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Martha and Mary: Officium Caritatis and Otium Sanctum

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Martha and Mary are mentioned elsewhere in the Scriptures as the sisters of Lazarus, the friend whom Jesus loved. In this Lucan story, however, no mention is made of Lazarus, and the house which Jesus enters on the way to Jerusalem is said to belong to Martha. The narrative is a pronouncement story about “sitting at the Lord’s feet and hearing his word.” The actions of the two sisters towards the Lord are not compared, but rather, the significance of what they do are pointed out. Martha gets herself busy in all the chores that pertain to ministering to the Lord (diakonein) in a gesture of hospitality. Mary too was being hospitable to the Lord: she sat at his feet and listened to his word. The question that Martha raises must be the question that all ministers of the Lord would like to ask: Don’t you care that I am left alone to serve? Tell them to help me. The term diakonein is also the verb used for the ministry. From Acts, we know that there were different forms of ministry which included “table service” (cf. Acts 6:2 and context). The response that the Lord gives is not a rebuke to Martha; he simply underscores the value of what Mary was doing. The “one thing necessary,” the “better part”, this Mary has chosen, and it shall not be taken away from her.

In Acts 6, Luke narrates that in view of the needs of a growing church, the apostles ask the Hellenistic-Christian sector to choose seven deacons who will be appointed to take charge of ministering to the widows. “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (v.6) Perhaps the story of Martha and Mary is another of Luke’s way of providing a basis for a practise that was taken for granted in the early Church: that there were those who ministered like Martha doing menial and odd jobs for the benefit of the community, while there were those who “specialized” in the “ministry of the Word and prayer.”

    There was a time when this story of Martha and Mary were compared to two forms of Christian life: the active and the contemplative. The active life, according to this way of understanding, would be characterized by participation in secular affairs, of active witnessing in the midst of human affairs. The contemplative life, on the other hand, would be characterized by seclusion and distance from worldly affairs; a life rhythmically regulated by the ringing of a bell.

    St. Augustine once talked of Martha and Mary as a tension which exists in the Christian. The desire for contemplation and listening to the Word, though stronger, must be periodically given up due to the necessity of love, which bids the Christian to be worried and occupied about many things. “Otium sanctum,” which is but the foretaste of that Sabbath which will not end, must in this life give way to “necessitas caritatis/onus amoris.”

    Service to the Lord will take on different forms so long as the life of the pilgrim Church is tied up with the ebb and flow of human history. But no matter how many and great these services are, one thing necessary remains: listening to the Word of the Lord. Without this, all service will be but worries and vexations of the spirit.

Originally posted 2005-03-08 05:47:11. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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