Sitting at the feet of the rabbi

The story of Martha and Mary has always seemed to me like something of a homiletic minefield. I am made uncomfortable, first, by the gender roles in the passage, by the fact that the men are being waited on by the women; and then I am made uncomfortable by the men, who are eating or about to eat, telling the woman who has just produced a meal, that her sister, who sits listening “has chosen the better part.” It seems to me to be that most Anglican of sins, impoliteness.

There are other reasons that I am uncomfortable with the story of Martha and Mary. The story seems to me to be on one level a story about different personalities, different ways of being in the world. And those personality differences can be seen in Christian theology and spirituality: the divide between action and contemplation, between deep involvement with the world, and deep silence within the cell. There are examples of these differences: St. Francis within the world, and desert monasticism, far removed from it. St. Theresa of Avila planting monasteries and scolding kings, and Dame Julian of Norwich, walled into her cell, with her prayer holding the world upon its axis. Indeed, some people of faith struggle deeply with both the Martha and the Mary within them: torn between activity and silence.

So doubtless, there are personality differences at play in the Gospel this morning and who am I to decide which personality is better, which way of being in the world closer?

And of course, through time the story of Martha and Mary has been used to justify all sorts of nonsense: prelates and monastics lazying about, while growing fat and wealthy on the backs of the poor, active people, who haven't chosen the better part but are required to sustain those who have.

But I think the main reason that I am uncomfortable with this story is that it is a story that is massively colored by gender.

I was talking to a friend of mine who is a mother and she said whenever she read this story, especially around the holidays, she always feels the story with a special intensity. Because she would go to church, and hear again the message, told to her by men, to keep one's priorities straight during the holiday season, like Mary, and so she would spend large amounts of time feeling guilty if she was being Martha-like, and worrying about food making it to the table, etc. On the other hand, she felt guilty because the societal expectation was that she make everything perfect for her family, the perfect turkey and stuffing, the perfect presents, that she give them a perfect holiday experience, and so she felt damned if she did, and damned if she didn't. She was either failing religiously or failing her family.

And she was telling me this story, it struck me suddenly that part of the energy of this story of Martha and Mary has to do specifically with being a woman. I would never have imagined being caught in that kind of catch-22 that my friend was. And I thought, what if you tried to translate this story into maleness? It just doesn't really translate. If you were to retell this story about two brothers, one sitting at the feet of Jesus and one not, one who is active and one who is contemplative, it isn't the same story, it doesn't have the same emotional charge that it does when you tell the story about women and service.

And so I am uncomfortable with the passage because the role of gender seems quite significant. This is a passage that has a great deal to do with being a woman, with negotiating one's role as a woman in the world, with coming to grips with patriarchy and societal expectations. And I am loathe to attempt to interpret a passage that is so linked to being a woman, lest I fall into that perennial error of the clergy: speaking with authority about things that one has neither experienced nor understood.

This is most certainly a loaded story. It is a complex story, and in reading and understanding it as loaded and complex, I am not alone. This story has a lively history of interpretation throughout the life of the Church.

The standard interpretation of this story would suggest that Mary has chosen the important thing, listening to Jesus, whereas Martha has mistaken service as a substitute for sitting at the feet of the master. Of course, the history of the Church is in part a history of the failure to understand this story, because for most of its history, the Church has told women to be Marthas and not Marys.

But the fact that this story is colored massively with gender does not mean that it is a story only for women. There is, I think, a great deal to be gained from this story whoever you are, because we all live to some extent under the kind of societal and cultural expectations that both Martha and Mary do.

When I read this complex story, I always like to read it with one of the slightly sharp stories of the desert fathers next to it. Here's one of the sayings of the desert monastics about this story:

A brother came to visit Abba Silvanus at Mount Sinai. When he saw the brothers working hard, he said to the old man: Do not work for the food that perishes. For Mary has chosen the good part. Then the old man 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 the door, to see whether someone would come to call him for the meal. But nobody called him, so he got up, went to see the old man, and asked: Abba, didn't the brothers eat today? The old man said: Of course we did. Then he said: Why didn't you call me? The old man replied: You are a spiritual person and do not need that kind of food, but since we are earthly, we want to eat, and that's why we work. Indeed, you have chosen the good part, reading all day long, and not wanting to eat earthly 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.

And I wonder if that doesn't give us a better way into the passage, rather then simply saying it is more important to learn then to help. The saying speaks to the interrelatedness of Martha and Mary, and despite their tension, the way that Martha allows Mary to be herself, and the way that Mary gives meaning to Martha.

The implication, I think, is that Martha and Mary need each other desperately. Martha needs Mary to keep reminding her that there are contemplative things out there. Because of course, for the Marthas, for the helpers, the easiest thing in the world is to get too involved in helping, too focused on the helping, and not the reason one is helping.

The temptation of Mary, I always like to think of as the “surfer” temptation. Mary just wants to hang loose, to ride the wave of this “like totally amazing teaching”. She just wants to be in this moment, with her rabbi sharing his amazing new teaching, and Mary seems relatively devoid of the sense that the table doesn't lay itself, the food doesn't cook itself, and that even surfers must eat, and learners, and contemplatives.

The aspect of the gloss by the desert fathers that I love so much is the humility that comes through it. Mary indeed may have chosen the better part, but here for us “goats”, those of us who aren't lucky to be sheep, we need to worry about the lesser parts, the things like food and clothing. Mary may have chosen the better part, but we are all of us Marthas.

And so, instead of finding this passage to be only for women, or a source of guilt, of wondering if I've got my priorities straight, when I read about Martha and Mary, I always think: “Maybe Mary has chosen the greater part, but here below, I need to worry about things like food and clothing. Someday, maybe, I'll get my priorities together enough to be Mary-like, but until then, I'm in good company with Abba Silvanus and his brothers, with all the Marthas throughout the ages who have thought about food and clothing, who have lived under societal or cultural or familial expectations. Someday, I may get myself together enough to sit at the feet of my rabbi, and listen to his teaching. But for now, I'm going to run around like a chicken with my head cut off, and trust that even if is isn't the better part, my work will still serve my God.

Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft

18 July 2010

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia


Posted on July 20, 2010 .