21 July 2013
One night in a big town where I worked in the North of Nigeria I decided to visit an African family who were members of our parish. I lost my way and decided to knock on a door to ask the people the way. The family were obviously Muslim and were eating their evening meal. We had never met before. Immediately they invited me to sit down with them and share the meal. Their custom was that the unexpected guest was to be treated as one of the family and even if they hadn’t enough to eat themselves they would make whatever sacrifices necessary to look after the stranger. For me it was real example of true hospitality.
In the first reading today we read about Abraham welcoming three strangers with great hospitality. He doesn’t realise it then but in welcoming them he is welcoming God himself. Later on in the gospels Jesus will say, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the One who sent me”
The gospel tells us of the welcome given by Martha and Mary to Jesus. Last Sunday in the story of the Good Samaritan we read about what it was to be a true neighbour – anyone who needed our help is our neighbour and this was to be shown in concrete acts of love. Today’s gospel shows us two Good Samaritans in action, Martha and Mary. Martha is the one who actually welcomes Jesus into her house and appears to be the cook and organiser. Jesus would have appreciated having a good meal after his journey. It is her way of welcoming Jesus. Mary on the other hand welcomes Jesus by sitting at his feet and listening to him. These are two different ways of welcoming someone. It is not correct to say that Mary’s way was best. What Jesus meant by saying that “Mary had chosen the better part” was that at that particular moment that was the best response for her. At another time she might need to take on the role of cook and organiser.
We must remember that at this stage of his life Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem where he would die on the cross. He was probably fearful of what was ahead of him. So when he comes to the house of Mary and Martha perhaps he just wants to relax and take a break before continuing his journey. Maybe the last thing he wanted was someone fussing over him and so he appreciates Mary’s quiet attentiveness as she listens to him speaking. It is obvious that Jesus knows the two sisters well and it would not have been his first visit. That is why Martha’s complaint about her sister would come from a relationship of trust and friendship with Jesus where she felt o.k. about complaining to him. One would not do this with strangers. Her familiarity with Jesus gave her that freedom. Jesus’ response to Martha then is that she not giving herself fully to what she is about. She wanted her sister to do the same work of cooking and organising just then.
Here we touch on a deeper meaning in the incident. At the time of Jesus only men sat at the feet of the Rabbis or Teachers of the Law. It was not the place for women. The cultural roles would have been quite rigid as regards the role and place of women in society. So Jesus is emancipating or freeing women to be equally entitled to do this. Is he not the first real feminist? He is saying that God’s love and word is addressed to everyone, men and women alike. So Jesus criticises Martha for being a prisoner of what she considers to be the proper role of women. He is inviting her to break away from the concept situating a woman as one to be confined to housework only. As a woman, each is entitled to have others interests and concerns too, if this is possible.
Mary, and in fact every woman has the right to listen to the Word of God. House tasks must not suppress that interest. This is a woman’s right which is still not recognised in many cultures even in the so-called developed countries. By his words and deeds Jesus liberates women from a concept which maintains them in a secondary role as mere housewives with no other possibilities to develop themselves.
Jesus then it teaching us that an active life which leaves no time for prayer and listening to God will soon become dry and barren. On the other hand a relationship with God that does not bother with the neighbour is nothing but cult worship that may well cut a person away from the realities of life.
Is there not a Martha and Mary in each of us? As the Book of Ecclesiastes says: “there is a time for everything under heaven”. Sometimes the call is for active service of my neighbour, at other times a time for prayer and contemplative listening to God’s word. When it is time for activity let our focus be totally on that. When it is a time to listen and pray that should be our focus. What is the Lord calling me to do at different times? If I am asked to be active and and am simply wishing I had time to be quiet or if I am called to pray and am all the time thinking about what I should do, then am I not fretting and worrying like Martha?
“Lord give us the gift to truly listen to you speaking to us and at each moment may we be guided by the Spirit to choose the better part. Amen.”
Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA