St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 8 (17.07.2016) 08.00 am

Tony Dickinson

It may be, as St Teresa of Avila once said, that Martha and Mary must combine to give our Lord perfect hospitality, but those wise words come with a lot of baggage attached - and they don't necessarily help us make sense of what is happening. What is this “better part” of which the Lord speaks? And why, precisely, is it better?

For Teresa, as for many commentators down the ages, Mary has stood for the contemplative life: stressed and over-busy Martha has represented the active life. Both are, indeed, needed for balanced spiritual growth into Christ. But there may perhaps be more to it than that.

What really gets up Martha's nose, I suspect, is that Mary (unlike Martha) is not fulfilling the role assigned to her gender in a patriarchal society. Rabbis did not take on female pupils, so in sitting at the feet of this visiting rabbi and listening to his teaching, Mary is behaving like a man, while Martha is doing the womanly thing: making him at home.

This, I think, is where the Lord's reply is more important than traditional comment on this passage usually allows. It takes Martha's complaint far beyond gender stereotypes and opens up a new reality. The better part is not the contemplative life set in opposition to the active life. The “better part” is being a disciple of Jesus – a status open to all, irrespective of gender.

As we come to terms with Thursday’s tragic events in Nice (and the spike in racist incidents in this country around the end of June), we recognise the wisdom of St Teresa: that offering hospitality to the Lord is about more than unceasing activism, and more than holy thoughts. Mary and Martha must indeed combine in contemplation and commitment if we are to provide hospitality to the Lord who comes to his disciples in the voiceless and the victims of this world. To him…