2004—Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time—C
Can you think of a place that you were accustomed to visit, so accustomed that you expected that whenever you went there it would look the same. And then when you "revisit" the place, it doesn't look the same? A family home, a vacation spot, a school. Sometimes "revisiting" a place that has changed can be very disturbing. It might not feel so comfortable and will take some time to "reacustom".
I mention this experience of "revisiting" a familiar place and finding it looking and feeling different, because that has been my experience with the Gospel passage today. The story of Jesus visiting Martha and Mary is so familiar to us all. I expect that you expected to hear what you've heard hundreds of times before. Martha is a "workerbee" but Mary has chosen the better part as a contemplative who sits at the feet of Jesus as a good disciple, learning from her master. Martha is almost scolded by Jesus for being so concerned with the tasks of entertaining. This is the way that I've always thought about the passage. "Marthas" are not as good as "Marys".
So let's "Revisit" that passage and see if there might not be another way of speaking about it.
This past year, a number of parishioners read "Truly our Sister" by theologian Elizabeth Johnson. The book is primarily about Mary the Mother of Jesus and her place in the community of saints but Johnson also looks at passages from scripture where women play significant roles. One of the things that Johnson points out is that in Luke's gospel, women are almost always voiceless. Except for Mary and Elizabeth in the stories surrounding Jesus' birth, women are "seen but not heard". She says,
"Luke is interested in presenting this new religion in a pleasing, non alarming way to educated readers in the Roman Empire. Hence, to defend it from the charge that it threatens society's patriarchal social conventions, Luke hands public leadership in the church to men and tends to silence the women in his stories, stifling their prophecy, diminishing their leadership, and casting them in socially acceptable, obedient roles."
Could this same dynamic be going on in this passage? Martha, is involved in "diakonia", the word that is used to describe servant leadership within the community. As Johnson says" We are not talking about housework here. Within this text lies the buried memory that Martha was a deacon in the early church. Confirmation for this idea comes from John's Gospel which depicts Martha as the spokesperson for the Christological faith of the community. She rather than Peter utters the pivotal confession of faith that Jesus is "the Christ, the son of God". .. Because of Luke's political concern about outsiders' perception of social disorder in the community, Luke attempts in this story to denigrate Martha's leadership role, He encourages respectable women to "choose the better part, which consists in receptive listening".
This "re-visitation" of a gospel passage that has always been interpreted in the same way is very challenging but very necessary. We can become so comfortable with the way we hear the gospel that it loses it power to radically change our minds and hearts. For years I've been hearing women who intensely dislike this passage because they think that Martha is being treated unfairly by Jesus. Perhaps they were correct all along, except that it's not Jesus but Jesus seen through the eyes of the gospel writer, Luke who is not giving Martha her rightful place as "Servant leader".
It is unfortunate that the tendency to stifle women's voices within the Church community and not give women their rightful place in Church leadership still continues. But perhaps if we are not afraid to revisit our scriptures and traditions we may find our way to the Church where "servant leadership" and "attentive discipleship" is encouraged or all women and men.