Readings: Genesis 18:1-10; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42
'Mammy, Jane is not helping with the dishes.' 'Daddy, Sam has left me to do it all by myself.' We can easily imagine such a scene happening in the house of Martha and Mary. Jesus found himself caught up in a very ordinary, domestic, moment. One of his hostesses was busy preparing the meal and she complained that her sister was not helping out. She was just sitting, listening to him.
The story follows a pattern which is characteristic of St Luke's gospel. Many incidents and parables, as he recounts them, involve two people between whom there was some kind of conflict or separation, e.g. the Pharisee and the publican, the prodigal son and his elder brother, the rich man and Lazarus - these are all characters we only come across in the gospel of Luke. These parables put us on the spot because almost inevitably we find ourselves identifying with one or other of the characters. Who is the 'goodie' and who is the 'baddie'? But perhaps that is too simplistic a reading and what a parable really challenges us to do is to find all its characters somewhere in ourselves, in our attitudes or actions or aspects of our character.
The two sisters, Martha and Mary, show us two ways of being with Jesus, two ways of serving him. Martha wanted to welcome him into her house in the normal way, by offering him a meal. This was her way of loving him. Mary sat and listened to what he had to say. She was keen to learn from him and this was her way of loving him.
In the Christian tradition Martha and Mary were not the only pair of women to represent action and contemplation. Leah and Rachel, wives of Jacob, were also often used in the same way. Dante, for example, in Canto 27 of his Purgatorio, introduces us to Leah who talks about the difference between herself and her rival: 'she with seeing, and I with doing am satisfied'. These two women are found on either side of Moses on the tomb of Pope Julius II, made by Michelangelo. The way they are represented there is comparable to the representation of Plato and Aristotle in Raphael's famous painting, the School of Athens, Plato (Rachel) looking towards heaven, Aristotle (Leah) looking towards the earth.
Head in the clouds and feet on the ground, we might be tempted to say. Likewise for Mary and Martha. The sisters came to symbolise two ways of living the Christian life and stand for two paths to Jesus (or two ways of travelling with him). Martha stands for those called to serve Christ in practical and concrete ways - through acts of charity, through involvement in the life of the world. Mary stands for those called to serve Christ as contemplatives - through lives dedicated to prayer, through standing back from the world.
Many of the great teachers of the Church have used Martha and Mary to stand for the 'active' and the 'contemplative' paths. But unfortunately, too many have also decided that Mary's way was better. After all, Jesus does seem to dismiss Martha's complaint when he says that 'Mary has chosen the better part'.
Meister Eckhart, the medieval Dominican theologian, is the only one I know who proposed that Martha's way was better, because it was the more mature. Is he wiser than Jesus then? No, just that he understands Jesus' remark to mean 'Mary has chosen what, for now, is best for her'. Martha is the more grown up of the two. Her union with Jesus and her understanding of him make her ready for works of compassion and service. Mary is at an earlier stage in the Christian life. She had yet to grow and more to learn, she needed to spend more time absorbing what Jesus had to teach, before she could give herself, like Martha, to the generous service of her brothers and sisters. It was Martha, then, who was further along the path to Jesus, and this, says Eckhart, is what Jesus was helping Martha to understand.
But Eckhart was the exception that proved the rule. Most Christian teachers believed that Mary was following a better way than Martha. And others (Thomas Aquinas, for example) have suggested that a mixed way would be even better, a way that combines the prayerful attention of Mary with the compassionate service of Martha. To be a teacher in the Church, for example, not just contemplating but passing to others the fruits of one's contemplation.
Perhaps such a stark choice is not really necessary, not really possible. A complete activism would be no longer human. There has to be thought and prayer to support action, there has to be reflection and evaluation afterwards if our action is to be fully human. 'Don't just do something, sit there', we might be tempted to say to someone in danger of losing themselves in unreflective action. 'Don't just sit there, do something' is what we will be tempted to say to the Marys who prolong their contemplation when the needs of charity require them to turn towards their neighbour.
Perhaps the contrast between Mary and Martha, Rachel and Leah, (Plato and Aristotle?), is one we find within ourselves. Everyone who seeks to follow Jesus must have something of each within them. How can you be a Christian without listening to Jesus who is the Word, and without seeking to be with him in prayer? How can you be a Christian without caring for your neighbour in whatever practical way is needed (last week's gospel of the good Samaritan reminded us of this)?
The story of the two sisters encourages us to think about our faithfulness to these two aspects of following Christ. Whether we are good at praying or good at serving we should work at it with all our hearts and minds. We must also, of course, take care of Christ in the needy and the poor. We must use our gifts to serve others. But we must pray so that our actions have a properly human and Christian depth, we must pray and be with the Other if we want to be truly with, and for, others.
An earlier version of this homily appeared in Sunday Letter for 18 July 2004, published by Rollebon Press, Dublin.