For July 17, 2016
RESPONDING TO THE TEXT
The story presented in this week’s Lectionary reading will be familiar for many. The main characters, Martha and Mary, are also very familiar. While they are mentioned in several other places in the New Testament, this passage is famous for identifying Martha as the busy-bee worker and Mary as the faithful contemplative.
This text is often used to suggest that people who have the “Martha Syndrome” should find in the example of Mary a faithful solution. This way of reading the story, though very common, presents many problems that a faithful reading should work to overcome.
Beginning theological question:
Again, the beginning theological question is always to ask where we see God at work in the text. For those who see the text as a teaching by Jesus aimed at commending the contemplative Mary and rebuking the compulsive Martha, God is at work in the words of Jesus and the example of Mary. So a surface reading—influenced by years of traditionally enforced bad theology and androcentric reading habits—identifies Mary as the most God-like character. A deeper reading will show that much more is going on here.
The go-to approach:
The most common reading of this text makes a dichotomy between two supposedly mutually exclusive feminine archetypes. Jesus, and perhaps a large crowd with him, has been welcomed into the home of Martha and Mary, and begins to teach. Martha is at work serving her guests, while Mary sets with the boys and listens to Jesus. We then find that Martha represents the workaholic woman, while Mary represents the passive and carefree woman who has time to rest at the feet of Jesus. One is active and the other is more contemplative. Thus, one character is read to be “worried and anxious about many things,” while the other models “what is better.”
This approach, while problematic for many reasons, may still further the cause for peace. Most of us, male or female, want to be like Mary, free from our everyday frustrations and duties and find time rest, pray, meditate, and enjoy the presence of God. So many pastors and parishioners have been out this week working tirelessly to combat violence, bigotry, racism, poverty, and a number of other ills that plague our society today. If paired with thoughtful words of thanksgiving and prayer for their hard work, this text can be used to remind them to take time for rest and contemplation.
If this approach is used, a lot of great resources can be found by searching out resources for Contemplative Activism.
Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism, is such source. In the following video Phileena Huertz explains what the Gravity Center is all about.
As their website explains, “Gravity grounds social change in contemplative spirituality, to do good better, by facilitating contemplative retreats, spiritual direction, enneagram consultations, and pilgrimage.” Their website includes many resources, including videos that can be used in small group settings or even during a Sunday service. Here is one example:
One great introduction to contemplative activism is Heuertz’s article, “Contemplation and Action,” which appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Conversations Journal. Thankfully, the Gravity Center has made it available here. Here is a short excerpt.
It seems that few of us struggle with being active enough. The more common theme I notice is that of struggling to know what to say “no” to and how to live a simpler life. We are very active people and some might argue we are over-active. While some of our actions may be cloaked in the name of righteousness and justice, or in the name of “loving our neighbors,” other actions are rooted in selfishness or at least short-sightedness.
While our behavior, conduct, initiative, and enterprise can be well-meaning and good intentioned, many of our best good acts are not good enough. And some of our well-meaning intentions even cause more harm than good. Time and time again, actions without contemplation leads off course in the journey of life.
Contemplation affirms our need for a spiritual revolution. It reminds us that God is God and “I” am not. A lifestyle of contemplation fosters personal and communal transformation.
I understand contemplation, in its broad sense, to mean creating sacred space to be still, to rest in God, to reflect, to look inward; to attend to the inner life; to simply be with God in solitude, silence, and stillness. Solitude, silence, and stillness are, in fact, the qualities of contemplative prayer.
Another great resource for learning practices of contemplation can be found in the teachings and writings of Richard Rohr. He is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM. To introduce contemplative activism, Rohr uses the following quote from Thomas Merton.
What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He (sic.) who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action.
You can read more of what Richard Rohr says about contemplative activism in his article, “The Activist’s Guide to Contemplation” in Sojourners Magazine this past May.
A cautious reading:
Our biblical imagination is often shaped more by tradition than a critical reading of the text. Certain habits of reading that have shaped our imaginations influence our understanding of interpersonal relationships, our feelings about ourselves and the world, and have constructed meanings attached to them. It is important to note, however, that the texts have specific historical, social contexts which shaped them.
Here are three ways that the go-to approach may be problematic.
- It reinforces a work/faith split. The first is that it can make a hard and fast separation between action and contemplation. Such a work/prayer split reinforces notions of disembodied spirituality and can and often has been used to criticize those who work for justice. Pushing against such a reading can even bring in the ancient debate about the so-called heresy of Pelagianism, Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, and the fundamentalist allergy to any talk of social justice. (Look here too, for example.) While there are strengths and weaknesses on both sides of this historical debate, a peacemaking approach to faith stands in utter opposition to any suggestion that faithful discipleship leads away from faithful action in response to social injustice.
- It can be used to serve patriarchal purposes. The second way that the go-to approach may be problematic is that this exact text has been historically used to outline the preferred role of women in male-dominated communities. The historical, patriarchal approaches to the text make light of actions of care and service traditionally done by women. This text may be interpreted in ways that are internalized by women, creating feelings of spiritual inadequacy for choosing care and hospitality over time for rest and contemplation. Even more, this patriarchal approach can work to divide women among themselves, rather than unite them. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, for instance, even suggests that this story itself is used by Luke to silence women and remove the role of women like Martha among early Christians. “Mary,” she explains, “is the silent woman, whereas Martha, who argues in her own interest, is silenced.” [See But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacons Press, 1992), 53ff.]
- It ignores the larger context in Luke, and may actually work against its message. The third way that the go-to approach is problematic is that it reinforces the bad habit of reading a portion of the text in isolation from its larger narrative and historical context. Luke’s Gospel provides a liberating voice for many who have historically been socially excluded. It champions ethnic inclusivity (3:6). It speaks frequently about the poor, even going so far as to make this a major part of the Gospel agenda (4:18; 6:20; 7:22; 14:31, 21; 18:22; 19:8; 21:2-3). And Luke’s Gospel contains more stories than any of the other Gospels when it comes to women and their role among the early members of the ekklesia. Clearly, Luke saw women as part of Jesus’ early group of disciples (8:1-3). Of particular importance, when discussing Martha’s active hospitality, is the fact that this text follows directly after the story of the Good Samaritan. Indeed, a deeper reading of the text will attempt to make more of this larger context in Luke and take extra notice to the juxtaposing passages.
A deeper reading for repentance, resistance, and restoration:
When seen as a part of the larger narrative in Luke, something fascinating emerges. While the go-to approach works to create a mutually exclusive split between Mary and Martha, a deeper reading discovers that both characters can be seen as exemplary models of Christian discipleship. Even more, we should not overlook the fact that Mary—as a woman who normally would be barred from “sitting at the feet of the Rabbi”—has been included.
We should not reed the text as if its aim is present the sisters in opposition to each other. Instead, when read within its wider context, we notice that this story occurs in a pivotal
section of Luke’s gospel. As Janet K. Ruffing explains, in a fantastic article on this text,
At the beginning of the literary unit, the Samaritans refuse hospitality to Jesus and his disciples because they are on their way to Jerusalem, and in so doing the Samaritans reject the gospel (Luke 9:51-56). They are notoriously inhospitable. A general principle in biblical interpretation looks for a chiastic structure to illumine meaning and themes within a literary unit. The structure of this section does not disappoint us because it ends with Martha’s active hospitality, welcoming Jesus and his band of disciples into her home. Symbolically, she embraces the gospel through her activity of hospitality, a key feature of the kingdom of God. When the parable is detached from the larger narrative, the force of Martha’s positive activity of “welcoming” and hospitality becomes obscured. Jesus and the disciples have arrived at Jerusalem, Bethany marking the outskirts of this destination.
The episodes sandwiched in between these two stories are the sending out of the seventy-two disciples, the instructions for missionary life, and the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ prayer of praise to his Abba, expressing gratitude for the wonderful works of grace done through the evangelizing disciples, is the center of the section. In a chiastic structure, the center is the main point. In this section, it is this praise to God for activity in the world through the disciples.
“This parable of the two women exemplifies two equally appropriate responses to Jesus and the reigning of God. The first is welcome, hospitality, and community leadership. The second is receptivity to receiving the word, the teaching, and the one who teaches, the Rabbi. We presume both will continue to share in the life of full apostolic discipleship in which each one teaches, evangelizes, and converts others.”
To summarize, whatever we make of the passage, we cannot let the details distract us from the overall story. Otherwise, whatever interpretation of this passage we come up with will miss the mark.
The Martha story should not contradict Jesus’s sending out of the disciples: “send out laborers into his harvest” (10:2). That’s work! Nor should it contradict the fierce criticism of those who were not hospitable, since Jesus said, those who “reject me reject the one who sent me” (10:16). So Martha certainly isn’t being condemned for being hospitable. Nor should it contradict the story of the Good Samaritan, who offered hospitality to the person who had been robbed when the more contemplative and “spiritual” types had neglected to care for him (10:25-37).
So, whatever “the better” means when comparing Mary to Martha, it cannot be a contradiction of the narrative of the story. That is, there are seventy-plus travelers with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, looking for a place to stay. Martha welcomed them in!
Perhaps, if that lawyer guy is still around who was so anxious for Jesus to give him something to do, he should replace Martha in the kitchen so that she can join Mary and rest at the feet of Jesus.
In the end, when seeking justice and learning practices that make for peace, we must come to see both contemplation and action as holy forms of discipleship. We need to be prepared to proclaim boldly that God acts in and through us as we work for justice. We need to put prayers and practices in place that support and nurture our families and communities. Only then can we expect to be faithful participants in the reign of God. Only then do we become faithful in living out the promise of abundance with each other and in relation to the rest of Creation. As Ruffing puts it, “These are holy works and works which make us holy because we become more human, more ourselves through the creative engagement of our activity and our work.”
CALL TO WORSHIP
Leader: Holy people, gather around! Jesus is in our midst.
People: We have come for learning. We have come for action. Come, Lord Jesus! come!
Leader: Holy people, gather around! Jesus is in our midst.
People: And at his feet, we shall find what is good: to do justice, to seek mercy, and walk humbly with God
Holy God, you are welcome in this place. May our gathering together create a sacred space to be still, to rest, to reflect, and to look inward. In the midst of the violent world around us, we acknowledge that you have called us to act. But may we also be empowered by your Spirit to be with you in solitude, silence, and stillness. You are God and we are not. So just as you have called us to join together in action, may we learn today that you have also called us to rest together in prayer. Amen.
PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Prince of Peace, Giver of Life, you are always more ready to give than we are to receive. May your Spirit at work within us shelter us from violence and yet awaken us to the things that make for peace. May we learn the balance of prayer and action, that we might pray without ceasing, while never ceasing to act. May we learn to rest in the silence of your Word, while never remaining silent in the face of injustice. May your goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives, that we might dwell in safety of you your house forever. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
We confess to you, our forgiving God, that we have attempted to act and do things for the world without first knowing how to love. Forgive us, O God, for our misuses of power and action. We acknowledge, God, that without your power at work within us, we have nothing to give others. Instead, save us from our own obsessions, our aggressiveness, our ego-centered ambitions. Shatter our delusions about the holiness of our goals or the effectiveness of our methods. Rid us of our doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
WORDS OF ASSURANCE
Leader: Hear the Good News: God did not send Christ into the world to condemn us, but that the violence of the world might be interrupted by the power of God’s peace through him. As God so loved the world, and in spite of our failings, God has also loved us. In Jesus Christ, therefore, you are forgiven.
People: In the name of Jesus Christ, our Prince of Peace, you are forgiven.
All: Glory to God! Amen!