Searching for the real Martha and Mary

Next Sunday I will be sharing my first homily as a deacon. As I meditated on the scriptures, I found myself with an alternative reading of the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10: 38-42). I offer this as a draft – in English – and welcome any suggestions.

The story of Mary and Martha is often interpreted as showing the superiority of the contemplative life over the active life. But I wonder if there is another way to interpret this story.

A disciple is one who sits at the feet of the master, listening and learning. But in the time of Jesus a woman disciple would have been unheard of.

So in the Gospel we find Mary seated at the feet of Jesus, the stance of a disciple.

Her sister Martha was involved in providing hospitality for Jesus – probably working in the kitchen, preoccupied, as Jesus notes, with many things.


Was she actually a bit upset because Mary was going beyond the gender roles of her time? I don’t know. But I suggest that many of those who heard or read Luke’s Gospel might have been a little shocked to see Mary as a disciple, not attending to the many things of the household.


Jesus calls all of us to be disciples – women and men, poor and rich, illiterate and well-educated, laity and clergy. Discipleship is a relation with Jesus and has nothing to do with our status. It is a call to relationship with Jesus.


When Jesus is telling Martha that Mary has chosen the better part, I think he is saying that discipleship is the most important part of a relationship with Him. He calls us to be present with Him, not merely doing things for Him.


It’s not that hospitality and providing for guests is wrong or less worthy. Consider the first reading where Abraham welcomes the three visitors into his home and provides them with a meal. He gets his wife and his servants to prepare a good meal and even gets them curds and milk. He then “waits on them.”


This is my first homily as a deacon. Proclaiming the Gospel and preaching are essential parts of the diaconal ministry. But there is more.


The deacon is not ordained to the priesthood, but to service of the community and especially the poor.


The deacon is, in some ways, like Martha, trying to do all that needs to be done for Jesus, especially in the person of the sick and the poor. But unless the deacon is also listening to the Lord and sits at the feet of the Lord as a disciple, all he is doing is “good work.” He is not being the icon of Christ the Servant.


The Word, the altar, and the poor are all essential for my ministry and the ministry of all the People of God.

So today let us sit at the feet of the Lord, listening to Him speaking through the Scriptures. Let us stand around the table of the Lord, the Eucharist, and receive Him as our food. And let us open our hearts and our homes to the poor and go out to the sick and those in need, nourished by Word and Eucharist, being for them signs of Christ who became a servant for us.


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