Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Sixteenth Sunday of the Year: 2016

A woman named Martha received him into her house.

It is curious that we so rarely find Jesus in a domestic setting. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus is born not in a home, but in a makeshift stable, presented publicly in temple and finally lost and found in the streets of the big city, where he will spend most of his time.  And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” After that, the screen goes blank until his baptism.  From that point on it is not the cozy old home place but the road to Jerusalem, to the fickle crowds, to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he sweats blood and wrestles with his agony, and finally to the Cross, the nails and death.

The story in the Gospel this Sunday is the great exception to the rule: a bit of joy in the approaching darkness: the little house in Bethany, filled with pot and pans, water on the boil, chores, obligations, love and the company of two women.  

One is always busy, ruling over things, always behind schedule, and concerned that everything will come out right.  At the same time she contributes a note of verisimilitude: the tension, the stress, the impatience, the anger, which is also inevitably a part of family and home: "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me."

The other sits at the feet of Jesus and listens like a precocious child who cannot lose the opportunity to hear from a guest, attentive the way only a child can be at story-time.

This passage has often been interpreted as an allegory of the contemplative and active lives and of the superiority of the contemplative over the active: “one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her."

But St.  Augustine’s take on this episode is a different.  He points out that we are not to read it as a criticism of Martha’s service. If we took it in this sense, "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, to be eager for the pleasant teaching; occupy themselves with the knowledge that saves; not care whether there is a stranger in town or whether someone needs bread or clothing, someone needs to be visited, or to be bought back or to be buried.

Well, then, what is the meaning of Jesus concluding remark? Augustine thought that the clue lay in the observation that Mary’s "better part" would not be taken away from her, that is, her part was better precisely because it would never be taken away. The two women stand for two lives, the life of this age and the life of the age to come. This life is full of troubles and difficulties, fears and temptations, and to meet them Martha gets to work. But in the next life there will be no need of Martha’s efforts  because there will be no hunger or thirst or nakedness or illness. But Mary’s activity of listening to the Word of Truth himself will continue in the next life, when instead of the crumbs that she and we can gather now we and she will be feasting at the full table of the Lord. "We now are where Martha was; we hope for what Mary was.

Two centuries later St. Gregory the Great said that the two lives were united in Christ who worked miracles in the city and also spent nights in prayer on the mountain. He thus provided 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.

To be sure Mary chose the better part at Christ’s feet because our listening to the Word will never be over and done with. But Martha the busy one, the one with whom likely most of us sympathize, was not so different from her sister. She came in and out, keeping the kitchen door open, and with her hands down in the flour, listened with one ear and loved.

A woman named Martha received him into her house.

No comments: