Mary and Martha Together

This little story of Mary and Martha where Martha does all the work while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus has been interpreted as referring to the relationship between action and contemplation since the early church. In his book Three Studies in Medieval Religious Social Thought Giles Constable has a long essay on the interpretations from Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the late second century through the late Middle Ages. In the Gospel story, there is sone hint of sibling rivalry, especially on Martha’s part. According to Constable’s essay, this rivalry continues through many of the countless interpreters of the story with some arguing that Mary has chosen the “best part” and that the contemplative life is superior while others champion Martha because of her fruitful charitable work.

By and large, though, a preponderance of thinkers over these centuries argue for a complementarity between the two sisters and the ways of life they are said to represent. Sometimes it is a complementarity between different lifestyles, but more usually it is a complementarity within each person. That is, each person should have elements of both Mary and Martha. This embrace of both sisters is called “the mixed life.” It is worth noting that our patron St. Gregory the Great is among the many who affirmed the mixed life, even though he had a personal yearning for the contemplative way.

There is an amusing story from the Desert Monastics that illustrates the need for both sisters. A pilgrim came to a monastery to visit. The monks asked him if he could help with their chores, but the pilgrim said that he had chosen the “better part” of Mary and did not work. Hours passed while this pilgrim spent time in reading and contemplation and finally he became hungry. He asked the monks when dinner was going to be served and was told that the monks had eaten some time ago. The pilgrim asked why he was not invited to eat with them and was told that he didn’t need earthly food because he had chosen the “better part.” I think this pilgrim learned his lesson.

This way of framing the issue of an active way and a contemplative way seems to owe more to the Greek tradition than it does to the Jewish tradition out of which the Gospels emerge. Origen and Clement certainly draw on Greek thought in this matter. However, Jesus was a person who had done many thought-provoking things and said many things that were even more thought-provoking and mysterious. Might a sensitive woman like Mary have felt moved to sit and just listen to Jesus and ponder what he says? This is precisely what Mary, the Mother of Jesus, did when confronted with the mysteries surrounding her son’s birth. (Lk. 2: 19) And then Jesus himself, faced with the mystery of his own unique calling, spent many times alone in prolonged prayer, sitting at the feet of his heavenly Abba so to speak. Jesus and his mother would have seen such prayerful pondering modeled many times in the Psalms, such as: “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory because your love is better than life,” and “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help.” (Ps. 63: 2–3, 6–7)

Often in his epistles, St. Paul demonstrated the fruits of pondering the mystery of the Christ whom he encountered on the road to Damascus. In Colossians, for example, he says: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Col. 1: 15–16) It wasn’t a matter of logic but one of intuitive contemplation that led Paul to realize that the One who called him out of his persecutory mania was not only the forgiving victim on the Cross but also the One who participated in creating the world, something only God can do. But there is more. Paul’s prayerful pondering brought him to this even deeper insight: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col. 1: 19–20) Paul’s contemplative insight deepened his sense that Jesus was so filled with God as to be God and, more important by far, this God was devoted to a costly reconciliation where he absorbed the rage on the part of Paul as well as that of the rest of us.

Jesus clearly led a mixed life of action and contemplation, and it is noteworthy that his mother, Mary, was held up as a model of the mixed life by many medieval writers, since Mary not only pondered the mystery of her son’s birth but had to take care of him day after day. Paul himself is clearly yet another model of the mixed life. Although we tend to consider St. Gregory’s to be a contemplative monastery, there is much work we all need to do to minister to each other and our numerous guests. With that said, Mary of Bethany had been pretty well knocked off the map since the later Middle Ages until a number of people in recent decades began to realize that their activism needed to be tempered by sitting at the feet of Jesus. It is true enough that we should respond to Jesus by doing as the Good Samaritan did, but we also need to respond to Jesus by taking time to open our hearts in silence to Him as did Mary of Bethany.

Bring Peace to Each House

The mission of Jesus’ seventy disciples in Luke is filled with breathless excitement and peril. There is an urgency to the mission as “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” (Lk. 10: 2) On the other hand, Jesus warns his disciples that he is sending them out “like lambs among wolves.” (Lk. 10: 3).

The tone of the mission is expressed in the phrase: “Peace be to this house.” (:l. 10: 5) This offer of peace makes the disciples vulnerable to the reaction of the members of the house. In the best case scenario, somebody there promotes peace and welcomes the disciples who then accept what hospitality they are given. When peace is offered and accepted, it becomes dynamic throughout the house that has received it as the disciples heal the sick and announce that the Kingdom of God has come near. All this has the flavor of Jesus’ inaugural sermon that announced a new Jubilee. That is, announcing good news to the poor and freeing captives. We can see this missionary journey, then, as Jesus’ disciples spreading the Jubilee throughout the country.

As with Jesus first announcement of the Jubilee, there is no litany of doctrines or list of rules but a spirit of living, like the Spirit that was upon Isaiah and then upon Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. In his mission to Galatia, we see Paul, in his way, proclaiming the same Jubilee of good news to the poor and freedom of the captives. In this case, freedom from the Jewish Law and freedom for Christ. He celebrates this freedom through reconciliation so that anyone who is caught in a sin is restored “gently.” The spirit of this reconciliation is to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6: 2) Perhaps we can see this as the essence of the kingdom that has come near. Although there have been attempts to define the carrying of one another’s burdens, as Charles Williams famously did with his doctrine of substitution, it is best to see the mutual bearing of burdens as a Spirit-filled shape of spreading peace within the house that has received it.

But what about the wolves? Jesus tell the disciples that if a town rejects them, they should wipe off the dust from their feet and move on. (Lk. 10: 11) The wolves don’t seem to have done any real harm. But then Jesus goes on to say that it will be better for Tyre and Sidon than for the towns that rejected the disciples. Far from threatening these towns with divine vengeance, Jesus is actually warning us that the systemic violence embodied by these past cultures is about to be a lot worse in the present. Lots of wolves here. The few households of peace are surrounded by imperial strife and persecution. Paul’s church in Galatia was in this situation and we find ourselves in an even worse maelstrom of social rage. (It will go even worse for Western Civilization than it did to the towns that rejected the disciples.)

Maintaining a sense of peace in the midst of all this turmoil is excruciatingly difficult. We easily become enraged just from reading the news. What if we should actually face these enraged people in real life? It is hard to believe that the disciples had been so successful in their mission, but then if Satan fell from the sky, where else would Satan be now than in the midst of the wolves? This is where we must allow the peace we offered to return back to us and then vent our frustrated anger by dusting off our feet. Otherwise, we are drawn into the surrounding rage and all peace is lost. In the midst of this turmoil, bearing one another’s burdens is a practical way of developing the spirit of Jubilee, all the more so when we are all overburdened by the stress of it all. Bearing each other’s burdens fulfills the Law of Christ because this practice takes us right into the heart of what Jesus did for all of us on the Cross. Our house of peace in the mission of the Seventy seems small and weak, and it is. Paul’s household in Galatia was small and weak, too. But could the oppressive rage around us also mean there is the potential of a plentiful harvest if we can bring peace to others so as to bring the Kingdom of God closer?