The story of Martha and Mary in today’s gospel has been variously thought out to privilege prayer over action, religious life over marriage, and, even more doubtfully, the spiritual over the material. But, in fact, the story of Martha and Mary continues the theme of last week’s Gospel: it is above all a question of limits and barriers.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus sent the clear and, to Jewish authorities, clearly unacceptable message that salvation is for all and that kindness is as likely (if not more likely) to be found outside of the conventional expectation and beyond man-made boundaries. But here, in the story of Martha and Mary, the boundaries are between roles, and more specifically between male and female roles.
The problem between Martha and her sister was not just the workload – which may well have been unfairly distributed; the problem, which Martha objected to, was that by sitting at Jesus’ feet, “listening to his words,” Mary was behaving like a man, and more specifically, enjoying the privileges reserved for men.
One caveat, however, is in order: it would be not only anachronistic, but far from the truth to suggest that this family history of sibling tension is a proto-feminist critique. On the contrary, it has been proposed by contemporary feminists that it reinforces male-female stereotypes by implying that the only way for a woman to get by in a man’s world is to act like a man.
The real subject of the episode is much broader than feminism: it is a critique of social and religious conventions that inexcusably undermine and thereby truncate the God-given dignity of other human beings, as such. The social environment is essential to obtain its drift.
In highly segregated cultures, then as now, homes were (and still are) divided into male and female spaces. The public rooms of a house were where men gathered; the kitchen and other rooms invisible to outsiders belonged to women and children. Men and women only mixed in very specific contexts, outside the house where the children were playing, and inside the house in the bedroom.
By sitting with the men who, by implication and custom, are gathered around Jesus to listen to him, Mary had crossed not only a boundary within the house, but also an equally strict boundary within. of the society. So when Martha complains, she asks Jesus to send her sister Mary back to the women’s quarters, where she belonged. But when Jesus responds by telling Martha that Mary has chosen “the good part”, he is asserting, against all convention, his right as a human being to be a disciple, that is, to be the one who , literally, learns from the Master . His right is equal to that of any man.
But, again, Jesus is not invoking abstract egalitarian principles, but once again breaking down overly concrete constructions of social convention that arbitrarily impose confinement and segregation on certain parts of the human race, including including, but not limited to, women. It affirms, in other words, our common humanity, rooted in the fact that we have a common Father and that we are all, without exception, made in the image and likeness of our Creator. All differences pale in comparison to these core communities.
Mary, in other words, represents all who are unjustly disadvantaged or, worse still, deprived of their inherent dignity as human beings.
But there is another aspect related to this simple story. It is no coincidence that immediately after this episode, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. The story of Martha and Mary has something important to teach about the essential nature of prayer: not prayer understood as an activity in which we engage at given and discreet times, but prayer understood, above all , like a disposition of the heart, a permanent attention to God that characterizes our whole life and everything we do. Saint Paul alludes to this when he enjoins us to “pray constantly” and when he suggests that prayer is not something we do ourselves, but something that is done in us by the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit himself prays in us,” he says, “with groans too deep to express.”
And TS Eliot alludes to the same thing when he says in Little Gidding: And prayer is more than a command of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the praying voice. Again, in one of the first lives of Saint Francis of Assisi, by Thomas of Celano (1185-1260), a young contemporary, the saint is said to have not prayed so much as himself “became a prayer”. (A “prayer” and a “pray-er”: the pun works even better in English than in Latin).
We say our prayers, of course; but more fundamentally, we must become the prayer we pray, so that our whole life is an act of praise. The same is true, of course, with love: our acts of love come from a loving heart, from a life of love. We pray with a prayerful heart, because we pray, and we love with a loving heart, because we are lovers. The connection between prayer and love brilliantly illuminates both.
Thus, the story operates on two different but related levels. By affirming that we all share a common nature and a common vocation, she criticizes all these false artificial borders which speciously segregate and hierarchize human beings. But it also dissolves the false dichotomy between life of prayer and life of action. In the end, it is not Martha’s restlessness, as such, that distracts her, but her blind preoccupation with her own busy activity. Mary is just as busy, but her attention is directed beyond herself to Jesus, the divine Presence, in whose company we find ourselves by the very fact of our existence. Martha might have found helpful these words from a popular 17th century mystical tract, The Practice of the Presence of God, by an otherwise unknown French Discalced Carmelite lay brother, Brother Lawrence (1605-1691): differing myself from the prayer time. In the noise and disorder of my kitchen, while several people call out different things at the same time, I possess God in as much tranquility as if I were on my knees before the Most Blessed Sacrament.