think about it, the more I think that happens pretty much all the time.