Jesus came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking.
Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered: ‘Martha, Martha,’ he said ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.’
So easy for all of us to call this a woman’s Gospel; knowing that the role that most women have in the church is one of service and hospitality; knowing that many women defend their 'Martha-ness' with the reasoning that, actually, whether you like it or not some things need to be done.
There may be a general assumption that women are, by their nature ‘do-ers rather than be-ers’ and that this is a good thing because the Church is not just about the Mass, if you can’t get people through the door; if you can’t make them welcome; if you can’t show people what community and support is all about then why should people come?
After all, Jesus very rarely went to ‘church’ but every Gospel has him at table; has him taking care of others. Hospitality is a ministry in itself and one that, generations of women have made their own.
This is, what we call, the Martha side of the story, the ones who do the work but with that resentful streak - wishing that they only had the time; the support; the attentiveness to God to take the spiritual side of the faith a little further. Or believing that to be a 'Mary' is a bit unworldly; a way of getting out of the work!
So who do we think Mary is? If women of the laity see themselves as Martha’s, then is Mary the women of the religious? You could argue that many religious sisters are at least as busy as us, without the limitation of family loyalty – they have a much wider responsibility. Or do we mean the enclosed orders? But Mary is not enclosed, she sits on the floor of her own home. Or do we mean that Mary is that odd one out who moves away from her sister’s expectation of joining in with the ‘doing’ because she is distracted by the need to ‘find out more’.
Indeed, in recent times the call for womens ordained ministry uses this Gospel as support from the Lord himself that women are meant for ‘something else’. And they are probably right – in a culture that gave women little status anywhere and very little in religion, the act of sitting, listening and learning at the feet of a Teacher was something women would never have been allowed to do. And yet…here she is.
The Word of God speaks on many different layers. So the sense of this Gospel only being about women, may be appropriate for some, but for others something else should be stirring.
Martha and Mary are sisters, part of the same family. The story could have been about Martha or Mary and Lazarus but the image of male and female would have suggested opposing ideas.
With many family lines of women there is usually something that connects them. Some grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters almost seem to be cut from the same cloth, like Russian nesting dolls there is a belonging there. There are familiar gestures; tones of voice; family traditions. But there is also the tension that happens within a family; tensions between the older and younger sister. The one who has done it all (and considers herself the teacher) and the one who is discovering all (and doesn’t want to be taught, at least not by her).
As individuals we can have all the same complications. Inside we are often like Russian Dolls, the traditions and talents that we have been brought up with, and the discovering of something new – a discovering that should never end – but can be held in check by the expectations and already having so many things to do.
Did you notice that it is, after all, Martha who makes the invitation? She welcomes the Lord and offers hospitality; she doesn't seem a stranger to Jesus. Maybe she has been sitting in the marketplace listening and asking questions herself and has decided to take the relationship one step further. These moments of meeting, of dedication, can happen anytime, in times of despair or joy, a day of retreat, or just walking along the road. Suddenly we want Jesus to be a greater part our life. And we do welcome Him and want to spend time, but there is so much else before we get to make that real commitment.
Martha makes the invitation but it is Mary who is called. Seems unfair? But for Martha to change, Mary needs to grow within her. Jesus can speak to the girl at his feet because she doesn't know all the answers; has not tied herself to tradition; doesn't accept what is expected of her.
We have to learn to trust our own inner, childlike but growing self, when she decides that the true purpose of our life is sitting right in front of her and puts herself at the Lords feet.
As often happens with the Gospel there is no conclusion; though I think , from the friendship that develops, that Martha does decide to grab a bowl of fruit and and some bread and joins her sister (wondering all the while what a grown woman would be doing sitting on the floor!) .
We are not meant to stay as we are; we are not set in stone; we are not either/or; beings or doings; we are living persons meant to be more than we are - but we can't grow by ourselves.
We are the ones who need to be fed and , having made the invitation, we have to allow God to feed us; the person we have become and the qualities, gifts and graces still waiting to emerge.