Saturday, January 30, 2016

Rebellious Obedience

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; 
and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And 
she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened 
to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; 
and she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister 
has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord 
answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about 
many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, 
which shall not be taken away from her.   

Luke 10:38-42 (Revised Standard Version)

How many times have we heard this parable used to teach us to balance our busyness with being quiet before God? Countless books, articles, and sermons shake a finger at us all, but especially women, to not be overly fussy and to be sure to spend time in prayerful reflection. Though not necessarily bad, I took this interpretation of Luke's passage to be the only way of looking at it. Then I read Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: Busting Myths from Popular New Testament Texts (Wipf and Stock, 2013) by my friend and New Testament scholar, Dr. Sam Tsang. His insight gave me a paradigm shift such that my mind needed time to soak it all in.

When examining the text within the light of first century society, it becomes clear that the problem is not that Mary is neglecting her duties. It's that she's intentionally sitting to be taught by Jesus, just as the men are. When Mary sat to learn from Jesus, she wasn't being demure. She was being completely audacious. She was aware of her emptiness and knew it was worth risking ridicule and difficulty to follow Him. She defies how society has defined her role so that she may listen to her Master, and He says to not deny her a seat at His table. Jesus is revolutionary in protecting Mary's right to be taught and to be treated as an equal among His disciples.

Sam also notes that the Greek word for Martha's service is only used with good connotation by Luke. It's not that her serving is bad; it's her attitude towards Mary that stinks. Martha is within the norms for her society, and there's nothing wrong that. She's chastised because of her criticism towards another who has been called to go against the grain. Martha is challenged because following Jesus demands an openness to the uniqueness of others.

Sam ties the story of Martha and Mary with the parable of the Samaritan, identifying the extraordinary service of the Samaritan which stretched the expectations of first century Jewish society. In doing so, Sam emphasizes that the application of Martha and Mary applies not just to women but to all Christians, including men. Luke's purpose is not to challenge us to balanced living, but that we should be willing to break with presumptions to follow Jesus. We also need to allow others the freedom to be different from us and to serve Jesus in the unique way they've been called to. God is not constrained by the assumptions of society. It's unsettling to think about, yet marvelously freeing. I think it's especially beautiful within the context of Catholicism.

Now my wonderful friend Sam is not Catholic. He would disagree with me (though with kindness, I'm sure) about the importance of the Magisterium. I do not think that all boundaries are to be busted, but I do think that we should be careful to examine what the Church says versus what society says. For instance, most saints' lives were lived in defiance of the world's definitions of normal. Many of the positions of the Church continue to rebel against secular culture's expectations. The Church has strength in its diversity as it recognizes that each person is unique in his or her gifts and is an indispensable part of the Body of Christ.

Although the Magisterium may give Catholics a context for freedom, I do not think this condones lazy intellectualism. It's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because we like an ideology or a quaint vision of society that it therefore must be Christian. When I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I found it to be clear that the Church expects Catholics to live discerning lives. Again, there is a long history of saints who scandalized others with their obedience to Jesus' call. St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most beloved saints, yet if he were to visit with us in our local church, I wonder how long it would be before we all felt a bit uncomfortable. How have we let our definitions of "good society" influence our view of what is Christianity?

At the Pro-life Mass last week, I heard a wonderful homily exhorting us to allow exactly this kind of freedom to follow Jesus as found in the story of Martha and Mary, though it was based on a different text. There are so many varying ways to go about promoting the sanctity of human life. It's easy though to get caught up in our own narrow views and to demand that everyone get on our bandwagon, not realizing that in doing so we hamper the overall objective of promoting the innate value of human life. Belittling each other because their call is different from ours, gets us nowhere. The person who has been called to political action is as important as the person who works in a homeless shelter. The person who volunteers in the pregnancy crisis center is contributing to the promotion of life just as much as the person who helps refugees adapt to life in America. Upholding that we are all made in the image of God is often broader and more creative than we imagine. Who are we to judge the obedience of another? 

I am grateful for Sam's insights and knowledge. His treatment of the story of Mary and Martha is just an example of his examination of numerous scriptural texts with interpretations we take for granted. His book has helped me to read the Bible better, as well as to understand the exegesis of others with discernment and openness. I think his book would be an asset to any Christian (Catholic or Protestant) who wants to take a more serious approach to studying Biblical texts.

©2016 Emily Woodham

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