Martha v. Mary?
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
July 17, 2016

16th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year C 
(Genesis 18:1-10; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42)
17 July 2016 – St. Austin Catholic Parish

Luke is considered the gospel of women, because Jesus interacts with more women in Luke’s gospel than in the other three gospels. Today’s gospel passage is one of the best known passages unique to Luke that is about women: Jesus’ time at the home of Martha and Mary. I’ve heard many interpretations of this passage, but most of them have not been very satisfactory. It seems as if Jesus is pitting Martha against Mary.

The theologian Carol Schlueter dreams of a day when male preachers will study the writings of female theologians as much as female preachers are expected to study the writings of male theologians. So, with that in mind, I turn to a book by Dominican Scripture theologian Sr. Barbara Reid, called Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke. Sr. Barbara begins her chapter on Martha and Mary by declaring, “the tensions imbedded in this story raise more questions and interpretive problems than any other Lukan text involving women.”

Before we wrestle with the passage, let’s celebrate God’s mercy on us. 

Most of the homilies I’ve heard on this passage seem either to miss the point, or to reach conclusions in conflict with what we know about Jesus and his teachings. So, with Sr. Barbara Reid as my scripture scholar, let’s start by examining four traditional ways that people have explained this passage.

Tradition #1: Mary and Martha represent the two poles of Christian discipleship: contemplation and action. Both contemplation and action are essential to discipleship. That’s definitely true. But then preachers go on to say that contemplation is the more important, the “better part.” Well, that’s upsetting for anybody with responsibilities. Is it wrong to earn a living or to care for a family?

Tradition #2: No, Jesus isn’t promoting contemplation over active service. We need to consider this passage in combination with the previous passage, the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that passage, Jesus calls us to serve one another. But it doesn’t seem that Luke intended the two passages to be compared and contrasted. We read them on separate weeks at Mass, so the Church obviously doesn’t see them as intimately connected.

Tradition #3: The problem is with the specifics of Martha’s actions. Jesus is chiding her for making an elaborate meal. She could have ordered take-out so that she could have spent her time sitting next to Mary at the feet of Jesus. Well, that ignores the Middle Eastern culture of hospitality that endures to this day. Conventions demanded that guests be treated lavishly.

Tradition #4: This story demonstrates Jesus’ ground-breaking treatment of women, regarding them the equals of men. Well actually, no. Sr. Barbara cites plenty of evidence than some first-century Judean Jewish women were already receiving this kind of respect and dignity.

So, what is this story about? Sr. Barbara argues that Luke gives two clues that Martha, not Mary, is a leader in the early Christian community. In Aramaic, the name “Martha” is the feminine equivalent of “Lord.” The Greek word for Martha’s serving is diakkonia, the same verb Luke uses throughout the Acts of the Apostles for describing Christian leadership.  

Could it be possible that Jesus is saying, “Martha, Martha, you are capable of so much already, but what Mary needs right now is to sit and listen to the Word of God”? That’s my interpretation of this passage.  

So, if you’ve been a regular church-goer for a while – whether here at St. Austin’s or at various places, I have news for you: WE ARE ALL MARTHA! We are the ones who need to allow the Marys to sit at Jesus’ feet, uninterrupted. If you don’t feel qualified, that’s OK. Here’s what the writer Madeleine l’Engle says: 

The qualifications needed for God’s work are very different from those of the world…. Not one of us has to be qualified in order to… read, think, and pray over Scripture. We do not heed to have gone to a theological seminary, or to have taken courses in Bible in or out of college. We do have to be willing to open ourselves to the power of the living Word. And sometimes that can be frightening.

But we are in good company. Surely Abraham and Sarah were frightened when the Lord said to them, “Leave your country, leave your family, and go to a land which I will show you.”

I’d like to plant seeds today for your prayerful consideration. The parish staff has identified three of our ministries to the “Marys” of our community that would benefit greatly from additional “Marthas” shouldering the load. Could the Holy Spirit be inviting you to step forward?

The first group of people who need to sit at the feet of Jesus right now are our children attending Sunday school. If you can volunteer to be a catechist, our fantastic religious education team will give you the training you need!

A second group who need to drink in Jesus’ love are the local working poor – those struggling to keep a roof over their heads, pay their utility bills, and get groceries. If you can join our Saint Vincent de Paul Society, other members will gladly accompany you on your first few home visits until you get the hang of it. 

And a third group who need to sit at the feet of Jesus are the newcomers to our parish. Our liturgies are great because each Mass has a slew of ministers. But the ranks always need to be replenished. If you volunteer to be a lector, a Eucharistic minister, a server, or an usher, we’ll get you the proper training.

These three ministries have some common bonds: they require an ongoing weekly or monthly commitment, and they require you to go through the Diocesan Ethics in Ministry training. Please consider if you can make that commitment.

As both the gospels of Luke and John imply, Martha was a committed, long-time leader. When Jesus comes to Bethany, it will be Martha, not Mary, who will declare: “You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” As almost any ministry volunteer will tell you, it is in serving others that we come to see the face of Christ.