In last Sunday’s Gospel about the Good Samaritan, we had Jesus’ teaching about the need to be actively involved in responding to the needs of others, whatever their race, culture, gender or ethnicity. That story of the Samaritan traveller is found only in St Luke’s Gospel as, indeed, is the story that immediately follows it and which is our Gospel text for this Mass. (Luke 10:38-42)

We find Jesus in the village of Bethany which lies on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem. He is in the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary, where he is being received as a guest. They have a brother named Lazarus but there is no mention of him here, nor is there mention of any other people being present.

There is an easy-going relationship between Jesus and the sisters. It is demonstrated by how the exasperated Martha does not hesitate to point out that it is partly Jesus’ fault that her sister, Mary, is leaving her all on her own to make the preparations for the meal. In reply, Jesus gently rebukes Martha and says that, really, one dish for the meal would be enough. And then he adds: ‘Mary has chosen the better part (dish); it is not to be taken from her.’

One’s first reaction to hearing this is to feel sorry for Martha … going to all that trouble to have everything perfect for their guest and then Jesus sides with her apparently lazy sister … He seems to be saying in so many words ‘one course will do, Martha; don’t bother with the amuse bouche, canapes or a first course. Come and sit down here with Mary.’

However, there is more to this episode than meets the eye. To understand its deeper meaning we need to be aware of a tension in the Church when St Luke recorded the event some 40 years after it took place. There was a disagreement of emphasis between those championing the ministry of ‘service’ or Christian action in providing for others in the community, and those involved in the ministry of preaching. ‘Sitting at the feet of Jesus’ was a term for listening to the Word of Jesus and handing it on to others. Martha and Mary represent the two sides of the disagreement – the busy Martha for the ministry of service and the listening Mary for the ministry of the Word.

Last Sunday’s story of the Good Samaritan portrayed the Christian life as one of active care for others. Here in the story of Martha and Mary is a counter-balance which highlights a woman simply listening to Jesus. While being a disciple of Jesus requires us to be actively involved in caring for others, this text reminds us that our Christian activity must be grounded and motivated by listening to Jesus. This is why Mary is presented as the model Christian: she is listening to Jesus – ‘hearing the Word of God’ – as we must. (And for most of us, we listen to the teaching of Jesus here in our Sunday Mass?)

In conclusion, you might be interested in the following observations:

In meeting the two sisters alone (no one else is mentioned) Jesus was once more breaking the taboo that prevented a man being in the company of a woman without her father, husband or brother being present. St Luke’s Gospel frequently records Jesus doing this, as does St John in his description of Jesus meeting a woman alone at a well.

The meeting was also ground-breaking in that it showed that a woman – Mary in this case – was as much entitled as a man to receive instruction from an eminent Rabbi or teacher of religion. This was unheard of in a society where women remained solely in the background. It also was unheard of until recent times in the Church but now women are emerging as theologians and Biblical scholars to help understand ‘the mind of God’ and the Word of God.

Furthermore, it showed how Our Lord’s gentle chiding of Martha (‘come away from the kitchen’) offered liberation from a woman’s dependency on household activities as a prime means for evaluating her female identity.

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
21 July 2019