The story of Jesus visiting and teaching in Bethany at the home of Martha and Mary is among the most familiar in the Gospels. Some commentators applaud Mary for her contemplative nature, at the same time putting down Martha in spite of her great outpouring of hospitality and service.
One feminist scripture commentator suggests that Jesus permitted Mary to study with the boys, thus elevating Mary’s vocation as student above the vocation of Martha’s service. Luke might have been pondering how women might receive both the word and express their acceptance of it in ministry.
Today we travel with Jesus and numerous disciples to the home of the two sisters, Martha and Mary, who live in Bethany, not far from Jerusalem.
When we arrive in Bethany, we discover how Martha is worked up and overwhelmed with the details of hospitality and she lets everyone know about it. Who wouldn’t feel burdened feeding a crowd of hungry disciples traveling with Jesus that drops in for lunch perhaps about one hundred.
We don’t know what she was fixing. Humus and bread or roasted meat and fine pastries, it doesn’t matter. She had overextended herself trying to prepare a big spread and she needed help. But the help she expected to have was sitting, listening attentively at the feet of Jesus, and that clearly ticked off Martha.
If I were Martha, I wouldn’t have felt better if I heard Jesus say, “Martha, you are putting yourself in an uproar.” I’d be in an uproar, too.
My mom was a “classic” Martha. When she expected company she was so anxious that I would run for cover and stay out of her way. Guess it was in the gene pool. I recall my husband saying early in our marriage, “Maybe we shouldn’t have people over.”
What Martha and I had to learn was that the essential point of hospitality is to pay attention to the guests rather than put on a culinary performance that draws our attention away from their presence, having them there is supposed to be a gift to us. Hospitality flows in both directions. I learned to entertain more simply so I can enjoy being with guests and receive them as Christ, which is what Abbot Benedict told the monks to do when visitors came to the monastery.
There’s a quote I appreciate from the Talmud, “Hospitality is a form of worship,” (McKenna, 212). It resonates with me because I’ve enjoyed some beautiful experiences with friends over meals that you could call a real Eucharist, a true communion with God and neighbor that ties the two commandments, love God and love neighbor, so thoroughly together. Hospitality is a profoundly reverent act that we share through the love and attentive listening that marks our time together.
While for teaching purposes, it’s simpler to separate the personas of Mary and Martha, the spiritual ideal is for us to be integrated. Jesus helps us understand that God is within us and outside us. Awareness of the God within us helps us to be ready to act on our motivation to love our neighbor, knowing that God wants us to do that, and because we love God we want to please God.
Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to caring for the poor left on the streets of Calcutta, offers us a Mary-Martha challenge. She gave us words that could transform the way we live our lives. They are the words of one who sat at the feet of Jesus long enough to master his teaching and who ministered from the depth of her spiritual maturity. She said, “We cannot do great things in life, we can only do small things with great love.”
When we try to do that, we will be living in balance, integrating the teachings of Jesus about loving God and loving neighbor.