HOMILY for 27th Tues per annum (II)
Sometimes today’s Gospel passage can be read as contrasting the active and contemplative lives, with a clear bias towards the contemplative. On the other hand, people who are busy and caught up with work tend to sympathize with Martha. After all (so some say) it’s well and fine for Mary to be sitting around and praying and listening to Jesus but someone has to provide the food! But is this Gospel really about making this kind of dichotomy?
Several other details should strike us first. In Middle Eastern culture, then and now, still, it’s expected that a woman would be busy cooking and serving. Moreover, the younger women would certainly be expected to help the older ones. This is why Martha complains that her younger sister is not in her place, stuck in the kitchen. Instead, Mary is sitting at the feet of Christ, listening. This is the position of a student, and in many older cultures, this was, first of all, a man’s position.
So, when Jesus praises Mary for what she is doing, he is giving to women an equal dignity to men. We saw on Sunday how Jesus’ critique of the Mosaic permission for a man to simply write off his wife and divorce her institutionalized gender inequality; this inequality wasn’t intended by God “in the beginning”. Today, Jesus take this equality a step further to say that both women and men are equally called to be his disciples, to sit at his feet and listen to him. Because salvation is freely given to every human person without distinction. Jesus has come for all, and he desires that we all should be free to choose to go to him, and learn from him. But this choice will often involve over-coming social barriers, cultural obstacles, or the incomprehension (and irritation) of our families and friends. Thus, Mary is praised for choosing “the good portion”.
There’s a nice play on words here, too, for Martha was worrying about serving the portions of food, but Mary was already being fed by the living Word of God; the “good portion”. For, as St Paul would say to the Romans, “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). But this doesn’t mean that we don’t need to eat, or that someone doesn’t need to prepare the meals, and so on. Hence, Jesus doesn’t tell Martha that she should stop working, or that she was wrong to prepare the meal. For he understands that there are many things to be done, and that our lives can be busy, and that much is expected of us. It would be unjust to simply abandon those duties and responsibilities.
So what is it that someone busy like Martha has to overcome in order to go to Jesus? It isn’t the work itself but rather Martha’s state of mind. She’s distracted because of what’s expected of her and her sister. There’s a suggestion that she’s anxious that her younger sister is going beyond her station, or troubled that Mary might lose respect in society for being seen to spend so much time with men. Hence, we often find that there are cultural norms and expectations, the unnecessary pressure of work, and status anxiety that can distract us from really listening to Christ, from paying attention to his teaching, and from following him as a disciple.
So, what is the one “needful” thing that Mary, unlike Martha, has done? Like St Paul, she “did not confer with flesh and blood” or worry about the opinions of other people, but she focused on Christ and his revelation. She focused on pleasing God, and that, really, is the only thing necessary; nothing should distract us from this.