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Sunday 21 July 2019 – Sung Eucharist
Colossians 1: 15-28 Luke 10: 38-end
Open, generous, inclusive hospitality. That’s what today’s gospel reading seems to be getting at. The open, generous, inclusive hospitality of home and even more importantly, perhaps, the open, generous, inclusive hospitality of heart.
On the surface, of course, the one who seems the most generous of all in offering hospitality is the one who’s rebuked. Jesus arrives at the home of Martha, who has a sister, Mary. Martha not only welcomed him into her home but expressed her hospitality, presumably, in time-honoured Middle Eastern fashion by preparing a meal. And yet when she asks Jesus to tell her sister, happily sitting at Jesus’ feet, doing not very much, to give her a hand, Jesus rebukes her: ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ Jesus appears to devalue the day-to-day mundane tasks we all have to do simply in order to live. Where would all we be without food, clean clothes, a home to live in and an income of some kind to make such things possible?
For centuries this story has been interpreted in the Church as an allegory of the so-called active and contemplative lives. The message, from the theologian Origen of Alexandria in the early third century onwards, has usually been that the contemplative life has been far more preferable to that of the active. This was one of the reasons why the monastic life was so highly esteemed during the medieval period. To enter a monastery and leave the world behind was considered to be a far higher calling than getting your hands dirty dealing with the everyday affairs of the world. The problem with that, of course, was that the monastic life still depended on people doing the kind of tasks in which Martha was engaged, even in a monastery or convent. It was still necessary to prepare food, to cultivate crops, to erect buildings and so on. If everyone spent all their time on their knees, they’d eventually starve to death!
There’s a wonderful story from the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century in Egypt which perfectly illustrates this point:
A certain brother came to visit Abba Sylvanus at Mount Sinai, and seeing the hermits at work he exclaimed, “Why do you work for the food that perishes? Mary has chosen the better part.” Then Abba Sylvanus called his disciple, “Zachary, give this brother a book and put him in an empty cell.” Now when it was three o’clock the brother kept looking out of the door to see if someone would call him to eat. But nobody came, so he got up, went to see the old man, and said: “Abba, didn’t the brothers eat today?” The old man said, “Of course we did.” “Then why didn’t you call me?” The old man replied, “You’re a spiritual person, you don’t need the food that perishes, but since we’re earthly, we want to eat and that’s why we work. You’ve chosen the best part, reading all day long, and getting along without food.” When the brother heard this he repented and said, “Forgive me, Abba.” Then the old man said to him: “Mary certainly needed Martha, and it is really by Martha’s help that Mary is praised’.
If we were in any doubt about this, we need only to look at the context in which this story’s placed in Luke’s gospel. It follows on immediately from the parable of the Good Samaritan, which ends with Jesus’ words, ‘Go and do likewise,’ not, ‘Go and pray about it.’ The significance of Jesus’ parable is manifold. At one level, at least, it’s about compassion in action. The Samaritan traveller tends to the needs of a man robbed and beaten up on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The wounded man’s ignored by a priest and a Levite on their way to the temple to perform their duties. It’s the hated foreigner, the one who believes and worships differently from the Jewish characters in the story, who actually conforms far more to what their law requires than they do themselves. They fail to show compassion, to act with kindness and mercy. It’s the outsider, the one they can’t fit into their worldview, who acts with an open, generous heart. And Jesus says, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Now an interpretation of the story of Martha and Mary which sought to underplay the so-called active in favour of the so-called contemplative would actually be a direct contradiction of the whole significance of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Rather it’s the case that the story of Martha and Mary has to be read in the light of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is actually showing what an open and generous hospitality of heart looks like in a completely different context. The message, though, is the same.
The open and generous heart is to be seen in Jesus’ attitude towards Mary. Women were considered to be second class citizens at best. Deemed to be inferior to men, they were treated as no more than men’s possessions and they had no independent rights in law. And to be a learner, a student, a disciple, well, that was for men. Yet the very posture of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet denoted that Jesus was treating her in a way that was reserved for men. Jesus transcended convention and related to her with an open, generous, inclusive heart of love, acceptance and respect. She was no second class citizen. As far as he was concerned, she enjoyed the same dignity as a man.
Perhaps it’s this that was the cause of Martha’s distraction, a distraction that had nothing to do with the requirement to do the chores. Was she wrestling with the conditioning she shared with all other women of the time, such that she couldn’t quite see or cope with the way Mary was being treated? Was there a kind of resistance in her in the way that those released from prison, for example, so often pine for the secure and predicable life they lived in prison, despite the fact that they spent all their time in prison longing for freedom? If this were so, it’s no wonder that Jesus told her that Mary had chosen the better part, which could not be taken from her, for Jesus wanted Martha to see that it was her part as well. She was being invited to accept a higher God-given dignity hitherto denied her by the religious and cultural traditions, mores and assumptions of her day. Interesting, isn’t it, that it’s taken the Church of England 2000 years to hear and get the same message?
This open, generous and inclusive hospitality of heart is seen in Jesus’ attitude towards Mary – and Martha, too, of course – in Mary’s attitude towards Jesus, and in the Samaritan’s attitude towards his hated enemy, the Jew. So what about us, you and me? Can we find that same open, generous and inclusive hospitality of heart in ourselves – as individuals, as a church, as a nation? Can we be open and generous to what’s new and different? Can we be open and generous to those who’re different from us? Are we prepared to treat all people with love and respect, acknowledging the God-given dignity of all? Are we willing to be open-minded enough to ways of seeing the world that might unsettle us? Or is our instinct to close in on ourselves, to settle for what’s safe and manageable? For it’s the latter attitude which constitutes our distractedness, just as it did Martha’s. In the end, the story of Martha and Mary, and the parable of the Good Samaritan which precedes it, each push us to see the presence of God, however God’s recognised or named, in every person and aspect of our lives. Ultimately, the contemplative attitude, nurtured by contemplative prayer and meditation, is about seeing things with an open, generous, inclusive and expansive vision. When that happens, we begin to see something of which we heard in the first reading: the fullness of God in Christ. But we shall not only see it; we shall embody and be it, too.
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