Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I often think this Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) is the bête noire of most hosts or hostesses! There we are, trying our best to feed and satisfy our guests, and all we get is a load of flack. One’s sympathy is all with the unfortunate Martha and irritation felt towards Mary, and even Jesus. Perhaps the wisest solution is the one I once gleaned from a famous TV cook who said “Remember, your friends have come to see you, do something manageable rather than trying to impress them.” Yet there still remains the difficulty of actually getting them fed, and the need for nipping to the kitchen and the pauses in conversation that brings about.
Interestingly enough, the compliers of our lectionary, whether knowingly or otherwise, have given us a passage from Genesis (18:1-10) in which Abraham entertains an angelic/divine figure or three figures; it is uncertain as there is number slippage here; and in which he finds the solution. In this passage we see Abraham the ‘Father’ of the nation in full paternalistic flight. He certainly has no necessity to dash off to the kitchen, for he commands everything, servants, wife, and operations, and in so doing fulfils all the laws of hospitality perfectly. Sarah his wife is merely the passive recipient of his orders and stuck in seclusion in the tent. Yet the upshot of all this welcoming and feasting is that the heavenly guest promises a son to Sarah, and this child is only given we would discover if we read on from the actual text, after Abraham has learned some significant lessons, about the nature of his authority and the need for truthfulness in his dealings with others in the countryside in which they pass through, a lesson he repeatedly ignores. In a tight spot, don’t chicken out and pass your wife off as your sister and therefore available to any despot whose territory you happen to traverse. The question arises then as to whether simply following the time honoured customs about hospitality and social convention are the most important things; something which we know Jesus frequently and knowingly ignored.
Are we then to find the solution to our dilemma in St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians? (Cols 1:24-28) Those who know Paul well will be aware that in the opening of some of his letters he describes himself as the Servant or rather Slave of Christ, and we might expect this term to appear here too “I became the servant of the Church…. ” But this is not the case. The word here is “diakonos”, meaning “minister” or rather identifying his purpose or office, and the term significantly also used in our Gospel for Martha.
Paul has become the bearer of the great revealed mystery to the pagans, “Christ among you, your hope of glory.” For Paul, it was the knowledge that he had been given this mind-blowing message of the revelation of Christ to humanity, and of our ultimate destiny in him, which surpasses everything else, indeed, which even makes his own sufferings on Christ’s behalf as nothing. Last week our reading from this same letter was the recitation of that great hymn about Christ as the “Image of the unseen God”, the ultimate creator and the one who is greater than any worldly or heavenly powers. We just rather take all that for granted, but if we could imagine the impact of those words on a pagan audience, which lived in fear of the demonic powers; fearful of marauding tax officials from the Emperor; terrified of the diseases which frequently ravaged entire populations; not to mention famines and earthquakes, such news that God himself had come down to earth as a human being and shared our lot, ultimately dying to unite us to himself eternally, would have had an enormous impact. His aim, according to the hymn, is to reconcile the entire created order to Christ, and that everything be at peace. Such a message would have been a miracle, opening a whole new understanding of the divine to the people of Colossae. The fact that Paul deliberately twice uses the term ‘mystery’, in an age of mystery cults which had nothing to do with the human lot, is significant. Here at last are the hidden depths of the one creator God laid bare and shared with the entire humanity, in Christ and through the service of Paul.
Is it then that Martha, whom we know also from John’s gospel at the raising of Lazarus to have shared her grief with Jesus equally with her sister Mary, is she simply just used as a foil at this point by Luke? Significantly, he interjects this tiny and troubling passage in-between the stories of the Good Samaritan, a type of Christ, (for he risks his own life for the Jew he saves), and Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer and the repercussions which follow, when Jesus casts out a demon and is accused of working with the devil. In other words, is our problem one more of the way modern people read an ancient text, which of course originally had no punctuation or chapters? The modern divisions we give certainly help us to reference material and find our way, but they do bring artificial breaks to the text. Are we meant to see Martha’s irritation with her service, her diaconal duties, as Our Lord’s criticism of anything which gets in the way of a true attentiveness to God, and no comment actually on Martha at all? She would stand in such a scenario in Luke for anything which got in the way of the Gospel and as such, we need to take it to heart, be it a rap over the knuckles to fussy liturgists, or any one else. God knows, there’s a lot of it about.