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)
“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 Greek verb perispaō means in the passive ‘to be pulled, dragged away’, hence ‘to become distracted, busy, overburdened’. The implication is that Martha wished to hear Jesus but was prevented because “she was distracted”. The KJV translation – “cumbered” – seems to be a better English rendering of the verb. 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.)
When I was a child, I recall a saying my father uttered more than once on a cold night: “It’s cold as charity out there”. That puzzled me, even as a child. And I have also heard people say: “I don’t want your charity!” What is happening here? Isn’t charity warm, hospitable, caring, the very thing we all hunger for and need most? Maybe there is a helpful insight in something St Vincent de Paul is supposed to have said: “If you don’t love the poor, they will never forgive you for helping them”. Maybe charity is not always charity?
In today’s Gospel – Luke 10:38-42 – we have the story of Martha and Mary offering hospitality to Jesus. This story is as well known as it is misunderstood. First of all, some readers take offence because it seems to be dismissive of those who are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel and do what needs to be done. It seems to favour those who sit down and let others do all the work! Secondly, it is frequently – and too easily in my opinion – taken as a basis for a distinction between the “contemplative” and the “active” approach to discipleship. In fact, this is probably the most common interpretation down the ages. My difficulty with that interpretation is that it is too simplistic. It seems to separate contemplation – being quietly present to the Lord – from activity – getting jobs done. It also seems to imply that it is better to be contemplative than to be active.
An appropriate understanding of this story – and our appreciation for what charity is – hinges on how we translate a particular Greek verb here. The verb is perispaō and it is usually translated as “distracted” – “Martha was distracted by her many tasks” (NRSV). But the New American Bible says, “She was burdened with much serving”. However, the King James Version may be the best translation: “Martha was cumbered about much serving”. That old English word, “cumbered”, suggests a certain heaviness. We are prompted to think of the saying: “You could cut the air with a knife”.
The real issue here is not contemplation versus action but gracious presence versus encumbered presence. Martha’s charity – her hospitality – is thus sabotaged by her manner. We might say she brings a bit of baggage into the moment – a bit of resentment perhaps? That baggage gets in the way of what might otherwise have been a delightful experience for all concerned.
True charity – in whatever form, whether it is hospitality, care for the sick, compassion for the poor or some other form – will be gracious. Grace and graciousness and gracefulness are sure signs of God’s presence. Where grace is lacking true charity is lacking, even if I do extraordinary things – see St Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Grace is the Presence of God. Selfishness is the presence of ego. Which do you prefer?