Frances writes about next Sunday’s readings :- I suppose one always feels sympathy for Martha (Lk 10:38-42) – there she is hassled with all the catering and when she complains she’s firmly put in her place! But is she? Is the serving of the people the real problem or is it Martha’s attitude which gets in the way both of her feelings and her listening to the Lord? We are told that she was ‘distracted’ by her duties and Jesus says to her, you worry and fret about so many things and yet few are needed. Perhaps Martha had lost the significance of what was really taking place in her anxiety that everything be ‘just so’; if this was the case then it’s something we can all recognise and relate to; situations in which the state of the table and provision for guests threatens to overshadow the celebration itself and becomes a stumbling block to the general enjoyment and becomes an impossible burden to the host. It is about the question of being in control or letting go and Jesus is saying that no one can control God and his gift of himself to humankind and that indeed, he may have very different plans for us from those we envisage and for which we prepare so painstakingly.
The fact that the compliers of our Lectionary chose to accompany this gospel with a reading from Genesis (18:1-10) seems pertinent here, for Abraham when suddenly visited by three angelic beings; a prefiguring of the Trinity, is able immediately to identify this fact and worship them and then quite spontaneously feeds his guests, albeit with the assistance of his wife and servant. Abraham had already been in a close relationship with the Hebrew God as we know, for he had long since abandoned his ancestral lands in Ur in Southern Iraq to travel to a new habitation in what would become Israel. He had given up the security of the known for the unknown, exposing his wife and clan to all the uncertainties of a very long journey and had then had occasion to part from his brother Lot, possibly due to a shortage of grazing land, (Gen 13), but even before this they had had to travel down into Egypt to survive famine in Palestine and to get himself out of a fix our hero nearly palmed off Sarai his wife onto Pharaoh! Clearly the story of Abraham, the Abraham with whom God makes a covenant (Gen 15) was someone who had undergone many and diverse learning experiences on his many travels. Our story kicks in after the making of the covenant in which Abraham complains to the Lord about his lack of any true heir. Now in ancient society, and in particular in one which had no sense of eternal life or post mortem existence this was vital, one name lived on in one’s offspring and Abraham was painfully aware of his lack of a son. Our story then is about the faithfulness of the much tried patriarch whose perseverance is about to be rewarded by God. Despite all the dangers and risks that he took and all his experiences of a growing relationship and commitment to the God of Israel Abraham knows that in him his line will die out – yet still he follows God and in the end his dogged persistence through trial is rewarded as the spokesmen for the divine visitors promises him a son before their next visit. Isaac was born, and as we know the testing and godly reshaping of Abraham was to continue, indeed was to be a constant in his life.
Similar too was St Paul’s experience, (Cols 1:24-28), so much so that he came to see his entire life as shaped by his sufferings and viewed them as central to his conformity to Christ. It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church. What Paul had learnt along with Abraham his forefather in the faith was the necessity of subjecting himself to the vagaries of this world, this God–given life, in order to discover the pathway to God. Judaism and the Christianity which has grown from it is never about an ivory towered isolation from reality, nor about creating any straight-jacket which might shield us from life or build up by careful planning any walls to ward off discomfort or protect us from the dangers of full human living. On the contrary, it is Paul says precisely within grasping the uncertainties of life that we discover the mystery hidden for generations and centuries. The mystery is Christ among you, your hope of glory. Paul is adamant – the believer must be trained and instructed in this true pathway to perfection and part of that training will be found precisely in our acceptance of whatever life throws at us within the life of the worshipping Christian community and following its teaching however hard we may find it. It was a message that Martha had to learn, that we have to learn too.