The short story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) is often told in terms of the contemplative life versus the active life. Even though Mary seems to be the hero of the story, it is Martha who is honoured with the feast day (29 July) - perhaps that at least provides some balance for the weight of history going down in favour of her sister?
In fact, if we examine the story in terms of the practices of that society, we will be struck with the realisation that more than likely something else is actually at the heart of this story. This is especially the case if we remember that Luke seems to want us to read this story straight after last Sunday's gospel of the Good Samaritan, where we see Jesus tearing down the boundaries between who is in and who is out; who is acceptable and who is not. It was clear last week that Jesus was wanting us to identify with someone who was deeply despised in Jewish society - a Samaritan. Perhaps the boundaries that exist between nations is not nearly as clear as we once thought? Now this week, we arrive at the house of Martha and Mary - which in the other Gospel accounts is in Bethany, which doesn't fit at all with Luke's chronology or geography - so he doesn't tell us that detail. (Jesus doesn't arrive in the region of Jerusalem - where Bethany is - for another 9 chapters). So if last week we saw that the boundaries that divide one nation from another are being dissolved in the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, what boundary is being reviewed today?
In traditional societies, men and women both had very clear roles, positions, places and spaces - especially in public. In houses, there were areas that were reserved for men, and others for women. We quickly realise that what is at stake here is not that Mary is being passive or neglecting the place of hospitality, but that she is in fact positioning herself at the feet of Jesus as a disciple. More specifically, she is saying to Jesus that she wants to learn from him, so that she can be like him - a teacher and a Rabbi. (We see something similar when St Paul tells us that he sat at the feet of Gamaliel, the greatest Rabbi and teacher of his day.) And Jesus is happy with this choice. Suddenly it is clear that in this kingdom the old barriers and divisions are being broken down. As St Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians: "No longer Jew or Greek; no longer slave and free; no longer male and female; all are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28)
This is the invitations that is being made to all alike - to enter into the worship of Jesus, by becoming first his disciples. This is the one thing that is necessary in each of our lives.
NB. The homily was much shorter than usual today to allow for the reading of Bishop Peter's pastoral letter on Sexual Abuse, "When Trust is Broken"
Recorded at St John Vianney Church, 8.30am (4'30")
16th Sunday, Year C