Friday, July 29, 2011
My Theological Thesis on Martha and Mary
Since it is the feast of Martha today, I thought I'd post this, just for fun. But don't ask me to re-read it ever again (even though I did secretly have fun with it, and learned a lot in the process!) The footnote links do not work, but the footnotes are at the end, after the Bibliography.
Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42)
On The Relationship between Historical-Critical Interpretations and the Tradition of the Church
As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary (who) sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Rebecca and Leah, Ruth and Naomi, the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth...there are many pairs of holy women in the Bible, but none are as controversial as the sisters Jesus visits on his way to Jerusalem in the Gospel according to St. Luke. The story of Martha and Mary has generated a vast bulk of scholarship and commentary over the centuries. In order to understand what this pericope means today, it is necessary to understand what it means at the Lukan level, as well as the significance it has carried throughout the centuries.
Starting as early as the Patristic period, Martha and Mary became models for the active and contemplative vocations in the Church. Recently, biblical scholars have used the Historical-Critical method in order to unpack what St. Luke may have originally intended to convey by this story. In particular, Bonnie Thurston, a feminist critic, hit the nail on the head when she wrote, “In the history of biblical scholarship there are many examples of reputable scholars holding widely divergent views about the same text. Luke 10:38-42 is a case in point of the same phenomenon in feminist biblical scholarship.” This statement holds true for all biblical scholarship, not just that of the feminists.
The Historical Critical method is one of the most effective tools available to modern biblical scholars. Although discovering exactly what Luke intended to convey by the story of Martha and Mary is difficult, scholars can make good educated guesses by carefully analyzing the materials available to them. However, as a result of the scholars’ different preconceptions and biases (which are impossible for any normal human being to escape) their interpretations of any given text tend to differ greatly. In this section, I will compare and contrast several modern scholars’ interpretations of Luke 10:38-42.
One of the most prevalent questions that feminist critics ask about the story of Martha and Mary is whether Luke believed that Martha was the head of the house church. If he did, it seems as if Luke’s narrative is aimed at silencing women and keeping them out of leadership positions in the early Christian community. Why would Luke have such a goal? As Bonnie Thurston claims, “Luke...writes with an eye toward influencing Rome positively toward Christianity. (And...this influences his portrayal of women).” In light of such an idea, it is easy to see why the feminist writers are suspicious of Luke’s telling of this story, in which the silent Mary heroine is commended by Jesus and Martha is silenced.
Barbara E. Reid picks up on the theme of the silent women in this pericope and in Luke as a whole, contrasting it with John’s Gospel. She writes, “The Fourth Gospel profiles strong woman characters who engage in theological discussions with Jesus, profess their profound faith, and preach publicly and convincingly. Unlike the Gospel of Luke, there is no attempt to silence women or to restrict them to quiet...homebound ministries.” Some scholars point to the number of women known by name in Luke’s Gospel as an argument for Luke’s liberalism with regards to women. However, according to the feminists, Luke is not as much of an advocate of women’s rights as he is sometimes painted, for the reasons given above. Instead, under the watchful eye of Roman authorities, he is in favor of silent women who know their place and do not overstep their bounds.
Meanwhile, Reid speculates: “It is possible that part of Martha’s anguish is that her sisters, former companions in ministry, have been persuaded that silent listening is the proper role for women disciples, and have left her alone in the more visible ministries.” This, according to Reid, is why Martha is “anxious and worried about many things” (Luke 10:41), while Mary does not concern herself with anything more than listening to Jesus. Mary seems to be perfectly happy in her position at the feet of Jesus, listening to him speak rather than taking up a leadership role herself.
However, Thurston would not necessarily agree with this interpretation. She thinks that, while Luke’s Jesus does silence Martha, it is out of concern for her peace of mind and soul more than an attempt to end her service to him and to the community. Thurston writes that, “It may well be that Martha is distracted by ‘much ministry.’ Jesus does not criticize Martha’s ministry so much as the anxiety and agitation she feels in it.” Taken with Reid’s statement about Martha’s worry about her silent sisters, this idea might develop into a more balanced picture of what Martha was going through. After reading the views of the two feminists, I can see Martha, busy with her ministry, but worried because Mary is not participating and helping her. While Jesus does not tell Martha to stop serving, neither does he tell Mary to get up and start working. Each woman has her vocation, each vocation is good, but just as Martha had difficulty understanding the goodness of Mary’s position, scholars still struggle to understand the last line: “Mary has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:38-42).
This lack of understanding leads to the claim that the two sisters might have been opposed to each other, as Thurston writes, “The story of Martha and Mary, in fact, pits woman against woman.” Reid does not agree with her, however, as she recognizes that, on the contrary, Martha and Mary are both welcoming Jesus and expressing their faith in him in the only way each knows how:
To welcome Jesus, the word, and the reign of God are all equivalent expressions for faith. Martha’s welcoming of Jesus in 10:38 speaks of her reception of him as an act of faith, matching Mary’s ‘listening to him speak’ (v. 39). In the first two verses, then, there is no opposition between the two sisters. It is not that one contemplates Jesus’ word and the other neglects this. Each receives Jesus and his word. The tension arises over how their acceptance of the word takes expression in ministry.
Indeed, there is tension between the two sisters, which leads Martha to ask for Jesus’ intervention. Yet, after reading Reid’s interpretation, one is left to wonder why Martha and Mary were not more cooperative, since they both received Jesus and his word. This works both ways: why didn’t Martha understand that Mary was expressing her love for Jesus by giving him her whole attention, and why didn’t Mary notice that Martha was burdened and rise in charity to help her so that both sisters could give their undivided hearts to Jesus sooner? After all, it is said that many hands make light work.
All in all, the feminist critics pose many questions with regards to the proper interpretation of Luke 10:38-42, and while they answer some, they leave many more unanswered. Meanwhile, as with any story or situation, in order to get a balanced picture, it is necessary to look at it from more than one perspective. So, now I shall turn to a few interpretations from some mainstream Historical Critical biblical scholars.
The most striking way in which mainstream scholars differ from feminists is that they are not as concerned with the question of whether or not women exercised a leadership role in the early Christian communities. While these writers are more focused on the themes of hospitality and listening to the word, many still grapple to understand the relationship between Martha and Mary. Although this is probably one of the problems with this text that will never be fully resolved, it inspires many different plausible interpretations.
According to Luke Timothy Johnson, “The sisters together represent the proper attitude to the Prophet of receiving him in the home.” Isolated from one another, their respective ways of welcoming Jesus would not be sufficient. It is a rare human being who can see to it that his or her guest’s needs are met while entertaining them or listening to them simultaneously. In his own commentary on Luke, Joseph Fitzmyer takes this idea one step further by arguing that “The episode is addressed to the Christian who is expected to be contemplativus(a) in actione.”  This is a call for modern Christians to emulate both sisters. This is not because we have an advantage over Martha and Mary, though our superior technology allows us to do everything faster, nor because we necessarily have a deeper understanding of who Jesus was and what he taught, thanks to the Historical-Critical method. It would have been possible for Martha to be a contemplative in action, if she had not let herself become so pre-occupied with her work of hospitality or her ministry, whichever it was. As for ourselves, how often do we find our hearts ‘anxious and worried about many things’ (Luke 10:41), when we could be choosing ‘the better part’ (Luke 10:42) without losing anything of who we are and what we are ultimately about? Technology and modern scholarship techniques are no guarantee that we will have peace of mind and an undivided heart to listen to Jesus’ word in our lives. In fact, our skills and tools often make it more difficult for us to focus on the ‘one thing’ necessary.
Meanwhile, the theme of hospitality is also one that runs deep in this pericope, according to some modern biblical scholars. In fact, Joel B. Green argues that, “although long interpreted as establishing the priority of the contemplative life over and against the active one, the interests of this brief narrative unit lie elsewhere. Luke’s narration is manifestly concerned with the motif of hospitality.” As they discuss this theme, scholars differ in their interpretation of what it means for Martha and Mary to practice hospitality. In his commentary, Johnson claims that “hospitality is attention to the guest, rather than a domestic performance.” Martha was so worried about pleasing Jesus, that she was practically paralyzed by her anxiousness and unable to enjoy Jesus’ company. This is not true hospitality. Though she is busy with serving, there is much that Martha holds back from Jesus, including her anxious heart. It is almost as if Martha would rather keep on as she is than to stop and listen to Jesus like Mary and let herself be healed.
However, Johnson gives us a picture of what true hospitality is when he writes that Luke focuses on “the self-giving that takes risks, that disposes of the self and one’s possessions and then allows the other to leave without clinging; the hospitality that receives the other as the other wishes to be received, that listens.” This is the hospitality that would be ideally practiced by both Martha and by Mary. Certainly, Mary takes a risk by sitting at Jesus’ feet, disposing herself to listen to him speak. But if he had told her to get up and help Martha, one imagines that she would have done it willingly. Martha, meanwhile, had opened her house to Jesus and done her utmost to meet his physical needs. Therefore, both sisters played an integral role in welcoming Jesus into their home, but according to Luke’s Jesus, “Mary chose the better part”. (Luke 10:42) I now turn to the question of why this might be so, by focusing on some thoughts about Martha.
Of the modern biblical scholars, Green is the most critical of Martha. He writes that “though she refers to Jesus as ‘Lord,’ she is concerned to engage his assistance in her plans, not to learn from his.” So, according to this interpretation, Martha has closed her heart to the Lord. She is like the foolish Christian who makes his plans carefully and then asks the Lord to bless them, forgetting that the Lord has his own plans. These plans, though mysterious, difficult to understand, and even bitter at times, are far better than our own.
Similarly, Johnson tells us that Martha’s “self-preoccupation and resentment led her to break the rules of hospitality far more radically than did her sister, for she asked a stranger to intervene in a family rivalry.” Instead of being intent on Jesus’ words, first and foremost, she was worried about what she was doing for him and what Mary was not doing. The greatest marks of a Christian disciple are humility and love. Humility looks inward only to see one’s limitations and one’s need for God, and outward only to see how much that need is being met by God in his mercy, wholly unmerited, freely given. Love does not look inward at all, though it is rooted deep within, in humility, but it looks out to others, to care for their needs and walk side by side with them to God. With respect to humility and love, according to Johnson, Martha is lacking when, overcome by “her self-preoccupation and resentment,” she asks Jesus to reprimand her sister.
Although it is possible to explore the interpretations of the biblical scholars even further, the second half of this paper will be focused on the rich tradition of interpretation from the standpoint of the Tradition. I will trace the development of the interpretations of Luke’s story of Martha and Mary throughout the centuries, going from Augustine to Therese of Lisieux with special regard to Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican doctor of the Church.
In looking at Augustine’s writings, first of all, it must be noted that his early works are “strongly allegorist. The dates for his sermons #103 and #104 are unknown, but #179 is thought to have been written sometime before the year 405, and #255 seems to have been written during the Easter Season of 418. No matter when they were written however, these four sermons contain several examples of Augustine’s tendency to allegorize the texts of the Bible. This way of understanding Scripture is very different from the Historical-Critical method, and so it naturally leads to different interpretations from that method.
The most prominent and influential example of allegory in Augustine’s sermons on Luke 10:38-42 is when Augustine uses Martha and Mary as models for two kinds of life. According to Augustine, Martha represents action, while Mary represents contemplation: “So there remained in that house, which welcomed the Lord, two kinds of life in two women; both innocent, both praiseworthy; one laborious, the other leisurely; neither criminally active, neither merely idle.....there were...two kinds of life, and the very fountain of life himself.” The “very fountain of life” is Jesus. According to Augustine’s interpretation, Jesus is the strength of those who serve like Martha, and the joy of those who rest and listen to His Word like Mary. In this interpretation, and throughout his writings, Augustine does not see Martha and Mary as being opposed to one another, but rather as complementary figures of two aspects of human life. So, Christians are called to integrate the example of these two figures into their lives of love for God and their neighbors.
In his article, Meister Eckhart and a Millennium with Martha and Mary, Blake R. Heffner writes that after Augustine, one of the major commentators on Luke 10:38-42 was Bernard of Clairvaux. In his writings, St. Bernard called for a synthesis of the lives of Martha and Mary: “The best [part] would comprehend both Martha’s and Mary’s portions.” This continuation of the tradition of seeing Martha and Mary as complementary figures rather than opposites also gave rise to later formulations of the value of the mixed life, which was the ideal for certain medieval communities of women, such as the Beguines. Although not everyone agrees on this point, we still see its influence it in modern biblical scholarship today, as evidenced above.
Next, Heffner looks at the mendicant orders and their interpretation of the Martha and Mary story. After explaining how Francis of Assisi applied the roles of Martha and Mary to the way brothers lived and took turns caring for the needs of one another in the communities of the Friars Minor, Heffner turns to Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican Doctor of the Church. Aquinas, Heffner writes, “allows that the very ‘best’ part is not contemplation alone, but the active teaching and preaching that flows from the fullness of contemplation.....this captures the very essence of Dominic’s founding vision for an Order of Preachers.” Note that Aquinas’ concept that activity should flow out of contemplation is very much in line with Fitzmyer’s call for the Christian to be “contemplativus(a) in actione.” Or rather, it must be the other way around, since Aquinas came first.
Throughout the Summa Theologiae, II.II, Questions 179 and 182, Aquinas’ treatment of Luke 10:38-42 (and his overall fascination with the relationship between action and contemplation and their roles in Christian life) shows clear influences from the thought of Augustine, as well as from that of Gregory the Great and other earlier writers. In fact, there are three instances when Aquinas quotes directly from Augustine’s sermons 103 and 104. The most telling example of this runs as follows, in Question 182, Article 1, Reply viii (quoting from Augustine’s Sermon 103.4.5):
The Lord...says, ‘Mary has chosen the best part and it will not be taken away from her.’ Augustine interprets this to mean, ‘You have not chosen a bad part, but she has chosen a better; and I will tell you why it is better: because it will not be taken away from her. One day the burden of need will be taken away from you, but the delights of truth are eternal.’”
Again, like Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Francis of Assisi, Aquinas does not pit the active life (Martha) and the contemplative life (Mary) against each other, but rather, he recognizes the goodness of both, while arguing that the contemplative life does have a more enduring character. Later in the Summa, Aquinas writes the famous lines: “It is a greater thing to give light than simply to have light, and in the same way it is a greater thing to pass on to others what you have contemplated than just to contemplate.” True to his Dominican heritage, Aquinas upholds the value of teaching and preaching out of love for others, while retaining the importance of contemplation and love of God as a foundation for his ministry.
However, toward the end of his life, while saying Mass on the feast of St. Nicholas in 1273, Aquinas had a mystical experience, in which he “was suddenly struck (commotus) by something that profoundly affected and changed him (mira mutatione). He must have come as close to the Beatific Vision, to the heights of contemplation, as it is possible for one to come without dying. After that, despite his former love for and dedication to preaching and writing, he was able to accomplish very little. As Aquinas said to the friars who were closest to him at the time, “All that I have written seems to me like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.” Like Mary, he finally came to grasp the “one thing necessary”—loving contemplation of God—as completely as is possible for one living on earth to do. He put aside his writings, the “many things” of Martha, and dedicated himself to contemplation until he died in early March of 1274.
Of course, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux, the two great Carmelite women Doctors of the Church, also have something to say about the story of Martha and Mary. In her treatise on The Way of Perfection, Teresa of Avila writes, “Remember that there must be someone to cook the meals and count yourselves happy in being able to serve like Martha. Reflect that true humility consists to a great extent in being ready for what the Lord desires to do with you and happy that He should do it...” In other words, “count yourselves happy to be able to serve like Martha,” and serve your brothers and sisters with love and humility. For her part, Therese of Lisieux is even more explicit about the necessity of love, as she focuses first on Mary (who she believes to be the Magdalene), then on Martha:
I ask Jesus to draw me into the flames of His love, to unite me so closely to Him that He live and act in me.....a soul that is burning with love cannot remain inactive. No doubt, she will remain at Jesus’ feet as did Mary Magdalene, and she will listen to His sweet and burning words. Appearing to do nothing, she will give much more than Martha who torments herself with many things and wants her sister to imitate her. It is not Martha’s works that Jesus finds fault with.....It is only the restlessness of His ardent hostess that He willed to correct.
It is a surprising coincidence that the last two lines of this quote are highly similar to Thurston’s position on the same problem, cited earlier (see page 4). Both women, living nearly a century apart, and coming from different backgrounds, agree that Jesus only wanted to correct Martha’s poor internal disposition and her lack of selfless love, not her external actions.
Still, although Therese believes that Mary gives of herself more freely by listening than Martha does by serving, Therese, like many others in the Tradition before her, does not believe that the sisters are pitted against each other, as Thurston does. After all, Martha is “ardent”—serving out of a burning passion—so, if she did not allow herself to be overcome by restlessness, her love, too, would be as perfect as Mary’s.
In conclusion, although Luke 10:38-42 has been understood and applied in various ways throughout the history of the Church by modern biblical scholars, patristic writers, and saints, there is as much agreement on some points as there is disagreement on others. Each person who reads and interprets any given text brings something different, something unique to the text in question. And each commentary affects future interpretations. In light of this, it is apparent that for a balanced Catholic understanding of the Bible, a thoughtful person should not study and reflect on the interpretations of the modern biblical scholars or of the Patristic writers alone, but on both. Such study and reflection, if it is rooted in Christ, will lead to a fulfillment of Reid’s hope that we will all “act out of a vision that allows for the rich diversity of gifts in the community to be used in service...[so that] both men and women called to contemplative listening...and all forms of ministry would together hear Jesus’ approval of their having ‘chosen the better part.’
Augustine, Michele Pellegrino, Edmund Hill, and John E. Rotelle. Sermons. Brooklyn, NY: New City Press, 1990.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Gospel According to Luke: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1981.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. The new international commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1997.
Heffner, Blake R. “Meister Eckhart and a Millennium with Martha and Mary.” Biblical Hermeneutics in Historical Perspective. Ed. Mark S. Burrows & Paul Rorem. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991. Johnson
Johnson, Luke T, and Daniel J. Harrington. The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1991.
Reid, Barbara E. Choosing the Better Part?: Women in the Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1996.
Simonetti, Manlio. Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church: An Historical Introduction to Patristic Exegesis. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994.
Teresa, Silverio, and E A. Peers. The Way of Perfection. New York: Image Book/Doubleday, 1964.
Thérèse, Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996.
Thurston, Bonnie Bowman. Women in the New Testament: questions and commentary. Eugene, Oregon. Wipf & Stock, 1998.
Tugwell, Simon, Albertus, and Thomas. Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings. The Classics of
Western spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1988. Weisheipl, James A. Friar Thomas D'aquino: His Life, Thought, and Work. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1974.
I owe my deepest thanks and gratitude to all who encouraged me, directed my steps, and helped me grow throughout this entire process, especially...
My professors: Professor Sweetland, Professor K. Spoerl, Professor Holder, Fr. Benedict O.S.B., Fr. Bernard O.S.B.
My friends: Katie Landry, Danielle Laurendeau, Sarah M. Smith, Margaret Capella, et al.
My parents and family at home, especially Felicity.
last but not least, my guardian angel, all my patron saints, and my Sweet Jesus!
...to everyone who was a part of this...
 Thurston, Bonnie Bowman. Women in the New Testament: questions and commentary. Eugene, Oregon. Wipf & Stock, 1998.110.
 Thurston 98.
 Reid, Barbara E. Choosing the Better Part?: Women in the Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1996.160.
 Reid 158.
 Thurston 109.
 Thurston 97.
 Reid 157.
 Johnson, Luke T, and Daniel J. Harrington. The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1991. 175.
 Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Gospel According to Luke: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1981. 893.
 Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. The new international commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1997. 433.
 Johnson 175.
 Johnson 176.
 Green 437.
 Johnson 175-176.
 Simonetti, Manlio. Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church: An Historical Introduction to Patristic Exegesis. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994. 103.
 See the chronological tables in the back of Augustine, Michele Pellegrino, Edmund Hill, and John E. Rotelle. Sermons. Brooklyn, NY: New City Press, 1990. Volume 3, Numbers 4, 5, and 7
 Augustine, Michele Pellegrino, Edmund Hill, and John E. Rotelle. Sermons. Brooklyn, NY: New City Press, 1990. Volume 3, Number 4. 83
 Heffner, Blake R. “Meister Eckhart and a Millennium with Martha and Mary.” Biblical Hermeneutics in Historical Perspective. Ed. Mark S. Burrows & Paul Rorem. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991. 122.
 Heffner 123.
 Heffner 124.
 Fitzmyer. 893.
 Tugwell, Simon, Albertus, and Thomas. Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings. The Classics of Western spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1988. 576-577 (with a footnote to Augustine’s Sermon 103.4.5)
 Tugwell 630.
 Weisheipl, James A. Friar Thomas D'aquino: His Life, Thought, and Work. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1974. 321.
 Weisheipl 322.
 Weisheipl 327-328.
 Teresa, Silverio, and E A. Peers. The Way of Perfection. New York: Image Book/Doubleday, 1964. 108.
 Thérèse, Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996. 257-258.
 Reid 162.