Let the Scriptures Speak

Martha Unmasked

“"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me
by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me."
(Luke 10:40)

This Sunday offers two famous biblical scenes of hospitality—Abraham receiving the three travelers, and Martha and Mary hosting Jesus.

In the First Reading, Abraham, following the conventions of good Bedouin courtesy, scrambles to receive some passing travelers. The scene turns out to Hammbe a theophany, a revelation of God. The narrator introduces the three passers-by as "three men." Eventually, one of the three turns out to have extraordinary powers, for he predicts that Abraham's wife will bear a son next year. A few verses on in this chapter (vv. 13 and 14), the author confirms what the reader (and Abraham?) suspects, namely that this mysterious member of the trio is none other than "the Lord" (Yahweh). In this account, it is not Abraham's hospitality that is the focus; it is rather the Lord's surprising fulfillment of the covenantal promises (see Genesis 12, 15, and 17), bringing fertility to the sterile bodies of Abraham and Sarah. This account has inspired the famous Russian icon interpreting Abraham's visitors as the Trinity.

In Luke's scene of hospitality, the primary guest is again called "Lord"—this time, the Lord Jesus. But here the focus is on the behavior of the hosts. Like Abraham, Martha is busy about many things—no doubt preparing the food. Mary simply sits at Jesus' feet, listening to his words. Martha complains to Jesus that she is left with all the work and says, regarding the contemplative Mary, "Tell her to help me." Jesus chides Martha and defends Mary.

Christian tradition has applied this passage in discussions of the relative worth of active and contemplative lifestyles in the community of faith. Jesus' language about "need of only one thing" and "the better part" do lend themselves to that application. But the placement of the Samaritan parable (Lk 10:30ff) right before should be enough to tell us that Luke does not understand this account to champion contemplation as superior to action. The point of Jesus' critique of Martha lies not in her activity but in her self-preoccupied comparison. In this case, the one thing necessary was attending to the guest—whether by cooking or by attentive conversation. Martha's fault was to be distracted from the point of her activity—serving the guest. The New Testament frequently images Christian life as hospitality. Whether we are Martha or Mary is beside the point, if we focus on serving the guests.

 

Dennis Hamm, SJ

Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.

 

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson