I don’t know why, but I return again and again to today’s gospel reading, the story of Mary and Martha in Luke. It is a story which teases – its full meaning just beyond my reach – and delights – as different meanings present themselves.
Traditionally this reading has been associated with valuing the vita contemplativa, the contemplative life, over the vita activa, the active life.
You might remember me showing you this painting (right) by Tinteretto (Christ in the house of Martha and Mary, – 1594) in February as we reflected on how our church weighs the contemplative life against social justice and action. Here you can see that Mary is portrayed as the ideal disciple, her face luminous, her attention so focused on Jesus that she doesn’t even hear her sister berating her.
But Martha is ‘worried and distracted by many things’ and artists have delighted in painting her surrounded by the multifarious foods she is preparing, damning her by association with the material world, with fleshiness, with luxury, perhaps even with gluttony.
This tradition is evidenced in the painting on our bulletin cover today, Vincenzo Campi’s Christ in the house of Mary and Martha, and yet I don’t sense any censure from the artist in his portrayal of Martha. Instead she impresses us, the viewers, with her skill, confidence and creativity at preparing a feast with what lays around her.
Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary, says that, “the danger of this story is its invitation…to pit one expression of belief, of discipleship, of service, of vocation, against the other….Yet, when we make these kinds of moves and assumptions, we rarely stop to think about what we then assume about Jesus. To favour Mary is to say Jesus discounts service. Which, if you read the Gospel of Luke, makes no sense at all. And makes Jesus make no sense at all. To favour Martha would be to say service is all that matters. Clearly, both matter…”
Perhaps in this story Jesus is calling us back from a fractured or monocultural understanding of discipleship and our identity as a gathered body of disciples, to one that is as diverse and as creative and life-giving as God’s work in creation.