Martha, burdened with much serving… said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her … There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Lk 10:11-14)
St. Luke offers to the readers of his Gospel many intimate moments with Jesus. In chapter nine, Luke describes Jesus summoning his twelve Apostles, Peter professing his faith, and Jesus transfiguring in glory with only Peter, James, and John in attendance. Intermixed with these occasions, are less private events such as the feeding of five thousand, the healing of a boy amidst a great crowd, and Jesus’ entrance into a Samaritan village. In chapter ten, the center of this Sunday’s Gospel reading, we also see Jesus engaged in more focused activities such as the sending out of seventy-two disciples, an interaction with a scholar of the Law, and His entrance into the home of Martha and Mary.
Now not all of these events occur in remote or private settings. For example, there seems to have been many people around when Jesus addressed the scholar of the law (Mt 22:34). However, Luke makes a point to transform this and other active scenes with Jesus into short but intimate dialogue.
Another such exchange was the one that concerns us today with Martha and Mary. It is likely that the discussion between Martha and Jesus occurred in the midst of a larger event, for it is doubtful that Martha, surely a strong and resolute Jewish woman, would have been “burdened” with serving only Martha and Jesus. The fact that Mary sat at the feet of Jesus gives us a sense that she was willing to give up her seat to others to be close to the Lord, while St. John in his Gospel appears to have at least Lazarus and the Apostles also being waited upon by Martha (Jn 12: 2ff). Yet Luke offers within this busy setting an intimate portrayal of Christ teaching, not from a lectern or a hilltop, but during an everyday situation.
Thus for this 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time we place on our bulletin cover a work by the 20th century African-American painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, entitled Christ at the Home of Mary and Martha (1905). Tanner is described as an American realist, however his loose brush strokes reveal a realistic Impressionism; the dispersion and absorption of light lending to a somber ambiance. Yet this light is not the hidden, often secretive light of the Dutch Tenebrists; it is a real light, seen in a real room.
Here we see painted the comparison between the active and contemplative life: Mary with hands folded in prayer and Martha presenting a dish of food. Jesus extends his hand in instruction. The spiritual meaning here is that all our service must have its source in prayer.
Yet, Tanner also presents a pastoral meaning in the tradition of Luke, which is that we too are called to give intimate Christian instruction in the midst of daily situations. In the crowded darkness of our world we are called to be the everyday light of the realism of God.
–Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services