Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 – NRSV)
This story is unique to Luke. However, it is one of several occasions where scholars believe Luke was familiar with Johannine tradition: “The story relates to two sisters, well known from Jn. 11; 12:1–8, who lived at Bethany near Jerusalem”. (I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Paternoster Press, 1978, 451.)
“On the heels of the good Samaritan episode, this one emphasizes the listening to the word of Jesus, something that goes beyond love of one’s neighbor. Martha’s service is not repudiated by (Jesus), but he stresses that its elaborate thrust may be misplaced. A diakonia that bypasses the word is one that will never have lasting character; whereas listening to Jesus’ word is the lasting “good” that will not be taken away from the listener. To read this episode as a commendation of contemplative life over against active life is to allegorize it beyond recognition and to introduce a distinction that was born only of later preoccupations. The episode is addressed to the Christian who is expected to be contemplativus(a) in actione.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer SJ, The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 892-93.)
as they went on their way: We have already heard Luke tell us – see 9:51 – that Jesus “resolutely took the road to Jerusalem”. Jesus is on a journey. As a traveler, he needs hospitality. Unlike the Samaritan village where he could find no hospitality – see 9:53 – Jesus finds hospitality with the two sisters.
She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying: “The position at the feet of a teacher (Acts 22:3; P Ab. 1:4) was typical of pupils; Mary’s posture expresses zeal to learn (cf. K. Weiss, TDNT VI, 630), and it is significant that Jesus encourages a woman to learn from him, since the Jewish teachers were generally opposed to this (A. Oepke, TDNT I, 781f.” (Marshall, op cit, 452.)
“(Mary) is not to be identified with Mary Magdalene of 8:2.” (Fitzmyer, op cit, 893.)
“For a Jewish audience it would be of great significance that a place was given to women by Jesus not simply to do domestic duties in the church but to listen and learn.” (Marshall, op cit, 451.)
Martha was distracted by her many tasks: “The verb περισπάομαι means in the passive ‘to be pulled, dragged away’, hence ‘to become distracted, busy, overburdened’”. (Marshall, op cit, 452.) The implication is that Martha wished to hear Jesus but was prevented because “she was distracted”. The KJV translation – “cumbered” – seems to be better. Martha is approaching this whole situation in a bad way – she is carrying a lot of baggage! As Fitzmyer points out – see above – it is inappropriate to draw a neat distinction between the “contemplative” and the “active” life here.
Jesus addresses Martha and uses the term merimnaō – “anxious”.
“Jesus refers rather to the essential note of hospitality which is to pay attention to the guest; only that is necessary; the rest is optional.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, L. T. (1991). The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 174.)
Today’s Gospel invites a reflection on hospitality. (It also invites an angry response from any woman who has found herself taken for granted or feeling used when jobs need to be done around the place!)
St Ambrose (340-397), the Bishop of Milan who had such an impact on St Augustine, wrote: “Hospitality …. is a kind of open display of kindly feelings: …. It is most seemly in the eyes of the whole world that the stranger should be received with honour; that the charm of hospitality should not fail at our table; that we should meet a guest with ready and free service, and look out for their arrival. (“On the Duties of the Clergy” in P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, & H. T. F. Duckworth (Trans.), St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters (Vol. 10), Christian Literature Company, 1896, 59.)
Hospitality is about the other. There is an irony in Martha’s response. On the face of it, she is attempting to be hospitable. In fact, she is so caught up – the KJV uses a wonderful Old English word, “cumbered” – she forgets the hospitality bit. The hospitable presence involves a certain self-forgetfulness. It is not just the space in the house that is offered, it is the space in our minds and hearts. It is possible to “do hospitable things” without “hospitable presence”. This is not good.
The Zen masters – like the Desert Fathers – often taught their students by using stories that held a surprise. The following Zen story holds a surprising insight into hospitality:
“Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal. Ryokan returned and caught him. ‘You may have come a long way to visit me,’ he told the prowler, ‘and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift’.” (Paul Reps. compiler, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, A Doubleday Anchor Book, 12.)
When we are carrying a lot of baggage, when we are weighed down by self-absorption, when we think nobody loves us, or when we are just plain selfish, it is impossible to be truly hospitable. Hospitality – whether it is the hospitality of opening your home to a guest or the hospitality of gracious presence to another human being – demands the freedom of detachment. If all our space is taken up with ourselves, we cannot find room for the other. There is no room. Despite our protestations and best efforts to the contrary, our presence will say to them: “There is no room for you!”