The well known story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) has often been understood to teach that devotion and attention to the spiritual life is superior to the material life. But I want to explore this polarised and polarising view in the light of the other readings and find where action and contemplation, social justice and the spiritual life, may not only intersect but deeply be the one thing.
If I may begin with a story of how I developed this conviction and then explore the theology which supports or explains it - which may seem backward but in truth is probably how most of us reach our conclusions! Some years ago, when my eldest daughter was living in the US and I was visiting every second year, I undertook a summer internship with Father Richard Rohr and the wonderful team at the Centre for Action and Contemplation. As part of that program we travelled from Albuquerque in New Mexico down to the border at the twin cities of El Paso (Texas) and Juarez (Mexico). On the day we arrived a young Mexican lad had been shot by American border guards as he entered the river in what appeared to be an attempt to enter illegally. I cannot comment beyond this because we were only there briefly and I do not presume to understand the intricacies of the law and migration issues of another country. I am telling this story here because we joined a spontaneous prayer vigil on the state side of the river near where the crossing had been attempted. A few hundred people, local and visiting, mainly middle aged and older, gathered and held candles and prayed for peace. One or two spoke but it felt very silent and sacred - despite the police helicopters hovering above whose noise drowned out our silence, and their spotlights that doused our candlelight and the circle of heavily armed police on the ground. We were not hurt or directly threatened but it was clear that if we did do anything that was perceived as threatening our actions would be forcibly stopped. It was one of those moments in life where there was no separation between soul and body, contemplation and action, the interior spiritual life and the commandment to provide hospitality to the stranger and care for the alien, widow and orphan. I was not divided and torn between praying and doing something, feeling or responding practically. There was only one thing that I and we could do in the moment and we did it: we were present where there was anguish and suffering. Occasionally in parish ministry I have felt something of the same but not as often as I confess I would like.
If you have read the Amos (8:1-12) reading set for this week then you will be reeling under the apocalyptic judgement of the injustice in our world – then and still, and in no doubt that we are called to a life of social justice for all. Amos calls us to level the unjust structures and patterns in our community that trade human lives and livelihoods. Or if you have read the account in Genesis (18:1-10) of Abraham practicing hospitality to the messengers who announce that when they return aged Sarah will have a son you may be considering the links between the practice of hospitality to strangers with the fulfilment of the promises of God. In this way it states how important hospitality is both as social obligation but also as a practice of opening to the goodness of God’s surprising gifts. Which is important to keep in mind when we approach the Mary and Martha story.
But most of all it is the reading from Colossians that affirms my sense that at the deepest and profoundest level there is not division and duality but oneness. “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Jesus the Christ is before all things and the first born of all things, the one in whom all holds together or comes together. As much as any single verse can, this verse 17 from the first chapter of the letter to the Colossians, speaks to the one thing that we and Mary and Martha are called to. Martha is not corrected, I think, for practicing hospitality but for being consumed to the point of distraction by the form, or detail, of hospitality that she sought to provide. It seems that on this occasion at least Mary practices a form of hospitality and welcoming that was the one thing required in that moment. That is Mary was fully present and attentive to Jesus.
Much of our Christian life I suspect that we work to find a balance between the interior spiritual life and the community focused life of justice making and service.Many of us tend to this by what I call the spiritual club sandwich: we break the day or the week up into cycles of prayer, study and action. Depending on the day and the stage of life and the personality of the person of faith the weight may be more toward the interior life or more toward the life of community service. But many of us feel as though we are often doing one or the other. And some of us are prone to feeling that whichever we are doing maybe we should be attending to the other aspect of life!
Certainly beginning and ending, grounding our life in prayer and reflection, before and after our outwardly focused work is good and will stop our work from wondering too far from the heart of faith. But I think the one thing, the better part, that on this occasion Mary chose, is that whole hearted opening and attentiveness to the one before her rather than the distracted good works of Martha that came with resentment it seems. When we are fully present to the work of the moment, the person in front of us, then there will be no division between spiritual and social, interior and exterior, worship and work. Why? Because the Christ is the one in whom all things hold together, all things begin and end, in whom there is no division. Because Jesus the Christ shows us in visible form the union of all.
When we can visit the elderly and sit in a kitchen drinking tea and hearing old stories with the same attention, openness and reverence that we have before an icon in a chapel we will be attending to the one thing that is needed in that moment. When we can hold the hands of our dearest family members while walking on the beach or watching the television in the evening as we do when visiting dying strangers in hospice beds we will be attending to the one thing most needed in each of those situations. When we can respond to the neighbour least like ourselves with the joy and hope that we experienced Sunday morning when the worship came together then we will be attending to the thing most needed in each moment. And when we can respond to the reflection in the mirror with the same humour, care and respect that we do the images of the saints then we will be beginning to experience the oneness that is in Christ.
I have become convinced that it is not one thing or the other but that whatever we are doing, whoever we are with, we are to attend fully, or to be fully present, as it seems Mary was with Jesus that particular day. Sometimes that will mean sitting in silent wonder at the feet of the master as he teaches in words or foot washing, and sometimes it will be in placing ourselves beside those who do not look so obviously like Jesus but that he asked us to consider as infinitely worthy of our attention - the imprisoned, the sick, the outcast. The one thing most needed changes from situation to situation and requires of us a spirit of hospitality and receptivity.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come show us the one thing that you would have us attend to in this moment and in the next moment and the next. Amen.