Corpus Christi Blog

Martha, Mary, and Discipleship

07-17-2016HomiliesFr. Chad King

My brothers and sisters in Christ, both our 1st reading and our Gospel teaches us how to welcome Christ, how to show hospitality to our Lord.  You are probably familiar with the Gospel story of Martha and Mary.  Martha the server and Mary the prayer.  Jesus says Mary, the prayer, has chosen the better part.  Although this Gospel of Martha and Mary has confused many people, and some, especially women, have defended the actions of Martha, I want to give 3 angles, 3 points from this Gospel, so as to help each one of us learn how to truly welcome our Lord into our hearts and lives and become his disciple.

First of all, In the past, some have interpreted this Gospel to kind of highlight prayer and downplay the active life, to kind of compare the contemplative life verses the active life, showing that sitting at the feet of Jesus in a life of prayer is better and the active life isn’t as important.  But to be clear, hospitality, welcoming Christ into our hearts and lives, and indeed to become a disciple involves both prayer and action- the action is evidenced in our 1st reading.  Abraham, Sarah, and his servant quickly prepare a meal for his Divine guests.  They did not just sit there, but they actively sacrificed the best steer, baked bread, and prepared a nice meal and waited on them.  So action is just as important in fully welcoming Christ, it’s not one of the other, but both is needed.  But for our sakes, one of the things this Gospel can teach us, is to realize that prayer, listening to God, should come before acting.  The trouble is that we tend to act before we listen, we act without really listening to what God is calling us to do. We are not a very contemplative society, we are much more action oriented, much more like Martha- which is why so many might defend Martha so as to validate their busy lives.  The business of our lives and use of technology tends to give us short attention spans and so we need to make time for silence and reflection and develop the ability to listen to God.  Do you consult God before you choose what to do, or are your actions on your own and not prompted by or with God?  Actions are great, but action without contemplation is problematic.  We should listen first, then act.

Another point we should take from this Gospel story is about the one and the many.  Jesus says, Martha Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.  In Latin, it says Mary has chosen the ‘unum necessarium’ the one thing necessary’.  The key in the Spiritual life, is having our life, mind, will focused on the one thing necessary, then all the other activities of our lives will fall into place.  We will know what to do once we contemplate and pray to God, once we have oriented our lives around the one thing necessary.  The problem in this Gospel isn’t that Martha is busy and Mary isn’t, but that Martha is concerned with many things, she is lost in the many of her life.  Mary is anchored in the one.  When you wake up in the morning and think about all the many things you have to do that day, are you finally about one thing?  If not, then we are wrapped up in Martha’s problem, being concerned with many things.  But even in the midst of the many activities, we can say yes, I am about one thing.  That everything is done for, with, and in God.   That everything I do is focused to give glory to God, then we are in a good spiritual space, we are in the space of Mary.  Let not be worried about the many, but focused on the one thing necessary.

The last point, after ‘Listen first, then act’ and about the ‘one and the many’, has to do with who Jesus calls do discipleship.  This point comes from NT Wright, the great Anglican biblical scholar.  He says that throughout the Gospels, Jesus overturned many of the social norms of the times.  Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners, something that was shocking at the time.  Jesus associated with and was kind to Samaritans, Gentiles, and Roman soldiers, something no Jew would do.  He touched lepers, those who were unclean in society.  And for our purposes, one of the most radical overturning of the social norms of the time was the radical inclusion of women.  He spoke and conversed publicly with women, he allowed women into his inner circle of friends, including Martha and Mary.  NT Wright shows that in this Gospel, Jesus was in the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.  Martha is in the space normally reserved for women, in the kitchen.  The women were usually busy in the kitchen preparing the meals while the men were out at the table conversing.  Now if a Rabbi or a prominent person was in the house, they would sit at his feet.  Likewise, a disciple, one who followed the Rabbi and learned from him, would sit at the Rabbi’s feet, so as they were sitting on the floor, a little behind and to the side of the Rabbi.  So the attitude of the disciples was to sit and listen to the great rabbi or teacher.  But notice that it was a men’s role.  So now we can see why Martha and probably everyone else in the room was upset at Mary.  Martha wasn’t just upset that Mary wasn’t helping her in the kitchen, but that Mary had the gall to take the position of a man.  And Jesus by saying that Mary has chosen the better part is saying more than preferring listening over acting, although that is in play here also.  But Jesus is inviting this woman into the full life of discipleship.  He is inviting this woman into the full life of a disciple.  Keep in mind Luke who is wrote this Gospel story, is a companion of Paul.  And Paul famously writes in Galatians: “There is no Jew or Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus”.  In Christ, in the Kingdom of God, many of the social norms are turned upside down.  Now please hear that I am not advocating the for the feminist movement- for indeed while women should be treated as equals - there are differences between man and woman which we are called to recognize and appreciate.  Likewise, I am not advocating for women priests, again there is a good and purpose for the differences which Jesus himself exercised.  But what I, and what Jesus, wants you to see is the radicality of the call to discipleship.  Jesus does cut through the social norms of the times, including our own.  Everybody, rich and poor, those on the inside and the outside, man and woman, everyone is called to discipleship and that is the most important decision one will ever make.  It is for everyone, no matter what society is saying, no matter what the social norms dictate, everyone is invited to this intimacy with Christ.  Everyone is called to sit at the feet of Christ and listen to Him.  So whether you are a man or woman, rich or poor, young or old, don’t let anyone’s expectations, don’t let any social norms deprive you of this greatest good.  Sit at the feet of Jesus listen to Him then act, be focused on the one thing, and then we will be living in the better part, and it shall not be taken from us.