Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Reflections on Martha and Mary

As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me."   The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her."  (Luke 10:38-42)

This is today's gospel reading.  I linked the scripture reference above to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) website where they have an online edition of the Bible.  If you click on that link, scroll down to footnote 14 (or click on this link)

Most homilies and theological reflections about this passage focus on the concept of "active" and "contemplative" spiritualities.  In these reflections Martha is said to represent an "active" spirituality wherein a person gives witness to their faith via doing "stuff".  Mary represents a "contemplative" spirituality that involves a lot of listening, quiet and prayer.  The "aha" moment of these homilies is always that we're supposed to balance between doing stuff and praying.

The biblical commentary found in the USCCB footnote is hardly ever discussed.  As the footnote indicates, Mary Magdalene broke religious and cultural norms having the audacity to assume the position of a disciple, something normally reserved for men.  Jesus not only permitted her to violate gender-based religious and cultural norms, he praised her.  He said she chose the "better part" over Martha by breaking tradition in her desire to be near the Lord.

Yesterday I wrote about Pope Benedict's call for holy and courageous women and how he felt such women would defend long held religious traditions.  In today's reading, we hear Jesus praising a woman for being holy and courageous enough to challenge long standing gender-based religious traditions. In what circumstances today do church leaders follow Jesus' example, praising female pioneers willing to violate religious norms in their desire to be near the Lord? It does not seem to be in the grave ex-communication of females seeking ordination. 

Perhaps because I am a woman, the passage speaks differently to me than to the countless homilists focusing on active vs. contemplative spirituality.  I see the passage being less about one active and one contemplative person and more about one woman bound by gender stereotypes and another courageous enough to break from them...and Jesus saying "YOU GO GIRL!" to the tradition breaker.


  1. I think the sadder part is that many women have been brain washed in to thinking that they should take a giant step backwards by about 2000 years or so into the kitchen. Answers should beget more questions. This is especially true of answers are that don't address the question. FYI, Weasel, YOU GO, GIRL!

  2. Too early for me to post anything of any substance. I just find it interesting that you hang onto this faith. Why not just break off into a totally new sect?

  3. Bill,
    I do not seek or expect perfection from religious leaders any more than I do from political ones (or from myself). Perhaps this analogy helps illuminate why many women remain Catholic: I do not agree with several governmental policies. For a long time women had no vote in this country either. Rather than stomp off to found my own country, I remain and try to effect change. The same is true with my faith community.

    However, my faith community and my faith, though related, are different. Leaders in my faith community can try to influence my faith but they do not control it. Faith is my relationship with a triune God (Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier) and the Body of Christ (people).

  4. Thanks for putting that interpretation in print.