The past seventy years or so have seen a huge change in our society. Women have become a greater proportion of the paid labour force, and have fought for equal rights and equal treatment. Despite the advances that have been made, there remains one area in particular, where they are still responsible for the majority of work: the domestic sphere. On average, women spend 13 hours a week on housework, while men spend on average 8 hours. This is better than it used to be, so progress has been made, but we still have far to go.

This past week, on Monday, the Church celebrated the Feast of St Benedict. St Benedict is known as the Father of Western Monasticism, and is the author of a rule of life which has profoundly affected the West for over 1500 years. A phrase closely associated with him is ‘Ora et Labora’ ‘Pray and Work’. It is important to note that the advice is ‘both—and’ rather than ‘either—or’. For the community to work there needs to be a balance of prayer and labour: someone needs to sweep the floors, wash the dishes. If work and prayer are kept in balance, then our duties towards God and our neighbour can be fulfilled. As Christians we need to hospitable and welcoming, as well as prayerful.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is still travelling. As there were no hotels or service stations, the only way to rest, eat and drink was through hospitality. Our Lord is welcomed into a house by a woman named Martha. 

‘And she had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching’ (Lk 10:39)

These sisters Mary and Mary may well be the same women who appear in John’s Gospel as the sisters of Lazarus, who live in Bethany. There they are described as friends of Jesus who regularly provide hospitality to Him and His followers. Mary is giving Jesus her undivided attention, she sits at His feet, as a student would.

‘But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me” (Lk 10:40)

Jesus is a teacher, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, and while it is important that He and his disciples are fed and cared for, the immediate concern is to give Him their undivided attention, and listen to what Our Lord has to say.

‘But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”’ (Lk 10:41-42)

While Martha has shown Jesus a hospitable welcome, she then tries to get Him involved in a domestic squabble, which is centred on justifying her own busyness. Jesus does not tell Martha off, rather He is encouraging, calming her down, and showing her a better way. One thing is necessary: for a host to pay attention to a guest.

The point is not simply to prefer the contemplative to the practical, or the spiritual to the physical. That would be Gnosticism. Instead we need to balance our physical needs with our spiritual ones. Martha is too wrapped up in her own affairs and has forgotten what is really important. Jesus does not want special treatment, or a lavish banquet with lots of dishes. What He wants are people who pay attention to what He has to say. Martha has not chosen a bad portion, service and hospitality are important, but attention: staying close to Jesus, listening to what He says, and not being distracted, is how we grow as Christians.

If we want to flourish in our faith, then we need to work hard not to let the cares of the world overwhelm us, and distract us from giving God our attention. In this morning’s Old Testament reading from Genesis we hear Abraham welcoming God by the oaks of Mamre. The patriarch’s generosity and attentiveness are sacrificial, and result in Abraham and Sarah being blessed with a child. Likewise Paul, writing to the Colossians, sees his own trials and tribulations as sacrificial, but is at pains to highlight the Good News which he proclaims:

‘God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.’ (Col 1:27-28)

As Christians we are in ‘in Christ’ we share His sufferings, Death, and Resurrection, and we listen when He speaks to us. We are attentive, so that we may learn, and grow in faith. 

Jesus’ teaching is that the way to show real hospitality is to pay attention to one’s guest, recognising their needs and desires. Instead of busyness, God tells us this morning that, like the Good Samaritan, we should be attentive to God and His message for us in the Gospel. In doing this we, like Mary will choose a good part. This choice has a moral dimension: in truly listening closely to what God says to us, our actions and our character will be formed, helping our growth in holiness. Nourished by Word and Sacrament, we progress in living out the virtues of faith, hope, and love, which we received in our baptism, and prepare for our inheritance with the Saints in glory. 

Christ calls us to make our prayer and our work, all that we do and all that we are, a response to God and our neighbour. Then we will be truly living in love. Such love is the nature of God and transforms both us and our world, so that all may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Martha at Bethany – James Tissot [Brooklyn Museum]

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