Sixteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Oliver Keenan ponders what makes Mary’s welcome to Jesus the better part.
I feel a deep sympathy with Martha. She’s been the victim of too many sermons that contrast her supposed anxiety with Mary’s faith-filled contemplative repose. There are many problems with this, not least that faith and anxiety often co-exist. But the biggest problem is textual. Although the common translation of Martha as ‘distracted’ might give the impression that her anxiety is neurotic, there’s very limited support for this reading in the text itself. St Luke presents Martha’s being overwhelmed as an objective matter of fact rather than a subjective matter of perception or opinion. There is simply too much for Martha to do; anyone could have acknowledged that. And anyone who’s worked as part of a team—in a hospital, factory, or school—will know very well the outrage of laziness and the sheer injustice of doing another’s work alongside one’s own. On a basic human level, Martha surely had a right to appeal to the Lord for Mary’s help?
The problem resides less in the appeal than in the false contrast with Mary. Martha’s fault isn’t in feeling overwhelmed. In fact, her mistake is the judgment that Mary isn’t working. And this presumption is one that has been unfortunately repeated by many interpreters of the Mary-Martha story. It is easy to suppose that Mary isn’t working, and thus that the ‘better part’ that Mary has chosen is the easier part when it comes to a quantitative measure of labour. Interestingly, although the description of Martha’s ‘serving’ leaves us to fill in the blanks with our imaginations, we have a much clearer idea of what Mary is doing: sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to him. Sitting at the Lord’s feet is a recognition and affirmation of his authority. Mary is not only listening to Jesus tell stories. More literally, she ‘listened to his Word’, attended to the very identity of Jesus as the Word of God, ‘tuned in’ to the core of his being and the great fact that unified his life and work. Even if these two activities are only achieved with the help of God’s grace, nothing could be more all-consuming than acknowledging the Lord’s authority and listening to his Word. Mary has not only selected the better part; she has also chosen the most demanding part.
Jesus’s response to all of this underscores that true hospitality involves the difficult, demanding, and deeply ascetic task of making space for the other. Although there are many demanding tasks that accompany hospitality, without such a space-making hospitality ceases to be hospitality. In other words, without diminishing the dignity of Martha’s service, a truly Christian hospitality necessarily involves an imitation of Mary’s work of recognising the dignity (sitting at feet) and offering a space in which the other can reveal the deep mystery of their being (listening). This kind of listening, in fact, ‘listens’ the other into speech. It creates a space of possibility in which certain kinds of speaking, self-disclosure, and even self-realisation become possible. The gospel might push us towards a deepening of the practices of hospitality that characterise the life of our church communities. What might it look like if the ministry of spiritual accompaniment were conceived along the lines of offering a Marian hospitality?
Making space for the other will almost certainly bring anxiety with it. The Marian posture of deep hospitality necessarily involves relinquishing control, letting go of our own desires to control or confine the behaviour of others so as to bring them to fit into our own plans. Allowing the mystery of another person to unfold in our presence can only take place in a posture of openness to surprise, to infinite mystery. We must, in short, give ourselves over to the welcome of that which we do not know in advance and that we cannot predict. This invitation is demanding and liberating. We are likely to find ourselves, like Abraham, unknowingly welcoming a messenger of God.