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At Martha and Mary's (again)

In tomorrow's Gospel we pay our tri-annual visit to the home of Martha and Mary, just at the time they are playing host to that Jesus of Nazareth.  Last time we were there, we had quite a conversation about what we witnessed and heard--

Has anything changed meanwhile?

Here's what I made of it then:

St. Martha's feastday is coming up: July 29th.



About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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Fr. Komonchak's reflection on Martha and Mary is superb. I was paeticularly struck by his talk about the joy that should characterize both our hearing of God's word and our care for our neighbors. Joy can't be the object of a command or a law. It has to grow out of a relation, a relation to Jesus.

May the joy that Jesus brings us be the focus of the "new evangelization."

Would tonight's reading about  Abraham's great welcome and hospitality to the strangers also reinforce that Mary's better part doesn't take away from the value of what Martha does?

And the first page of comments was there:


The problem with Martha is that she is not fully engaged in what she is doing, but instead is worrying about what she thinks others ought to be doing, or perhaps about what she'd rather be doing instead of working in the kitchen. It's unpleasant for everyone when those activities are perceived as unwelcome burdens, obligations, instead of eager service of hospitality. Martha lacks the joy mentioned above.

Not only that, but she's resentful, trying to spoil the others' good time by making them feel guilty, playing the victim and adding a bitter taste to the meal. What does she want, that Jesus stay alone talking to himself in an empty room while she bosses her sister around in the kitchen? If instead, while  preparing those fish, she were delighting in advance with the thought of the pleased expression on Jesus's face when he would be taking his first tasty bite, then all would be well. Couldn't she focus on what a privilege it is to be feeding Jesus? Or if she simply did what she really wanted to do and went to listen to Jesus for a while, then maybe the meal would be less elaborate, but her happiness would make a much better welcome, everyone would be happier and Jesus would have a better time.


In Chapter 4, "Mary and Martha of Bethany," of The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel, Adeline Fehribach explains why first-century readers would have "perceived Mary of Bethany as the betrothed/bride of the messianic bridegroom on behalf of the Jews just as the Samaritan woman . . . on behalf of the Samaritan people."  P. 84

"What does she want, that Jesus stay alone talking to himself in an empty room while she bosses her sister around in the kitchen?"


If only Jesus had gone into the kitchen and helped make the meal, they could of all had a good time  :)

I think the message of this story is the same as the one where Jesus told his disciples not to criticize the woman who had just "wasted" money on really expensive oil to anoint him (money that could have helped the poor). Or when he tells the disciple who needs to bury his father, to let the dead bury the dead.

These are all really good and important things we should doing, we're supposed to feed the hungry and bury the dead and Jesus tells us over and over to take care of thhe poor.

But in these stories, God's in the house; everything just pales beside that, nothing is more important.

Father Komonchak, you (and St. Augustine) show how looking at the clause or phrase we read right over can change our understanding of Scripture. I mean, "and it will not be taken from her" in this case. I'd always focused on what went before and thought of that, if at all, as a "so there, Lady" appended to an endorsement of the contemplative life. But it makes sense as a reference to eternity, where sitting at the feet of the Master will be undistracted by the needs of the temporal world.

As some others have said, the Gospel has to be read in continuity with the story of the Good Samaritan, which comes right before it and which we had last week.The priest and Levite, eyes averted and thoughts on heaven, did not choose the right part that time.

And we look at Abraham's story in the first reading, where he knows he is entertaining the Lord but runs around like Martha. Literally. He "ran" the herd and picked out a steer for a servant to prepare, then he himself prepared milk and curds (after hollering at Sarah to bake some rolls). Despite all his running around and shouting orders while the guests wait, he and Sarah got a son out of the visit. To everything there is a season.

Thanks for the provocation.

Just one more thing about joy and delight in the living out of our faith. Recall the title of one of Dorothy Day's books, "The Duty of Delight." If I'm not mistaken, she got he phrase from Peter Maurin. In any case, she certainly lived out the harmony of Martha and Mary.

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(The author doesn't mention Mary and Martha of Bethany.)

Yes, it is very interesting to consider that the words "and it will not be taken from her" may be a reference to eternity.It makes sense.



But in these stories, God's in the house; everything just pales beside that, nothing is more important.

True, but I can also imagine God saying, "Oh, don't fuss, my dear. Go and help that poor fellow first. I can wait."


Here's part of Pope Francis' homily today about Mary and Martha.  I'm not at all  sure he settles the question of the fairness of Jesus' response, but he sees the unity of contemplation and action in helping the poor -- in looking at the faces of the poor we see the face of Christ.


"So why does Martha receive the rebuke even if it is done with sweetness? Because she took only what she was doing to be essential, she was too absorbed and worried about things to “do.” For a Christian, the works of service and charity are never detached from the principle source of our action: that is, listening to the Word of the Lord, sitting – like Mary – at Jesus’ feet in the attitude of a disciple. And for this reason Mary is rebuked.

"In our Christian life too prayer and action are always profoundly united. Prayer that does not lead to concrete action toward a brother who is poor, sick, in need of help, the brother in difficulty, is a sterile and incomplete prayer.  .  .  .   It is also our work with our needy brother, our labor of charity in works of mercy, that brings us to the Lord because we see the Lord in our needy brother and sister."



Regarding the tension in discipleship between attending to the word and serving those in need (imagine those two things consuming so much of one's day that they come into conflict!), Luke highlights it again in Acts 6:

The Need for Assistants.1At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.2So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.3Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task,4whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”5The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.6They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them.7The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.

Sorry about the odd formatting in the previous comment.  I pasted it directly from the USCCB's online  bible, and it came out that way after I hit the Save button.  It may be an easier read here.


St. Martha may have her own feast, but surely St. Mary of Bethany deserves one, too. The Episcopalians and the Eastern Church honor her. So should we. Popes make mistakes, even Gregory the Great...


Three years ago, I mentioned that connection, of waiting on table and attending to the Word in both Acts 6 ans in Luke's story of Martha and Mary. At the time, I remembered it as coming from St John Chrysostom, but I have not found that source again. It was mentioned in the Great Letter of (pseudo) Macarius in the 4th century, but that is the only early source I have found. (NT Wright mentioned it, according to Fr K)

And with Susan, I hope for a day to commemorate Mary of Bethany. If she is the same as the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus in Mark and Matthew, her absence from the calendar is truly puzzling. "wherever in all the world the Gospel is proclaimed, what she has done will be told in memory of her."

St. Martha may have her own feast, but surely St. Mary of Bethany deserves one, too. The Episcopalians and the Eastern Church honor her. So should we.

But we don't know whether or not she is the same as Mary Magdalene - and there is a long-standing tradition that the two are the same.  Istm that the Episcopalians and the Eastern Church, in having two separate feast days on their official calendars, are assuming a certainty of facts that I don't think is warranted.

Assuming that the universal church calendar reflects people's (the church's) real, actual faith, I think we conclude that St. Martha has a feast day of her own because she had a following, for whatever reason, among the people.  And to the extent that, in Western Catholic/Christian tradition, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are thought to be one and the same, the feast day on July 22nd would combine reverence and celebration for both (or, as it may be, for one and the same). This is popular devotion we're talking about.

Perhaps one way to gloss the difficulty would be to establish a feast day that celebrates an act or episode of one Mary or the other (assuming they are different :-)).  E.g. keep the memorial of Mary Magdelene on 7/22, and a memorial of the visitation of Jesus to Mary and Martha in Bethany.  Or a memorial of the encounter of Mary Magdalene with Jesus in the garden.  This rather indirect (dare we say sacramentally imaginative?) approach would be consistent with the calendar's treatment of other major Gospel figures such as Mary, John the Baptist and Peter.

Btw, istm that Jesus' visit to Mary and Martha would be a better choice of a Luminous Mystery than the proclamation of the kingdom.  Or maybe we need yet another set of rosary mysteries for some of Jesus' more memorable personal encounters.  The visit to Mary and Martha, the woman at the well, the woman who is hemorrhaging, the woman about to be stoned, the woman who washed and anointed his feet.  Done!  


In John's gospel the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus is identified as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. (actually, they are identified as her siblings...)

The upcoming celebration of St Martha comes on the octave of yesterday's remembrance of MM, a connection better associated with the sisters IMO.

This would not be such a problem if Mary of Bethany had not been almost erased from Holy Week. John's version is still read on Monday, but Mark's comes only every 3rd year withe reading of the Passion, obscuring her. She has been cut from St Matthew's Passion, and the antiphons about her that accompanied the washing of the feet have been dropped. And the shorter version of the Lazarus gospel, on the Sunday before Palm Sunday, trims Mary's part to "Mary stayed at home"!!

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