Christ in the Home of Martha and Mary, Vermeer, National Galleries of Scotland, UK.
Martha…. said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” Luke 10:40.
Quite often it is difficult or challenging to link together Sunday’s three readings in any convincing way, but for today’s readings one link seems to me to be the presence of women in Scripture. The main focus in the first reading is Sarah, as it is because of her that the “three men” appeared at Abraham’s camp to announce that the 90-year old woman would have a son within a year. This reading appeared several Sundays ago where Sarah, on hearing what the men had to say, laughed (understandably), then argued with God about it. The gospel is dominated by Martha and Mary, and the roles each had in the household when Jesus appeared. The second reading is the one which might prove a tad controversial.
Whenever change in the church is discussed, it is critical to know that such change can only come about by proving that the desired change can be supported by appealing to “Scripture and Tradition”, and not from arguments such as human rights or gender equality. That is to say, you have to prove that the desired change is present in Scripture, and that it was practiced in at least the early church. For example, the change from Latin to English in the Mass, mandated by the Second Vatical Council in the 1960s, was based solidly from arguments in Scripture and tradition. As Jesus spoke no Latin, the universal language at that time was Greek, not Latin, that the earliest Masses must have been in Aramaic, the vernacular language of the apostles, later in Greek and then in Latin. In other words, insisting on the Mass in Latin was a weak argument from both Scripture and Tradition, and so it changed. The current huge demand in today’s church is for strengthening the power of women in what is thought to be a male-dominated church. Well, can this be challenged by appeal to Scripture and tradition? That is the only way to effect change.
So let’s take a look at today’s readings. The gospel has women playing two roles, one as cook and servant, the other listening at the feet of the Lord. Martha becomes very upset at the imbalance; Jesus says that Mary “has chosen the better part”. If you look at the roles displayed here, without placing gender on it, one role is diaconal, meaning servant, and the other is priestly, listening to the Lord, presumably in preparation for spreading it. Hence Martha is acting as a deacon, from the Greek word διάκονος, meaning servant, and Mary as πρεσβύτερος, presbuteros, or elder, senior. Today, the Church’s priests are technically called presbyters, not priests. Although far from sufficient for making a case for such a radical change, it is part of the evidence. Now look at today’s second reading. Paul talks of the church “of which I am a minister“. The word in the original Greek is διάκονος once more, another step in the direction (take a look at Romans 16:1, where Paul clearly refers to a woman called Phoebe as διάκονος, a stronger argument still). Now Pope Francis called for a commission to examine evidence such as this to examine the proposition of women being ordained to the diaconate. The Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate was created in 2016 and completed that work in 2019. It has not as yet been published. Rumors suggest that it was still not convinced that the evidence, from both Scripture and tradition, is sufficient to recommend change. But just look at today’s gospel. Jesus’ simple words that Mary had “chosen the better part” without mentioning a single word of criticism or opposition, might also be taken as evidence. But as ever, is it sufficient? The Church moves very slowly. The movement to change to the vernacular of the Mass began in the 19th century! This latest movement, even more radical, will certainly take time before a definitive change such as women’s ordination to the deaconate becomes a possibility. The fact that a commision was appointed to just look at the evidence is to be considered progress.
Now, as to the actual teaching of today’s readings, it would seem pretty clear from the gospel story. Martha is bustling about getting dinner ready, seeing that everyone is settled and content. In other words, she is obsessing over the minutiae of the gathering. In doing so, she was missing the words that pertain to eternal life, and concentrating instead on tonight’s washing up. That must surely have been the reason Jesus defended Mary’s behavior, that it must be better to understand life’s meaning, God’s love and our response to it than housework. All the household fuss is of course necessary, but there are things in life which are more important, to which time and attention must be given. After all, why go to church at all when there is cleaning and clothes washing and shopping to do? Why? Because Jesus’ words, Jesus’ life, holy communion with God, is infinitely more important. That behavior is the foundation of all we do, and gives meaning to our very lives. Without that, life becomes a meaningless drudgery. So Jesus points out that time given to understanding and accepting our relationship with God, acknowledging that we are children of God, and hence all that follows from that truth, allows us to understand all that we do in a daily basis. Mary, indeed, had chosen the better part. So should all of us.
Martha and Mary, https://www.pinterest.com/mccrimmonsuk/