Under My Roof
Sixteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Brendan Slevin finds the story of Mary and Martha deeply ambiguous.
Only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
Today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel is one of those passages that has been twisted in all sorts of directions depending where one would like it to lead. I don’t think it’s an easy passage to come to grips with. Nor do I think we should be so quick to place our own interpretation onto it. I do think it is ambiguous and perhaps it is that very ambiguity we should focus on.
Well, there we go, one paragraph in and already the urge to put my own reading onto the text has overwhelmed me.
One of the difficulties of the passage is the lack of information. It’s as if we were looking in through the keyhole and getting a partial picture of what is going on. Jesus is travelling with his disciples, he arrives at a village and is in the house of Martha. Her sister Mary sits, as a disciple, at the feet of Jesus leaving Martha to do all the work. This is all we have to work on. We could suggest that it is likely Martha is so busy because the disciples are also there along with others, but although this is plausible we are not told that this is the case. We are given a partial view, yet we look for a definitive answer.
Shall we say that Mary has chosen the good because she is there contemplating the words that come forth from mouth of the Lord? Or shall we say that Martha is the wise woman who wants the Lord to help her teach her sister that the practicalities of life must be met as well? Is Martha being rebuked by Jesus for trying to do too many trivial things? Or is Martha rebuking Jesus for indulging Mary?
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel a centurion sends word to Jesus asking him to heal his slave. ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof… But say the word, and let my servant be healed.’ There is such certainty in the centurion’s message that Jesus says: ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ In today’s passage Jesus has entered the home of Martha, come under her roof, but it is Mary who sits listening to his words.
Remember that Martha and Mary are sisters, they are not fighting over Jesus; rather they complement each other. In themselves they are partial images of a faith waiting to be realised by the death and resurrection of the Lord; individually they seek to welcome but it is only together that they achieve it.
I said at the beginning that I thought there was a deliberate ambiguity in this text perhaps it reflects an ambiguity in our own lives – the apparent ambiguity inherent in living the life of faith. Not all of us have the conviction of the centurion and yet we share in the one faith. Not all of us have the patience for contemplation and yet that is were we come to know ourselves as filled with the Spirit. Not all of us find it easy to complete the everyday tasks of providing for ourselves and our family, yet that is where our faith lives.
What if this encounter with the Lord is not about these two women but rather about our own conflicting ideas of encountering the Lord? If we are to follow Christ we must allow him into our lives, under our roof, and allow his word to make us whole only then will the Martha and Mary in each of us find their single voice and expression.
In the revised English translation of the Roman Missal we find these words before communion:
Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.
Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word
and my soul shall be healed.