Friday, January 21, 2005

Being Mary

Being Mary

There are details in the Gospels upon which I love to ruminate. Among my favorite is the story of Martha and Mary. The story goes like this: Jesus came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what He said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.

She came to Him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," The Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42)

This story is only found in the Gospel of St. Luke.

Luke was a doctor, and a Greek. His book was more extensive than the others, and it is believed that he had a hand in the writings of some of St. Paul’s epistles. He was often referred to as the “most dear physician” by St. Paul (Col., iv, 14). Much Catholic scholarship puts Luke in pretty tight with St. Paul.

Of all the gospels, Luke seems the most endowed with parables and stories that teach lessons. This story is one of those stories that seldom gets much “air play”, but I think it teaches us something about living the spiritual life.

It is important to note that this Martha in the story is a sister to the famous Lazarus, whom Jesus loved so well, that he brought back from the dead. He must have really loved Lazarus – and Martha as well.

But this story of Martha and Mary is a view of domestic strife. Mary is Martha’s sister and while we don’t have a clue as to whether she is older or younger, we seem to believe she is younger. Why is that? Is that because we tend to think of older siblings as more “responsible” as Martha was, working around the house to get dinner ready, while the good-for-nothing Mary, slacker that she was (the young are always slackers, aren’t they?) sat adoringly at Jesus’ feet?

Face it, Martha was pissed. And she had a right to be didn’t she? Here she is busting her chops to make a nice dinner for Jesus and Mary was foolishly just listening to Jesus. How was dinner going to get on the table? When were they going to eat? Can you almost hear Martha seething? Perhaps she said things under her breath to the servants, “That girl has the sense Yahweh gave to a chair!”

What’s really great is how Jesus sees this and calls her on it, gently, but he does.

His use of “Martha, Martha” implies how gentle his rebuke was. I mean he loved Martha and presumably Mary, because Lazarus was his friend. (Remember how he cried when he’d heard about his death? HE cried. Mon Dieu, if the Son of God is crying over death, and He is “in the inner circle” on this kind of stuff, what chance do we have? But I digress. That is another story.)

Jesus sees how much Martha is caught up in specious things, things that seem important, things that are “future-oriented”. Her anger at Mary is really anger at herself for not allowing herself the opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear the Word of God as Mary has done. This is such a modern phenomenon that it makes me wonder if Luke had been transported back in time from today. Martha puts duty before spiritual growth. That’s the message here.

Luke, in his parable-like manner, puts two extremes side by side so we can line up and figure out where we stand. Most of us probably really understand Martha’s anger. Most of us are slaves to duty, especially here in this country, where an early to bed and early to rise sort of philosophy drives us by the minute. Time is money, and things have to get done.

The truth is, things always have to get done, don’t they? No matter what time management course you have just come from, or how new and fancy your Blackberry is, as you knock off the items from your to-do list of your life, one by one, the things on the list never disappear.

Mary knew this. Young people always do. It irritates us no end, but they know this. The magic is in the present. Eventually, the young lose that sense of the immediate as they are dragged into the world of worries and duty – as Martha probably was. I suspect she was really angry because she knew deep in her heart, that perhaps ten years earlier it would have been she at the feet of Jesus, instead of just Mary. I think maybe Jesus knew this too, which is why he was so gentle with her.

Jesus’ response is chilling: “Only one thing is needed”. What does he mean by this? We need to have the bread baked, and the table set. Martha’s head is going one hundred and fifty miles per hour. Who is going to do this if not her?

Jesus’ cryptic answer to Martha invites us all to consider what we value as “needed” in our lives. He is not suggesting food never be prepared, the house never be cleaned, the goats never be tended. He does not want you to skip re-wallpapering the baby’s room, or cleaning the bathrooms, or those Saturday’s you need to catch up on work at the office, or going in early to make sure things run right. It’s all important stuff.

But it’s all stuff that has a time to be important. Jesus suggests that spiritual growth is all that is really needed, not for the running of the house or the business but for you; for Mary, and yes, even for Martha as well!

So I start to see Martha and Mary as sides of my personality. There are those times when I am compulsive to get things done that pertain to the world outside of my spirit. These are important things; they are things left to me, and things for which others depend upon me.
But how much of Mary do I let myself be? How much of my spirit do I enrich daily to let my soul grow?

I like to use the analogy of flying in an airplane, how they always instruct you, in the event of sudden cabin decompression, to place the oxygen mask over yourself first, so you are then better able to help any one else with whom you are traveling. Mary represents that oxygen mask you place over your own face first.

I don’t know if Jesus would have chastised Mary if she had done nothing but sit around the house, listening to her I-Pod downloads of Jesus’ teachings. We’d like to think he might have gently rebuked her as well: “Mary, Mary, it’s good that these things nourish you, but girl, get a grip! You have to get a life! Go out and spread what you know.” But that is not what this story, today, right here in Luke, is about. It’s about the dichotomy of self versus duty and the balance that is required. Duty almost always wins out. Luke suggests through this parable, that maybe we just give a little thought – just a little - to our souls.

For spiritual liveliness is not an end for it’s own sake, is it? We don’t hope to be perfect so that we achieve some sort of cosmic prize, do we? Spirituality must be for the benefit of all of us in the long run – in this world and any others that may follow. It is one spirit after all, how can it not be?

So in those moments when you are visualizing your own crucifixion and the throngs who will erect shrines in your honor for being so selfless, and such a slave to duty, and crossing the t’s and dotting the I’s, consider when it was last that you sat at Jesus’ feet and listened. Regardless of your faith: whether its mediation, or watching a sunrise, or listening to poetry or music. When was the last time you fed your spirit and at the expense of the laundry or the ironing?

Be Martha for sure. But remember that Mary is in you too. You have to feed her as well.

M C Biegner
Jan 2005





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11/25/2005 2:43 AM  

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