Reflection on the Scripture: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
In the parallel narrative of this event, the Fourth Evangelist is at pains to remind the reader that Jesus loved Martha, and her sister Mary and Lazarus (Jn 11:5). These brief words exude a deep sense of human warmth, giving a clear impression of a strong bond of friendship between Jesus and the family of Bethany. Jesus seems to be perfectly at ease with them and at home enough with the threesome to readily accept the invitation to stay with them during his journeys. As if to stress further the idyllic character of the scene, we are told that Martha’s response to this friend’s visit is one of sincere and joyful “welcome in their home”.
However, of the three siblings, tradition has not always been kind to Martha, who clearly takes the lead when it comes to ensure that things are done around the household. Right down through the centuries, when it comes to allotting the “well-done” tag, Mary has usually been given a white hat, while Martha had to be content with a black one. We all know that the deeper the friendship the greater the honesty in what we say and do to each other. So, judging from the tone of the conversation, the welcome guest seems to disapprove of Martha’s style of welcome because, quite frankly she is clearly distracted by her many tasks. To make his point, Jesus does not hesitate to draw a comparison between the two sisters, and points out to Martha that she is unnecessarily worrying and fretting about so many things and that Mary has chosen the better part of this encounter among friends.
Martha’s outburst does sound like a reasonable complaint! After all, Jesus was that one special friend of the family deserving the kind of care and attention that only very special and very close friends deserve, and she was going to make sure that things would get done well, beginning with the dinner that Jesus would undoubted enjoy. Besides, for the Jewish household, hospitality carried a sacred nuance, and Martha is simply trying to honour her friend and guest. She is driven into action by the deep bond of friendship that Jesus shares with her, with her sister, Mary, and with her brother Lazarus. With all the work to be done, her annoyance at Mary sitting down and listening to Jesus can be well justified. I am sure that we would have demanded nothing less.
On the other hand, in a culture steeped in performance and efficiency like ours, Jesus’ response to Martha sounds quite astonishing. He seems to put down human activity, enterprise and efficiency. But it must have sounded absolutely shocking to Jesus contemporaries, in so far as that response reversed the accepted status of hospitality within the Jewish culture by placing the sacred duty of welcoming guests in second place.
There is a tendency in us to try to justify a literal rather than a critical understanding biblical narrative, and consequently the event has often been given a positive interpretation by making it the exemplar of two ways of following Jesus in discipleship. Mary, while sitting at the feet of Jesus represented the contemplative style of life and prayer, while Martha always stood for the active type. In the end, however, be it in jest or by design, Martha has often been addressed as “busy-bee Martha”, an appellation that carries a definite tinge of judgement and of pecking order between the two sisters, as much as representing opposite types of “following Jesus”.
I propose, however, that we look at the story from another perspective and shift the focus from the attitudes of the two sisters to the essence of the event. And the essence is that Jesus is the focus of the story, and the hospitality that centres the event is as much about God’s hospitality to us as about our hospitality to others. It is about our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. While Jesus is the honoured guest in the house of the two sisters, Mary is the one who finds her home at the feet of Jesus and is nourished by his presence and his words. Martha loves and cares for Jesus just as much, but in her concern for “doing everything right” she loses the focus of it all. As if all depended on herself and her “doing”, she fails to realize that Jesus is actually here sitting in her house. On the contrary, Mary, by focusing on Jesus in her home, makes her home with him, at his feet, listening to his words and “doing nothing”! Jesus does not condemn or denigrate Martha’s active life and her efforts to please him. What he reproaches her however, is that “business” that makes her the centre of the encounter, such that in the end it obliterates the very presence of God in her life. In that case, God becomes the last of a long list of “duties” and “performances” that have to be dispensed with, in order to please oneself and feel satisfied with a job well done, all in the name of God, of course.
Friendship is “being together” and, as friendship grows into deep personal relationship, words get in the way, as the love song would have it, useless rhetoric often focusing more on the “I” than on the “you” of the relationship. In an effort to please God we spend a great amount of time and energy in “saying” prayers, telling God what we want him to do for us, and doing so repeatedly lest he forgets, in performing rituals that makes us warm inside but ignorant of those around us. In our spiritual journey we become obsessed with doing as if it all depended on us totally and exclusively. This is precisely the problem with Jesus’ friend and with all the Martha’s of this world. Her desire to honour Jesus is admirable and undoubtedly very sincere, but with the best of intentions to do him honour and homage, in actual fact she focuses entirely on what she has to do, rather than on the friendship that Jesus comes to share in her house. The very language by which she expresses her concern to Jesus is significant: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me!” (Lk 10:40). Her plea is very much a prayer that the Lord do something for her, and make sure that things are done according to her expectations.
Both Martha and Mary share the same desire to welcome God in their life, but while Mary has the wisdom to waste time and listen to Jesus as her friend, Martha is driven by self-seeking and wants to please God in her own way, doing what she thinks is right and ignoring the most important element of friendship with God: the active and loving presence of God in our life, regardless of our puny efforts to do the right thing. As we read and listen to the Word of God, let pray for the courage to say nothing and resist the temptation to say anything at all, but sit at the feet of Jesus who seeks our company as a friend, and listen to him speak to our hearts.