As with last week’s commentary on the parable of the good Samaritan, the Revised Common Lectionary does not get to Luke’s story of Mary and Martha until mid-July of this current Year C. However, the RCL does follow Luke’s sequence. It may be that Luke’s back-to-back scenes illustrate the grounding laws of Judaism: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” (Deuteronomy 6 :4-5) and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The parable of the Samaritan – according to Luke – is about loving your neighbor; the vignette with Mary and Martha – again according to Luke – is about loving God.
Because Luke made up the story of Mary and Martha out of whole cloth, we can do with it whatever we wish. Jesus never had this encounter, never hinted that women disciples are better (or worse) than women supporters or servants of his ministry. We might wonder, briefly, if Luke created this story in order to address an issue in his community. As John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg are fond of reminding us, prohibitions on or sermons about particular behaviors never arise unless there is a problem. For example, posting a sign on the church door saying that nudity is not acceptable would only be necessary if someone had walked in naked. Perhaps a debate had developed in Luke’s community about the proper role of women as disciples vs. caretakers. It is impossible to know. But in any event, this story is not about women’s liberation from patriarchy. It is not about the proper role for women in 21st Century church and society. It’s about choosing to follow Jesus’ Way into God’s Kingdom.
The Common Lectionary readings that accompany Luke’s story offer metaphors of fruitfulness and spiritual maturity. The prophet Amos talks about the basket of summer fruit that will become famine because the people turn away from God’s great work of justice-compassion. Sarah and Abraham– in their spiritual maturity and trust in God’s word – will bear the fruit of a son, and be the ancestors of many nations. Psalm 52 warns that evil doers will not succeed; Psalm 15 says that those who will dwell on God’s holy hill will be “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right.” The only piece that is a clanging gong in the ensemble is the Colossians rant about “Christ” being “the head of the body the church,” and the theology of substitutionary atonement, which the real Paul had no time for. Perhaps it’s a way out for orthodox preachers who don’t want to consider unconventional interpretations of Luke’s Mary/Martha drama. Contrary to much contemporary preaching, the story is not about sibling rivalry and woman’s real place in the home.
In the 14th Century, Meister Eckhart may have had the same accompanying scriptures in mind. In 1980, Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox published a collection of Eckhart’s sermons titled “Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart’s Creation Spirituality in New Translation.” In commentaries on each of 37 sermons, Fox spells out the Catholic mystic justification for his theology of Creation Spirituality. Two sermons are on the subject of Mary and Martha, using the metaphor of fruitfulness as a sign of spiritual maturity. Meister Eckhart’s Sermon 20 talks about how Martha represents the mature person – the “wife” who bears fruit, who serves the master. Mary is the “virgin,” the young sycophant, enamored of the guru, naive, and trapped in ego-involvement. Mary Magdalene’s aria, “I don’t know how to love him,” from Jesus Christ Superstar comes to mind. But “wife” and “virgin” are metaphors for Eckhart, and gender is irrelevant to this discussion. In Sermon 34, Eckhart continues with the metaphor of a spiritually mature person (Martha) living in depth with God, not – as is Mary – enamored with the idea of being a disciple. For Eckhart, contemplation is not better than action, nor are ideas more valuable than work.
Eckhart writes, “I call it obedience when the will is sufficient for what our insight commands” (Sermon 34p. 485). Mary cannot yet imagine what action her devotion to Jesus’s teaching might demand. But Martha has already integrated the desire to follow Jesus’s teachings with the work required to do so. Eckhart imagines that Martha’s complaint that Mary isn’t helping is really a bit of gentle ribbing to get Mary to let go and let be – to get out of her mind and into the fruitfulness of service. Mary’s “better part” is that she is learning to live in God’s kingdom and to join in the ongoing work of distributive justice-compassion, but is not there yet. Fox suggests that this Mary is the Magdalene, who only later . . . learned how to . . . do works of compassion. . . .”
To be spiritually mature is to participate in the great work of distributive justice-compassion, in order to bring about the transformation of human society from greed to sharing, from violent retribution and payback to the non-violent, radical abandonment of self-interest. Fox writes, “Eckhart believes that contemplation is not better than, nor in the mature person even different from, work. . . . Compassion and the works born of compassion are themselves acts of contemplation. This is the fulness of spiritual maturity: to be in the world, active in the world, and yet not hindered by these actions from being always in God.” Fox commentary on Sermon 34, p. 489.
Fox says that our work is an enchantment. That means, we live, breathe, move and have our being in that ocean of compassion that is God. We are possessed by and obsessed with that spirit. At the same time, the Zen of following Jesus’ Way and doing the great work of God’s Kingdom of Justice Compassion means letting go and letting be. Let go of the mind chatter about being a disciple, activist, whatever, and just do it.
Progressing from naivety to maturity is not a linear journey, but a continuum of experience. Luke’s story is a snapshot of a moment in time, not an allegory about women’s role in the early church.