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Martha and Mary

Tomorrows Gospel, the episode of Martha and Mary, was taken as early as Gregory the Great to symbolize the active and the contemplative lives, and the superiority of the latter to the former, since Mary chose "the better part." It would even be taken to indicate the relative importance of active and contemplative religious communities and orders. Such interpretations, Joseph Fitzmyer says in his commentary, serve "to allegorize it beyond recognition and to introduce a distinction that was born only of later preoccupation."Here is his interpretation:

The episode makes listening to the word the one thing needed. In a way it repeats the Lucan message of 8:15, 21. Priority is given to the hearing of the word coming from Gods messenger over preoccupation with all other concerns. Martha wanted to honor Jesus with an elaborate meal, but Jesus reminds her that it is more important to listen to what he has to say. The proper service of Jesus is attention to his instruction, not an elaborate provision for his physical needs...On the heels of the good Samaritan episode, this one emphasizes the listening to the word of Jesus, something that goes beyond love of ones neighbor. Marthas service is not repudiated by him, but he stresses that its elaborate thrust may be misplaced. A diakonia that bypasses the word is one that will never have lasting character; whereas listening to Jesus word is the lasting good that will not be taken away from the listener. (Fitzmyer, Luke, 892).

I find this interpretation somewhat anticipated in Augustines reflections on the episode. He points out that we are not to read it as a criticism of Marthas service. If we took it in this sense, "then people ought to stop ministering to the needy; they ought to choose "the better part," which will not be taken from them; they ought to devote themselves to the word, be eager for the pleasant teaching; occupy themselves with the knowledge that saves; not care whether there is a stranger in town or whether someone needs bread or clothing, someone needs to be visited, or to be bought back or to be buried. Stop doing the works of mercy and give yourself to knowledge alone."Well, then, what is the meaning of Jesus concluding remark? Augustine thought that the clue lay in the observation that Marys "better part" would not be taken away from her, that is, her part was better precisely because it would never be taken away. The two women stand for two lives, the life of this age and the life of the age to come. This life is full of troubles and difficulties, fears and temptations, and to meet them Martha gets to work. But in the next age there will be no need of Marthas kind of life because there will be no hunger or thirst or nakedness or illness. But Marys activity of listening to the words of Truth himself will continue in the next life, when instead of the crumbs that she and we can gather now we and she will be feasting at the full table of the Lord. "We now are where Martha was; we hope for what Mary was. Let us do well what Martha did so that we can have fully what Mary had."Augustine even compared what he was doing as he preached to what Martha was doing for Jesus and what his people were doing as they listened to what Mary was doing. He was trying to feed them with a word of Christ, whereas they had left behind their worldly cares and household chores in order to listen to Christ. Augustine tried to draw them in: If Christ gives him something true to say, and they recognize it, they show their delight in it. What kind of delight? Not the sort evoked by something pleasing to the senses, by bodily beauty or motion, but delight in the truth, in understanding, in wisdom. And he concluded: " If delight in the truth is so pleasant now, how much more pleasant will it be then. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her."Two centuries later Gregory the Great saw the episode as illustrating the difference between the active and the contemplative life, but he didnt institutionalize the allegorical interpretation. The two lives, he said, were united in Christ who worked miracles in the city and also spent nights in prayer on the mountain. He thus provided an example, teaching us not, out of love of contemplation, to neglect the care of our neighbors, nor again so to engage in care of our neighbors that we abandon contemplative pursuits; but to keep the two together in our minds so that the love of our neighbor does not interfere with the love of God and the love of God, transcendent as it is, does not cast out the love of our neighbors."Here are two paintings of the scene, both of which clearly make Martha the more important sister in the episode. The first is by Velazquez, the second by Vincenzo Campi.Martha and Mary 3 Velazquez 1Martha and Mary 2 Vincenzo Campi


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Thanks, Jim, for the kind words. In case anyone's interested, I've started my own blog where I hope to post homilies, talks, articles, etc., eventually a lot of stuff on my computer that it would seem is never going to appear in print.

Father, this is great news.

I love the hospitality angle--and I agree that such involves a measure of "fuss" over one's guests. One homily I heard on this text said that, at a minimum, one doesn't draw one's guests into family fights, or imply that a guest should scold a host by siding with another host.

In my 70 years of (mostly) listening to Catholic homilies and reading Catholic texts, this is the first time that I have head that Mary of Magdela was the sister of Martha the sister of Lazarus. Is that a long-time position of some within the church?

Jimmy,It rarely comes up in homilies because the principal texts very rarely appear in the Lectionary. Mary Magdalene appears when Christ is crucified, when he is buried, and when it is discovered that he had been raised; how often are her family relationships deemed more important than those events? Mark's story of a woman anointing Jesus appears only on Palm Sunday every third year, as the beginning of the Passion, while Matthew's is never in the lectionary. John's very similar version is read on Monday of Holy Week, with little notice of its differences from from Mk and Mt, eg the woman is named Mary, her sister is named Martha and her brother Lazarus has just been raised from the dead. That leaves Luke's two stories, of Mary and Martha and of the sinful woman anointing, as the only opportunities for exploring these identity issues. I suppose we could say that since her story is so closely tied to the Gospel, the Gospel often seems like the best topic-- the death of Jesus, his Passion and burial, and his resurrection.Outside the liturgy, the identification of MM with Martha's sister is pretty firmly entrenched. Gregory the Great affirms that all of these stories refer to one person, confirming a tradition rather than creating it. The 13th Century Golden Legend describes M Magdalene, her sister Martha, brother Lazarus, and daughter Sarah journeying to the South of France. This is the normal pattern when MM's history and family are considered. (In the WEST; very different in the EAST))

"One homily I heard on this text said that, at a minimum, one doesnt draw ones guests into family fights, or imply that a guest should scold a host by siding with another host."Well, yah, true. But if Mary had gotten off her fanny to help Martha, they could have gotten the job done quicker, and both could have received the benefit of our Lord's instruction. Plus, I like Martha's chutzpah. My grandmother never took any guff and seeing somebody else get beaten down just infuriated her. She used to rattle off a regular litany of stuff that she didn't think was fair, and she said if she made it to heaven, she was going to ask Jesus Christ Almighty about it. At the funeral home, one of my cousins said Jesus was probably heading for whatever passes for the celestial Man Cave and instructing the angels, "Don't tell Lucile I'm in here!" I love the idea of the beguines getting to dance to Artie Shaw in heaven (and I hope Gramma got to meet her heartthrob Erroll Flynn, though something tells me he might still be working off a lot of stuff in Purgatory ...). Anyway this fictional riposte from a beguine defending the active life to a male theology scholar shows they would have loved Artie!You talk, we act. You learn, we seize. You inspect, we choose. You chew, we swallow. You bargain, we buy. You glow, we take fire. You assume, we know. You ask, we take. You search, we find. You love, we languish. You languish, we die. You sow, we reap You work, we rest. You grow thin, we grow fat. You ring, we sing. You sing, we dance. You dance, we jump. You blossom, we bear fruit. You taste, we savor.

Jean: And then think of all those who have recorded it, especially Ella and Tony Martin and Jo Stafford.

Familiar tension. Evokes scenes of being torn between the desire to listen to a guest whose thoughts I really want to hear, and the calls of kitchen duty as a hostess. (Can now be solved by ordering take-out food...)Reminds me of a meal during which my sister spent her entire time in and out of the kitchen while I mostly sat with our visitors. I thought she was overly fussy and suspect they felt that they were imposing on her because of that. I wanted to tell her to relax, take it easy, and enjoy the presence of our guests. She probably resented the rarity of my kitchen trips. Now I feel vindicated!

Claire: maybe your sister thought you were acting like a guest in your own home?

Jimmy: probably. To redeem myself in your mind, let me hasten to mention that I "Martha'ed" this past Sunday: i.e. I missed Mass because I spent most of the weekend doing necessary things for others!

Ah, Jo Stafford. I wonder what happened to Dad's record of her doing "Temptation" that he used to play at neighborhood parties. Bunches of us kids would play it in the basement and take turns pantomiming to it, pretending to be hillbillies. My brother was the best; he blacked out his front teeth with Black Jack gum and put on my mom's house dress. I think she also did Darlene and Johnathan with another musician. She was pretty funny. And, yes, a great singer when she played it straight.None of this has anything to do with Ss. Mary and Martha. Sorry. Just tripping down fond memory lane.

It's better to be prepared ahead of time in order that you are ready to receive Him.