Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

Mary and Martha

Homily preached by Fr Terence Richardson OSB at the Conventual Mass on Sunday 21st July 2013, the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Fr Terence serves the Community as Prior.

The first reading this Sunday is the mysterious story of the three visitors to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre.  The Gospel is the story of Martha and Mary welcoming Jesus into their house in different ways – one by attentive listening, the other by energetic serving.  Both stories are about hospitality, and they connect with what we do at Mass, when the Lord summons us, welcomes us and  invites us to share his company, and even to eat and drink with him, at the table of the altar. 

These readings should speak especially to us as a Benedictine community, committed to the single-minded search for union with Christ in the liturgy and in contemplation, and at the same time remembering that St Benedict urges us to see Christ in the stranger, the guest, and most especially in the poor person who comes to our door.

Abraham is standing at the door of his tent, on the look-out for the stranger.   Sometimes it is as though there was one, sometimes three travellers.  He invites the visitor or visitors to stop, rest and refresh themselves.  Abraham then continues to act as the host, leaving Sarah his wife, and the servants to cook an elaborate meal for him to offer the guests.

In the Gospel unexpectedly it is Martha who acts as host.  This is quite surprising.  Where was their brother, Lazarus?   After all, it would normally be the man of the house who would have entertained Jesus, while the women prepared the food and drink and then listened discreetly from a distance.

But Jesus is far more open to dialogue with women than most of his contemporaries.  Think of the extensive discussion he has with the Samaritan woman at the well, think of the women who wept and then anointed his feet with pure nard.  Think of that subsequent visit to Martha and Mary’s house soon after the death of Lazarus when (in John 11:27) Martha expresses her faith in the Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, while Mary remains inside in quiet prayer and grief.  Martha’s statement is an act of faith just as fundamental and complete as that of Peter at Caesarea Philippi.

And it is especially true in Luke’s Gospel from which today’s passage came.  Luke likes to pair up sayings that address men with those focussed on women.  So the story of the Lost Sheep (a story to interest men) is followed immediately by the story of the woman who loses a coin in her house and then sweeps the place out until she finds it.

Now, last Sunday’s Gospel was a very male story – the Good Samaritan; and it is followed by today’s story about Martha and Mary – a more female tale.  I think they are paired up deliberately.  In the last week’s story, the lawyer asked two questions, first “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer was, and still is, to love God and to love your neighbour.  Then the lawyer asked the second question “who is my neighbour?” and it was this that provoked Jesus to tell the parable.

The message is surely that both are needed.  To love God without loving our neighbour is not enough.  We have to care for those in need, even those who we find difficult, boring, strange or even repellent.

This week the Gospel goes on to present us with the discussion between two women, Martha and Mary.  Martha welcomes Jesus into their house but then goes herself to prepare the meal.  Mary goes to sit with Jesus and to act as host.  Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is not helping with the serving, but Jesus reprimands her.  For one thing, if Mary were to go to help Martha, it would leave Jesus sitting on his own, and that would be rude and bad hospitality. 

Moreover, though cooking the meal and practical care of the neighbour or guest (in this case, Jesus) is necessary and must never be neglected, it is not meant to stop us loving God, being with God, simply sitting in his presence.  This is what Mary has sensed, and why Jesus praises her: “she has chosen the better part.”  Martha on the other hand is rebuked for allowing herself to get worried and for fretting “about so many things.”

So we have to exercise judgement and for this we need wisdom.  Those twin commands to love God and to love our neighbour are a constant challenge, and we cannot expect it to be easy to do both and to get the balance of our lives right.  We can be sure that if we are satisfied with ourselves, then we are probably in fact failing to do what the twin law demands.  It is easy for us to fail to see the truth, by turning our back on God and other people.

As we approach the altar at which the Lord Jesus acts as host, let us pray that the example of both Mary and Martha may inspire us to love God and to love our neighbour, for as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us (13:1-2), “continue to love each other like brothers, and remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”