We usually approach the story of Martha and Mary as Jesus visits them from our own Western perspective. I am sure that there is not a woman here who does not sympathize with Martha having heard the evangelist tell us that she is “burdened with much serving.” If Jesus is in their home, the Twelve are most likely with him. Providing hospitality meant providing a meal for no fewer than fourteen men, including their brother and head of the household, Lazarus. This would have been a daunting task for two women, let alone one.
If I think back to the various family gatherings of my childhood, I have distinct memories of the women working together in the kitchen while the men sat around the television watching a football game or some other sporting event. Even after the meal was served, the women would all gather in the kitchen to clean up the dining room and wash the dishes. Even later in life, when my four brothers had married, their wives took their place along with women of the older generation. Perhaps you can identify with these personal memories.
However, the situation in the Middle East at Jesus’ time would have dictated even more separation between men and women. In the Gospel, Mary is seated at the feet of Jesus. She should not be there. The cultural norm would not have allowed her to be in the company of the male guests; yet St. Luke, and only St. Luke, places her at the feet of Jesus listening to him speak. She is portrayed, therefore, as a disciple of Jesus, one who is learning from him.
We are not told what Jesus is saying as she listens. However, let us not forget that this event takes place as Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem. By this time, Jesus has told his disciples on two separate occasions that when he gets to Jerusalem he will be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and scribes and will be killed. Aware of his impending death, Mary is portrayed as one of his followers. However, being a disciple would place them in danger as well. If one puts oneself in Jesus’ position, Mary’s decision to sit at his feet would make her a source of consolation and compassion for Jesus as he approaches his passion and death. According to Jesus, Mary has chosen the better part. Rather than being anxious about many things, only one thing is necessary – being close to and listening to Jesus. The time for ministering to others will come later, after he is gone. Now is the time to listen to him.
In his Letter to the Colossians, St. Paul takes up the topic of Jesus’ suffering and makes the claim that through his own suffering, he is making up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. This statement almost sounds blasphemous when read out of context. What could possibly be lacking in the afflictions visited upon Jesus through his crucifixion and death? Again, it is important to place Paul’s statement in the cultural understanding of his time. Schooled in Greek philosophy, St. Paul had come to believe that every historical age had been born through suffering, much the same way that a woman’s labor pains precede the birth of a child. So St. Paul is claiming that his suffering, indeed all the human suffering endured by Jesus’ disciples is but a prelude to the birth of a new era. Through his suffering, St. Paul makes the claim that he is hastening the day on which Jesus will return with salvation for all his disciples. All of the apostles and many of the disciples of Jesus would come to endure the same kind of suffering borne by Jesus. Throughout history Christians have been persecuted for their faith. This is why martyrs are held in such high regard in the eyes of the Church. They are walking in the footsteps of Jesus, following the same path.
Lazarus, Martha, and Mary all went on to be disciples of Jesus. Tradition tells us that Lazarus was exiled from Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Stephen and traveled to Cyprus where he proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus. Mary and Martha went with him and assisted him in evangelizing the Cypriots. All three of them are said to have died there. Though they were not called upon to die for their faith, they are all recognized as saints and disciples of Jesus, as men and women who heeded Jesus’ invitation to “follow” him.
This episode of St. Luke’s Gospel comes immediately after the story of the Good Samaritan. That story spoke of our responsibility to care for those in need. St. Luke follows this story with one that emphasizes listening to Jesus. The two stories work together to remind us that every disciple of Jesus is called upon to both act in Jesus’ name and spend time listening to him in prayer. Our life must be both a life of action and a life of prayer.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.