Friday, July 29, 2011

"Martha, Martha ..."

Congressmen are sometimes categorized as either “workhorses” or “show horses.” When I was in seminary, we used a somewhat similar dichotomy to categorize one another. Based on Luke 10:38-42, one was either a “Martha” (burdened with much serving) or a “Mary” (who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak). Such stereotyping obviously was surely unjust – perhaps even to those who were being so characterized, but certainly to the two holy women in the Gospel.

On this feast of St. Martha, it seems only right to recognize Martha’s many merits. After all, Jesus and his disciples presumably expected to be fed when they visited Martha’s and Mary’s home! Perhaps it has always been the lot of a housewife that her housework – absolutely essential for the efficient running of the home and for hospitality to one’s guests – gets taken for granted. I am sure Martha was neither the first nor the last homemaker to feel somewhat underappreciated – or to ask for help! The Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ dining at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany omits any hint of complaint on Martha’s part, but is in other respects completely coherent with Luke’s picture. What are the two sisters and their brother depicted as doing? True to type, Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with Jesus, while Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with costly perfumed oil (John 12:2-3).

I think Jesus valued Martha’s service to him and his disciples. He valued her hospitality (and the home her care maintained for his friends Lazarus and Mary). Jesus’ retort to Martha, as recorded by Luke, sounds to me less like a reproof than some sympathetic advice: Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. Jesus appreciated Martha’s work ethic, but he warned her not to let it get out of hand, not to focus so much on her hospitality, for example, as to miss the focus on her guest.

In ministry, that is always a ever present problem. Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604) famously lamented in his Homily on Ezekiel: “Since I assumed the burden of pastoral care, my mind can no longer be collected; it is concerned with so many matters … With my mind divided and torn to pieces by so many problems, how can I meditate or preach wholeheartedly without neglecting the ministry of proclaiming the Gospel?” As a pastor myself- with admittedly only the tiniest fraction of Gregory’s responsibilities – I can certainly identify with Gregory’s dilemma. In all the paperwork and meetings about material things, one could, if one were not careful, lose one’s focus on the point of it all. Even worse, one can revel in one's worldly responsibilities as a kind of escape from nurturing one's spiritual life.

But, then again, Jesus and his disciples assuredly expected to get fed and housed suitably in Martha’s home. Clearly no one can effectively focus on the better part (as Jesus praised Martha’s sister, Mary, for doing) while long neglecting the material needs of Christ’s body, the Church. It may be a perennial challenge to figure out how to neogitate the apparent tension between one's spiritual life and the demands of a pastoral vocation and the even more challenging tension between a spiritual/pastoral vocation and the day-to-day demands of administration. The challenge is not met, however, by devaluing or ignoring any of those components.

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