Sixteenth Sunday of the Year
The classic story about Martha and Mary is explained as the difference between contemplation and action. Mary, sitting beside Jesus, is the poster child for contemplation, and Martha as the image of a person of action. It can be challenging for people who feel like they must be doing something. With each news cycle, we are reminded that there something to respond to, an action to combat the hatred and violence ever-present in our society. There is no time for the luxury to just sit and listen to Jesus. Yet, we are called to do this. We are called to be present to Jesus. The readings offer two ways of being present to Jesus – not putting one above the others. Could it be a message about timing?
Pope Francis, practically alone among world leaders, has called for a culture of encounter and solidarity as opposed to the culture of fear and apathy. He has appealed for a sense of shared responsibility in the presence of a globalised indifference towards people in our midst especially the stranger. The call today is to deepen our awareness of God’s presence amongst us and act beyond the usual patterns of thinking and behaviour.
In offering generous hospitality, Abraham and Sarah realised that their guests were the angels of God in disguise which enabled to meet the God of newness and surprise. God often visits us in disguise, and we need to transcend appearances, to attend to the present moment. We need to recognise that God disguised in our sisters and brothers especially those in need our compassion and empathy rather than apathy and judgment.
Many women and people from other social minorities feel they are relegated to the sidelines. Today, see how Jesus speaks to and handles women’s issues so masterfully. We should note that Mary does not say a word in the exchange between Jesus and Martha. This story (and its subtext) speaks about women in terms of gender roles, roles as disciples, and ministerial aspirations. Women who have studied theology might relate to Mary sitting amongst the male disciples receiving religious instruction from Jesus. They might also relate to feelings of resentment and entitlement from the men who see women encroaching upon their ‘turf’ or pulpit. Jesus has no problem with female disciples. Jesus reminds Martha that her sister made the better decision without denying or renouncing Martha’s discipleship. It is a matter of timing as he declares that Mary chose the better part. He also demonstrates the need to stop relegating women to either/or binaries. They can be both/and. For Jesus, being a follower is non-gender specific. More importantly, following him may cause some to breach socially accepted beliefs about what a woman should do. The tension has nothing to do with the women failing to carry out their ‘prescribed’ social roles. We need to transcend superficial interpretations that polarise these two women friends of Jesus. Mary is listening to Jesus, giving Jesus her full attention. Martha is also important for a healthy spirituality and social concern: she gets things done. She might be on the picket lines protesting injustice, and challenging and caring. Together they represent a holistic spirituality where faith and action are joined. Justice and earth care require prayer and action, and the willingness to hear the cries of the poor, and sacrifice for the well-being of all creation. To follow Jesus, we must be both willing to learn and teach, listen and act. Listening are necessary parts to following him. It is not gender specific. Jesus did not tell Mary to be more ‘feminine’ or beware that her presence near him challenged his masculinity. He did not tell Martha to stay in her place whilst defending Mary’s right to learn from him without denying or devaluing Martha’s discipleship. Mary has just chosen the better part - for now. Gender does not determine who does the chores and women should not be relegated to either/or binaries. We can be both/and. Hearing and doing the Word of God make us faithful disciples. We must not create a dichotomy between listening and serving, hearing and doing. The way of social transformation, to peace and justice, must begin by trying to see the world with God’s eyes and respond with the compassion and love of God’s heart.
There are boundary crossings everywhere. Jesus crosses boundaries and helps others do it too. For Jesus, to accept Martha’s invitation was taboo. To sit at Jesus’ feet as if a disciple, was permitted to men only, Mary implicitly assumed equality with men. Jesus has constantly chosen unlikely teachers. Last week, it was a hated Samaritan. Today, it is a woman. Outsiders and people on the margins teach us that hearing and doing go together. Hearing and doing the Word of God make us faithful disciples.
We need to speak up in words supported by action; to challenge the empty words and voices around us, and call our leaders and our peers to account. Listening - intimacy with God - enables us to see poverty, brokenness, violence, greed, war, injustice with different eyes, respectful and loving eyes, and recognise that this is not part of God’s dream for the world. We cannot escape the connection between listening to God and engagement in social transformation. The attempt to see with God’s eyes enables us to also recognise that all things are connected – even our enemies – and that we are very much each other’s brother and sister. Any real experience of being with people or welcome of them, especially if they are different can lead to a new and vibrant experience of God’s inclusive vision. Realising and acknowledging this oneness, this connection, deepens our empathy and compassion for others. Mary’s posture today is the first step of discipleship. It is to listen, learn and see things from Jesus’ perspective to be an effective presence in the world.
If it was a genuine encounter, Jesus may also have learnt something from Mary as we do when engaging with others. He may have become more aware of the exclusion of women from discipleship in a patriarchal world. Not only women but people with disabilities, people who belong to the LGBTIQA+ community. We can learn from each other. Though Jesus may have learnt from Mary, the encounter also shows that being a follower is also about openness to the unexpected, to the unconventional, an ability to learn from unfamiliar behaviour, exploring new relationships without judgment and embracing our differences with compassion. We have failed to share in the wisdom of 65,000+ years of First Peoples’ presence in this land. We can learn from the stories from refugees, women, youth, the elders amongst us, and people with disabilities! We are called to open our hearts and our doors, to venture to strange places with people different to us. Any such incursion can be transforming and humanising. We become learners and listeners, challenged to let go of our prejudices and expectations. Can we allow ourselves to be evangelised and ministered to by people on the margins?
We can be more concerned at how things look in the church rather than have real concern for people inside, and outside, the church. We can be more focused on what is efficient than giving time for people’s needs. Jesus lived in such a way where the world could be turned upside down so that it could be reconciled, be at peace, be equitable, be fair, and be inclusive. These are opportunities to make real change in our lives by turning hatred into love; violence into peace; self-centeredness and greed into sharing; gossiping into encouragement and affirmation; inequality into equality. It is by having this disposition that we discern the lure of God in situations where we can be in solidarity with others. Any meaningful encounter with God must connect us to other people. And any meaningful contact with ‘the other’ must connect us with God.
We are called to make the door of our home-our church-our nation - our community - wide open to all. As we extend that hospitality, we put ourselves in a position to hear the good news and turn the world upside. It will shock those in power!