Monday, July 18, 2022

Marys and Marthas

 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

[Luke 10:38-42]

I've heard many, many homilies and seen many, many meditations about this passage in my life, but many homilists and meditation-writers seem not to reflect on the fact that Jesus at no point stopped Martha from going about her tasks; he only rebuked her when she demanded that he make Mary do them as well. Notably he also doesn't say, contrary to what you would often find suggested, that Martha was wrong to be engaging in her tasks, but that they were not the necessary and better part. Martha's choice -- which was basically part of her entirely good choice to welcome Jesus into her home -- was not a bad one; it is a common error, but certainly an error, to think that because one choice is better the other choice must be bad. (And this indeed fits historically with the long-lasting allegorical reading of Martha as the active life and Mary as the contemplative life.)

St. Augustine has one of the best reflections on this passage, in Sermon 103, and actually makes this point emphatically, as I discovered after I wrote the above and then asked, "What does Augustine say about it?" (It is also a truly lovely example of one of Augustine's strengths as a homilist, namely, his ability to draw the congregation into the sermon.)