Mary & Martha: Friends of Jesus—This Sunday’s Gospel Story
Mary and Martha are the most familiar set of sisters in the Bible. Both Luke and John describe them as friends of Jesus. Luke’s story, which is proclaimed at Mass this 16th Sunday of the Year, is brief, at only four verses long, but it has stirred up more responses to it than most short Gospel sections, and it has been a source of inspiration and also some debate for centuries. Luke’s later story of them, and John’s Gospel ones, will add more info and details to these sisters’ story (e.g. Martha’s faith confession…and their brother Lazarus’ raising). Also, we know how some interpreters of the Gospels have blended the person of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50, yet current scholarship says she was a different person. I agree she was. Anyway, we are just looking at these few Lukan verses, and at this scene in their home. Jesus and maybe some other disciples are gathered in Martha and Mary’s ‘living room;’ here it is that Jesus wants to teach and share with them all in that moment.
Mary and Martha were good friends of Jesus. They lived in Bethany in Judah, on the way to Jerusalem, so we know their place was not frequented by Jesus as much as the places in His Galilean home area. Yet when Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, He looked to these women for hospitality for himself and for his other traveling disciples, and they kindly welcomed Him and the others each time. This visit was not his first one there at “The Bethany House.”
People have many takes on what to gleam from this gospel. I will suggest this to you today: it was an Exchange of Great Hospitality. One main lesson here is how both Jesus and the women exchanged great hospitality to one another.
Yes, Jesus also is doing some “welcoming” in this Gospel. Let’s look at His hospitality first. In this house of two single sisters, Jesus was open to meeting with these single women and staying with them, and the house had room to accommodate his little band of travelers. Yet in this act, Jesus is welcoming the sisters into His inner circle, which mostly contained men. He accepted the invitation to come to their home/inn, but once He is there He now wants to welcome Mary (as well as Martha) to “sit at His feet,” which meant that He want her to draw close and to be taught by Him (as with the other close disciples) of the Kingdom of God. That’s what “sitting at the feet of Jesus” means. We hear in Luke that this welcome initially delighted Mary but startled the more traditional Martha, who was “head” of the home. Martha was happy just to cook and accommodate Jesus (and his friends) to her home She didn’t know there could be more to it, yet Jesus would offer the even “better part” of His dear friendship to them. Mary first “got it” (that she was welcome to Jesus’ inner company) and so then would Martha “get it.” This Gospel is also an appeal to us, who have it proclaimed to us, that we “get it” that the Lord wants us to closing know Him and to be taught by Him of the Kingdom of God all about us. That He wants our service, and loves our service, but He wants us to “sit at His feet” as well.
Secondly, the other side of the hospitality in this Gospel passage, and the more obvious one, is how Martha and Mary opened their Bethany home to Him. Jesus was pleased with the great hospitality of these two women. It was an extraordinary welcome. Do not misinterpret His words as being ungrateful to Martha’s work in her home for Him. His gentle rebuke was just prompting her to come and sit with Him. He was most interested in her, not just her meals. Jesus’ face probably communicated to Martha (and her sister) of just how moved He was that they would take him and his band into their home. It wasn’t just that they were nice folks or had a B & B to fill up– this act of hospitality assumes that they were doing it gratis, and as a huge show of support for this amazing Rabbi Jesus and his ministry traveling over the nation. It was a sign that they liked Jesus message and that it matched up to Martha and Mary’s hopes of faith for God to reign again in the hearts of people in the land, like long ago in Israel’s history.
Theirs had to be a rich, roomy, and well-supplied home. It is supposed that Martha and Mary were well off financially (for Jewish people then), yet who saw no problem with welcoming the peasant level Galilean persons into their home. That kind of hospitality was quite revealing about these sisters. In return, Jesus had no problem in honoring them as women into His close circle, in what usually was saved for just men. As I said could maybe be the main theme of this gospel: It was an exchange of great hospitality.
So here comes Jesus’ band of disciple to their house. Martha and Mary would have a lot to do in this act of caring for Jesus’ company. It is not surprising that Martha had felt that she needed Mary’s help in the kitchen for the food preparation tasks!
The Gospel account is a good follow-up to the Good Samaritan parable on love of neighbor. In a couple of tid-bits on meaning of names, Bethany means “house of God.” Martha means “lady of the house.” Mary means “wise woman” or ‘lady’; it is a Greek form of the Hebrew Miriam or Mariam. It was a popular name at the time of Jesus, maybe because it was the name of the beautiful young Jewish princess Mariamme, married to King Herod the Great, but who was murdered by him on a false charge of infidelity. Naming your child Mary or Miriam was a not-too-subtle protest against Herod and what he had done. Miriam was also the ancient name of Moses’ sister, as many know as the enthusiasm director of the Hebrews’ Exodus.
I matched up a saint’s story to this week’s reflection. As you read the bulletin insert, Saint Gemma was willing to welcome Jesus into her life of suffering and ask Him to bless it for something good. We all don’t have a nice house and some wealth and health to begin with–but God comes to all of us in whatever situation– and to welcome hearts He brings His saving love. Enjoy reading St. Gemma’s testimony.
To finish this message, I share with you a Jesus Movement song of the 70’s and my slight alteration of its words to communicate what I think this Gospel says to us. It says to us, who already are friends with God, to welcome God and His kingdom reign into our homes and community. God loves our service or charity in His Name, too, but hopes it leads us more to the better part of knowing Him well and intimately. We can be those kinds of friends of Jesus together. We can welcome back, in this Year of Faith, all the Life that we believe in, all the Jesus’ love that we know has been there, and be glad to be welcomed in close by God in His Bethany, the House of God.
WELCOME BACK By Love Song
Welcome Back. Welcome Back.
Welcome Back to the Life that you once believed in. Welcome Back to the Love meant to be in your heart. Through the times could you not realize that I hoped you’d get back close to Me? I came to your door, you know what I am here for, let us sit and talk (draw near to Me)… Do you yearn, do you want to learn what I have to teach you? Do you know just how very far that I’ve come to reach you? I know you’re busy doin’ good to please Me (I know you have a willing heart): but can we just sit down for some face-to-face you know it’s the “better part.”
Hmmm…… Welcome Back to the God who you once believed in. Welcome Back to the Faith meant to be in your heart.
Welcome Back. Welcome Back (come to Me, says Jesus) Welcome Back.
(I sang this song to close my homily this weekend.)