The Martha Mary Life

June 29, 2011

Read Luke 10: 38 - 42. This is the story of Martha and Mary, one the cleaner-cook, the other, the adoring listener. Read it and see who you are in the story. Most of us will choose either one or the other as the one in who we see ourselves. We are either Martha people or Mary people. This is a binary way of seeing the story. Binary/dualism is the way much of the New Testament story is written - Greek influence - and binary faith is how we have learned - light/dark, life/death, good/evil etc. But the religious world in which most westerners live is the binary "either-or" world. The story becomes limiting and grace-denying when we begin to say "Mary is right and Martha is wrong." Here is another take on the story. Recently hearing Richard Rohr talk about the binary life we of the faith have lived in the past several hundred years (since we westerners mostly buried our wonder and imagination and ability to hold things in creative tension)*, I remembered the story of Martha and Mary that was one of the Scripture lessons earlier this year. Folks tend to ask which life is better, even Jesus says Mary has chosen the better part (and we will see what Rohr says about that later). Reducing the story to an "either-or" choice limits our understanding of what is happening here. Reducing any story to the "either-or" way is limiting the great possibilities of the "both-and." Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about this story in the 12th century. He says, "Action and Contemplation are very close companions; they live together in one house on equal terms; Martha is Mary's sister. You do right when you offer faith to God; you do right when you offer works. But if you separate the two, then you do wrong..." Bernard recognized the necessity of both being in the presence of the holy and doing the work of service. Being and Doing, not either being or doing. The Scripture doesn't tell us what would have happened if Martha had not been cooking supper for the crew and who would have screamed, "Where's my dinner?" It also doesn't tell us how Martha might have benefitted from time in the presence of Jesus. How are action and contemplation "sisters"? Before the Protestant Reformation, the creative tensions of the "both-and faith" gave a generous invitation to the fullness of life lived in the living of both contemplation - a being in the presence of God that is everywhere around us speaking through every part of creation, and action - doing the work of serving those around us who need food or shelter or care of any kind. John Wesley in the 18c. also gave witness to such understanding of grace in the calling forth of personal piety and social holiness. The movement in North American Christianity in the last 100 years has been more and more to the "either-or" practice. Either you believe as I do, or you will go to hell. Either you are Christian as I am Christian, or you are going to hell. Either you are straight, or you are not welcome here. Either you are young, male, and white or you will not get this job, and certainly not be promoted. Either you interpret the Bible just as I do, or you are doomed. The us and them, either-or faith is killing the Good News of Jesus Christ. But a new movement is welling up. Rohr in his book, The Naked Now, encourages contemplation as a "higher way of seeing and being present to one another and to God." This is the Naked Now which when lived would "call us from the hiding places of the past and worry about a future that rehearses resentments and makes our case for why we are right and someone else is wrong."* Marthas and Marys are one as life fully awakened in the presence of the holy flows out to soothe and comfort the world in acts of kindness. Those of us who see the life that is found in welcome, the God who finds us in mystery, and hear the Voice of God that sings in all creation, know a peace that passes understanding as we open ourselves to grace and seek to serve the needy among us. In this Martha Mary Life of both action and contemplation, the face of the earth will be renewed and all will be on earth as it is in heaven. Good News is in the air! God's name be praised! *My words not his. * Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, Crossroad Publishing Co., 2009, p. 62.

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