Recently the Jesuits were given pastoral care of St. Patrick’s Parish in Oakland, Calif., a small but spirited community composed mainly of African Americans and Hispanics, a community that radiates hospitality. One of the great saints of the parish is Mother Dumas, age 99, matriarch of a large family extending through five generations. Her daughter Ophelia is one of the official greeters, and visitors to the parish are seated next to Mother Dumas as she sits before the Lord in the front pew. Holiness is contagious.
I thought of this while considering today’s readings, which are all about hospitality. Abraham and Sarah welcome to their tent three strangers, wash their feet and prepare a meal. For this they are blessed with an heir. Luke tells of Martha welcoming Jesus into her home. Welcome is a somewhat pallid translation of one of the most important concepts in early Christianity. It suggests receiving people as guests, spending time with them, sharing life with them. The spread of Christianity was due to the welcome given traveling missionaries, and Paul (Rom. 14:1) urges that Christians welcome those of other views and practices.
Yet in today’s Gospel story this somewhat idyllic scene changes. Martha’s sister, Mary, sits at the feet of the Lord just listening to him speak ( Greek: listening to his word). Mary, burdened with much serving, complains. Surprisingly, Jesus chides Martha for her worrisome anxiety and says Mary has chosen the better part (or as many translations say, a good part), which shall not be taken away.
This story has produced a rich feast of interpretations. In much of church history it has been understood to exalt the contemplative life (Mary) over the active life (Martha). In 30 years of teaching I have rarely found a womanor a manwho did not identify with Martha, even though one woman described her as a whiny workaholic. Some contemporary feminist scholars see the story as a disparagement of the diaconal ministry of women. But there are other options.
Coming on the heels of the story of the Good Samaritan, the narrative is parabolic and meant to be shocking. Having just heard Jesus tell the story of someone who goes the extra mile to help a suffering neighbor, we would expect Jesus to urge Mary to help Martha. The key may be in the description of Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet, a technical expression for discipleship (Acts 22:3); and her action of hearing his word recalls the group Luke highlights as ministers of the word (1:2). Mary’s ministry of the word is defended in the face of traditional gender roles. But the point of this parabolic narrative, when coupled with the Good Samaritan, is that love of God and of neighbor requires both compassionate entry into the world of the neighbor and silent sitting in God’s presence. Though the story highlights Mary, in the larger context it does not reject Martha. The returning Jesus will perform the work of Martha (Lk. 12:37). Both Sarah and Martha are saints, and a welcoming church can not thrive without Ophelia and Mother Dumas.