Meal 3: The meal with Mary and Martha (Luke 10: 38-42)
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Velazquez
Saint Luke’s story of the meal that Jesus has with his friends Mary and Martha is not found in the other synoptic gospels, and the only other parallel is in the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus visits Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus.
So the meals Jesus has with Mary and Martha must be understood in the light of the Resurrection, which is prefigured by the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
For many women, and for many men too, the story of the meal with Martha and Mary raises many problems, often created by the agenda with which we now approach this story, but an agenda that may not have been possible to imagine when the Gospel according to Saint Luke was written.
Our approach to understanding and explaining this meal very often depends on the way in which I understand Martha and her busy round of activities which have her distracted, and which cause her to complain to Jesus about her sister’s apparent lack of zeal and activity.
These activities in the Greek are described as Martha’s service – she is the deacon at the table: Where the NRSV says “But Martha was distracted by her many tasks,” the Greek says: ἡ δὲ Μάρθα περιεσπᾶτο περὶ πολλὴν διακονίαν (But Martha was being distracted by much diaconal work, service at the table).
Quite often, when this story is told, over and over, again and again, it is told as if Martha is getting stroppy about having to empty the dishwasher while Mary is lazing, sitting around, chattering with Jesus.
Does Martha see that Mary should only engage in kitchen work too?
Does she think, perhaps, that only Lazarus should be out at the front of the house, keeping Jesus engaged in lads’ batter about the latest match between Bethany United and Jerusalem City?
Is Jesus being too dismissive of Martha’s complaints?
Or is he defending Mary’s right to engage in a full discussion of the Word, to engage in an alive ministry of the Word?
Martha is presented in this story as the dominant, leading figure. It is she who takes the initiative and who welcomes Jesus into her home (verse 38). It is she who offers the hospitality, who is the host at the meal, who is the head of the household – in fact, Lazarus isn’t even on the stage for this scene, and Mary is merely “her sister” – very much the junior partner in the household.
Yet it is Mary, the figure on the margins, who offers the sort of hospitality that Jesus commends and praises.
Mary simply listens to Jesus, sitting at his feet, like a student would sit at the feet of a great rabbi or teacher, waiting and willing to learn what is being taught.
Martha is upset about this, and comes out from the back and asks Jesus to pack off Mary to the kitchen where she can help Martha.
But perhaps Martha was being too busy with her household tasks.
I was once invited to dinner by people I knew as good friends. And for a long time I was left on my own with the other guest as the couple busied themselves with things in the kitchen – they had decided to do the washing up before bringing out the coffee … the wife knew that if she left the washing up until later, the husband would shirk his share of the task.
But being left on our own was a little embarrassing. Part of the joy of being invited to someone’s home for dinner is the conversation around the table.
When I have been on retreats, a times, in Greek Orthodox monasteries, conversation at the table has been discouraged by a monk reading, usually from the writings of the Early Fathers, from the Patristic writings.
But a good meal, good table fellowship, good hospitality is not just about the food that is served, but about the conversation around the table too.
One commentator suggests that Martha has gone overboard in her duties of hospitality. She has spent too much time preparing the food, and has failed to pay real attention to her guest.
On the other hand, Mary has chosen her activity (verse 42). It doesn’t just happen by accident. Mary has chosen to offer Jesus the real hospitality that a guest should be offered. She talks to Jesus, and real conversation is about both talking and listening.
If she is sent back into the kitchen, then – in the absence of Lazarus, indeed, in the notable absence of the disciples – Jesus would be left without hospitality, without words of welcome, without conversation.
Perhaps Martha might have been better off she had a more simple lifestyle, if she had prepared just one dish for her guest and for her family – might I venture to say, if she had been content for them to sup on bread and wine alone.
She could have joined Mary in her hospitality, in welcoming Jesus to their home and to their table.
In this way, Martha will experience what her sister is experiencing, but which she is too busy to notice – their visitor’s invitation into the hospitality of God.
One commentator, Brendan Byrne, points out the subtle point being made in this story:
“Frenetic service, even service of the Lord, can be a deceptive distraction from what the Lord really wants. Luke has already warned that the grasp of the word can be choked by the cares and worries of life … Here the cares and worries seem well justified – are they not in the service of the Lord? But precisely therein lies the power of the temptation, the great deceit. True hospitality – even that given directly to the Lord – attends to what the guest really wants.”
Meal 4: The meal with Zacchaeus: Luke 19: 1-10
An icon showing Jesus calling Zacchaeus down from a tree in Jericho
Later on in this Gospel, Jesus is also the guest of Zacchaeus in Jericho.
Once again, this story is unique to Saint Luke. Shortly after telling the story of the Pharisee and the Publican in the Temple, Jesus arrives in Jericho – perhaps the home city of the man who was helped on the side of the road by the Good Samaritan.
There, a man who wants to see Jesus is probably pushed to the back of the crowd for two reasons that count him out: he is small in stature, and he is a tax collector.
The physical problem shows how Zacchaeus is pushed to the margins by those who should have counted him into their social and religious community. He is of little stature not just physically, but socially too.
Can you imagine yourself as a little child trying to see a great parade – perhaps a Saint Patrick’s Day parade – when you were small?
Did everyone want to let you through?
Or did you not count?
No-one stood aside for you. And no-one is going to stand aside for Zacchaeus. They belittle him, and they probably think he deserves it – after all, the taxes he collects support the Roman occupation and administration.
But Zacchaeus overcomes, rises above, his exclusion, by climbing the tree – is there a symbolic reference here to clinging to the Cross? In any case, Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus – something you could imagine a child doing, but surely not the sort of thing a well-paid civil servant should be seen doing?
Zacchaeus sees Jesus and Jesus sees Zacchaeus.
And Jesus invites himself not just to dine with Zacchaeus, but to stay with him.
“Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today” (verse 5).
Normally, it is the potential host rather than the intended guest who does the inviting. So once again, Jesus the Guest becomes Jesus the Host.
Zacchaeus is delighted. But the good burghers of Jericho are unsettled. They murmur that Jesus is heading off to dine with sinners.
We are so self-righteous at times in our churches that we are very unwilling to welcome those who would be seen today as the little people. One rector I know in a comfortable South Dublin parish challenged his parishioners, who are very generous in their giving, especially when it comes to development agencies, mission agencies and what we once called Third World causes.
He asked them how they would react if a group of travellers turned up on a green space in the parish on a Saturday night, and all of them presumed to come to church on the following Sunday morning.
In welcoming Jesus, Zacchaeus has what only be described as a conversion experience.
The NRSV translation tells us that he promises to amend his ways and that, in the future, he will give half his possessions to the poor, and return anything extra he has squeezed out of people when he has been collecting taxes.
Oh, the joys of being a PAYE/PRSI worker in the tax system we have in Ireland!
Unfortunately, the NRSV translation is a little inaccurate here. Zacchaeus makes no such promise about the future. He says, in the original Greek, that this is what he is doing in the present – the present tense is used.
If he’s telling the truth, then Zacchaeus has been grossly misrepresented, misunderstood and libelled by his neighbours and within his own community, even at the point where he is dining with Jesus.
The present tense is important. For this day, on this day, Jesus affirms that Zacchaeus too is a child of Abraham, that he too is an heir to those promises made long, long ago to Abraham.
Those who needed conversion were not Zacchaeus and others like him on the margins, who were in need of seeing people as Christ sees them.
Jesus seeks out the sinners, the lost, those who are excluded, those counted out, and invites them to the heavenly banquet. Like Zacchaeus, they too are brought from the margins into the centre.
The one person everyone thought was outside, is on the inside as far as Jesus is concerned. And those who think they are on the inside are in danger of finding that they are on the outside.
Some questions for consideration
Are we welcoming enough, as individuals and as a Church?
Is your Church a Martha-style church or a Mary-style church?
How would you feel if Jesus came to Bray tonight and decided not to come to your church tomorrow morning, but to go somewhere else?
What if you were left without Jesus being present in your church tomorrow morning … in either Word or Sacrament?
How often are we prepared to welcome Christ’s presence among us only in the way we choose?
For those in the Roman Catholic tradition, do we neglect Christ’s presence in the Word too often?
To those in the Protestant tradition, do we neglect Christ’s presence in the Sacrament too often?
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This is the second of four addresses given at the retreat for Bray Church Together in the Priory Retreat Centre, Tallaght, on Saturday 14 March 2009