Readings: genesis 18:1-10a; Galatians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42
Today’s Gospel may be short but it has generated volumes of commentary and spiritual reflections. As valid as such literature may be in its own right, it may betray the Gospel by truncating it into universal principles (e.g., contemplation is superior to action). I am persuaded that Jesus in the Gospel, especially in the Gospel of St. Luke, addresses specific people in particular situations. I believe that one valid way of reading today’s familiar story of Martha and Mary is to understand it as a conversion story.
Clearly no one in this domestic vignette is doing anything immoral. I believe that there is a light, friendly atmosphere allowing the affectionate banter between Martha and Jesus. But I also believe that Jesus is listening attentively to his good friend, Martha, and recognizes in her something she cannot yet see. I wonder how long he’s seen it–probably long before this incident–but he can hear in her voice that now is the right time to say something.
What am I suggesting that Jesus sees and hears in Martha’s words? She’s doing a good thing, a very good thing, giving her friend unstinting hospitality. According the rabbis of this era, women are spiritually superior to men and were not bound to the obligation of communal prayer in the synagogue. Fulfilling their domestic duties was an excellent way to fulfill God’s will and to find God in the mundane. Men were too gross to achieve that and needed directives, sermons and prayers to focus their attention properly. So no one in her world would worry about Martha while everyone might scratch their head when they considered Mary.
Martha isn’t content to scratch her head but says to Jesus: Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me. That could have been said in a joking tone, but it’s a pregnant intervention. Think of the implications, were Mary to help, Martha could get off her feet; and perhaps sit at the feet of Jesus herself and listen.
Anyone else might have applauded Martha for the good deed she was performing but I think Jesus heard in her words what Martha really meant. She was stretched thin, her work was becoming pointless and wasn’t getting her any closer to God. The work was replacing God with someone else’s idea of good and godly work. It’s not just evil things that separate us from God; too often laudable things, “correct” things, approved things can sneak in, feed on our energies and sever us from that vital connection to God. It’s time for conversion.
Jesus answers Martha in such a way as to knock her good deeds off the pedestal everyone else has erected for them.
I wonder: was this the moment that gave Martha permission to unplug and draw closer to Jesus? Was this when she began that journey in faith that would lead her to assent, at the grave of her brother, that Jesus is the resurrection and the life?