Scripture for this Sunday: Amos 8:1-12 (Amos sees a basket of fruit); Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42 (Martha and Mary of Bethany)
There are a number of roots of the tree that has emancipated many women in the modern world, and in whose branches we find Theresa May. One important root of her ascent to power can be found in Jesus’ treatment of women, including his affirmation of Mary of Bethany as a disciple.
At the time, Mary would have been seen as a bad woman, aspiring to do what only men should do. But then Jesus also showed his male disciples how to be bad men: after all, who washes feet, but women and slaves? I wonder whether we can truly experience the power of this affirmation in our own time and culture. At that time, Mary claimed the “better part” when many voices would have given her no part at all.
There is a challenge in the account of Mary and Martha: to avoid using it to polarise. All too often, Mary and Martha are portrayed as being in conflict with one another during Christ’s visit to their home. Martha is traditionally depicted hurrying around preparing food and drink to make Christ comfortable while Mary sits at the feet of Christ learning. One artist amongst many stands out: the Florentine, Alessandro Allori, who shows both women attentive to Christ and in harmony.
Martha has a tray with glasses, ready to quench the thirst of Christ. She represents, in the tradition of the church, the vita activa. Mary, representing the vita contemplativa, is kneeling and leans toward Christ as she steadies herself on a book, a sign of her studious devotion. It is a reminder that the real confrontation in the Mary-Martha incident is not between the two women. It is between Jesus and those who followed the conventional social order of the day.
Jesus commended Mary for her willingness to learn. His willingness to accept the hospitality of both Martha and Mary commends acts of caring. In the end, discipleship is about both learning and serving. It is about being willing to be taught, and about being willing to apply that teaching in the world around us. Luke’s gospel reminds us that we must learn in order to serve, so that we know why we do so; and we must serve when we learn, so that the needy may be fed and nurtured.
Through the centuries, other artists and preachers have depicted hostility between the sisters – and this feeds and is fed by a dark human trait: to pick upon differences and to exploit them for division and conflict.
The gospel is supposed to bring before us the teaching and ministry of Christ, in which people are encouraged to invite and welcome one another into a community of faith, a community of compassion, a community of caring and unity in Christ: one body. We even pass the peace within our Eucharistic worship to remind us of the need to be in harmony with one another, to be at peace before we present ourselves to receive the sacrament.
The gospel is about learning to invite and welcome, to repent and forgive. But we find this to be difficult. People pray earnestly for peace, and then – even within the church – turn around and admit that they cannot let go of some perceived slight or offence from someone else in the community, or carry some sort of perpetual grudge. Where on earth does peace begin, if not at home, within ourselves, within our hearts? It is so easy to look at problems elsewhere in the world and see ways of handling situations – and a lot more difficult to see that we carry the seeds of those same situations of conflict within our hearts.
Those who pursue violence exploit the causes of conflict, using the human characteristic of division and distrust to foster fear and anger. We can push back against such a trend. Mary and Martha do not have to be set against one another; they can be a model of unity of purpose in complementary ways. We cannot expect there to be peace in our world if we, followers of Christ, have not learned how to let there be peace in our own hearts and in our own lives.