Martha and Mary: An open discussion at the Family Unit Meeting

K X M John
Whom would you choose to marry? Martha … or Mary? … You have the choice”.

Martha and Mary, Image from Google (11.10.2010)

A puzzling proposition indeed from Fr Zachariah, the parish priest, at the family unit meeting. He had announced at the previous meeting that the topic for today’s discussion would be the story of the Bethany sisters as described in the gospels of Luke and John.  He had also exhorted the members to come prepared with materials on the story from all possible sources including the internet. Still, the unconventional and abrupt manner in which the Reverend Father now introduced the theme surprised every one including those who were used to his holy antics.

Prof Peter begins by trivialising the issue.

The octogenarian Prof Peter stated in all mock seriousness that the either/or choice was not relevant in his case, since his wife Gracie was a combination of Martha and Mary. “Then it must be a rare case of two-in-one, indeed”, quipped Poet Roy, “giving the husband the best of both the worlds!” The elderly matron tried not to blush underneath her well-moisturised wrinkles, and just mumbled in her confusion that the Professor was simply flattering her in public.

Roy thought that such flattery added spice to life, and that it was greatly more relevant in old age. After all, that is the time when one would increasingly look for support from one’s spouse. He admitted he was not that lucky himself. The fault was entirely his. He didn’t seek a partner at the right time. And now that he was in his late 50’s, not even a most self-effacing Martha would come forward to accept him. And Mary was certainly out of question. Everyone laughed.

Roy paraphrases the story
Jokes apart, Fr Zachariah said, the purpose of the discussion was to bring out the distinctive features of these two colourful and compelling characters as narrated in the gospels. “But, before we proceed further, may I suggest that one of you summarise the two episodes so that we would have a common understanding of the story to start with?”

Prof  Stephen signalled to Roy to begin. Roy said he would do it as objectively as he could, and sought advance bail just in case he strayed from the gospel version. Fr Zachariah gave him the go-ahead nod. And Roy began:

Luke’s Martha is scurrying in the kitchen, racing against time, preparing a sumptuous feast fit for their exalted Guest whose visit was unexpected. And, to her chagrin, she finds her lazy sister idling away at His feet instead of helping her! The homely Martha’s spontaneous outburst against her sister invites a most unexpected response from the Guest who says, in effect, that she herself was wasting time and energy on inconsequential hospitality while Mary has chosen the right part.

Luke ends the story there, leaving it to John to continue. John introduces this interesting pair towards the end of Jesus’ mission. Here, Martha has grown firm in her faith. She says, had Jesus been present, her brother would not have died; and that Jesus could even now bring him back to life. There Jesus favours her with this awesome revelation: “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying”. Now enter Mary. With red, bleary eyes, she prostrates before the Master, who is instantly moved to tears. She speaks much the same way her sister spoke; yet her entreaties had a special appeal. And Jesus is moved to undertake the resurrection act.

We see the sisters again next week, at a dinner party – Martha in her accustomed role of serving food and Mary springing surprises. Sitting at the Master’s feet with tears of joy and gratitude in her eyes, she breaks an expensive flask of ointment, massages his feet with it and wipes them with her own hair. Everyone is stunned. What sort of romance, this! Wiping the lover’s feet with one’s own hair in public! Such a daring public display of romance was unheard of even in the most permissive Rome under Tiberius Caesar. No wonder, some of those present there expressed severe disapproval of her daring act, although veiled in money terms out of respect for the Master. And Mary unwittingly left an exquisite material for future generations to weave imaginative fiction upon fiction.

Roy criticised for sensationalising the story
The group murmured their appreciation of the narration of poet Roy, but Alice Teacher commented that the second part of the story had got somewhat tainted with the narrator’s own thoughts. The bare fact as given in John’s gospel is that the greedy treasurer Judas Iscariot criticises Mary for wasting the costly ointment, and says it could have been sold for a large sum and the money given to the poor. If any eyewitness had seen the anointment act in any other light, the gospel is silent about it. And the narration in the gospel is devoid of any sort of romantic nuances.

Unjust vilification of Mary
Fr Zachariah
patted Roy on his back for his summary, with the caveat that, over the centuries, good many Biblical scholars and even venerated Church Fathers had mutilated and distorted the gospel episodes with their own fantasies. And that a good part of what we have come to believe today as gospel truth are the interpretations handed down to us by such scholars. And here, Roy too had subtly added some of his own colour to the story. “Therefore, kudos to Alice Teacher for promptly correcting Roy.”

Prof  Stephen struck a note of caution. He said, now, before considering which one of the sisters to marry, one should keep in mind the kind of vilification that Mary of Bethany had suffered ever since her name came to be associated with Jesus.  He said, he had heard recently that good many church fathers had identified this Mary with the Mary of Magdala and with the unnamed “Sinner” of Luke 7: 36-50, without justification from the Gospels.

Worse, venerable fathers have unjustly branded Luke’s “sinner” as a harlot without any gospel basis. Thus did the hapless Mary of Bethany become a harlot! What sort of perverse logic and a heinous crime this! And Mary of Bethany cannot appear now in a court of law to exonerate herelf!

The feminist politician Rosaline said that the so-called “Sinner” of Luke must have become a sinner because she had committed some kind of sin. Her sin could have been an infringement of any one of the Ten Commandments. She might as well have publicly professed atheism in violation of the first three commandments. Or she might have slapped her parents and was estranged from them; and the parents died before she could get their forgiveness. Or she was a professional thief. Why the old, hardened bachelors always thought exclusively of sex whenever the word “sin” was mentioned in the context of a woman? Did they think of them in terms of sex all the time?

“And, how come no ‘sinful’ man was ever branded as a male harlot? And no adulterer stoned to death?”

The sisters were respectable characters
Engineer Antony, while endorsing the views of Prof Stephen and of Rosaline, said: “And now, in our discussions, let us go strictly by the accounts of Luke and John, without being biased by the fantasies of ancient scholars and church fathers. The two sisters emerge from the pages of Luke and John as strong characters, with their own distinct individuality; they probably belonged to a respectable upper middle class family of their days; and they lived an independent life untainted by any sort of scandal. Unfortunately, we are in the dark as to the personality and character of their brother Lazarus”.

Secretary Leelamma recalled that she had read somewhere that, in the aftermath of crucifixion, and because of grave threats from Jews to the life of the resurrected Lazarus, the family had fled to Gaul (today’s France), and Lazarus became the first bishop of Lyons there.

Choice between Martha and Mary
Fr Zachariah gave Leelamma a smile of appreciation. And he said it was time to get into the day’s business. He repeated his question: Between Martha and Mary, whom would you choose as your life partner? Whom would you choose as your daughter-in-law?

Youngsters prefer Mary; mothers vote for Martha
After momentary hesitation, youngsters made their preference clear: it was the lovable, starry-eyed Mary. What about Martha? O, she is lovable too, although in a different way. She is more of an affectionate mother figure. Girls too favoured Mary as their role model. However, mothers thought differently. The caring and efficient Martha would prove a better wife for any young man. She would certainly bring stability and a sense of direction in the family.

Fathers uncertain
For fathers, the choice was between efficiency and charm. Certainly, Martha would take care of her parents-in-law in their old age. But, destined to live all his life with a practical woman and homemaker as wife, her husband’s days would be monotonous. The matronly Martha lacked Mary’s charm. Young men had fascination for charming, romantic women, who would spring surprises every now and then, making each day a special day. Admitted, charm fades and romance cools off… sooner than later. Once that happens, would she not turn into a liability?

The old Bachelor favours Martha
The bemused parish priest was about to open his mouth when Poet Roy intervened. For him, Martha was prose and Mary poetry. In John too, as in Luke, Martha is consistently a homely person. You would never regret your life with Martha as wife, especially in your old age. As for the poetic Mary, there is something frightening in her aspects; there is something mystic about her; she is impulsive to a fault; scandals would follow her all her life. Certainly, she is no family type. The Poet concluded: “To me, Mary resembles a mirage, a moonbeam. You cannot hold a moonbeam in your hand. So, admire the intangible, mercurial Mary from a distance, without ever fantasying of possessing her”.

Fr Zachariah summarises the discussions
The Reverend Father appreciated the various viewpoints expressed at the meeting. He added that, between the two gospels, the character portrayal of these two sisters had wonderful consistency.

To summarise what the group had discussed so far, Martha was a down-to-earth character fit for family vocation. She would be an excellent relationship manager in the wider family circle as also among his circle of friends. She would forever command their respect. Her husband would never regret having married her. Mary, in contrast, was more of a mystic as Roy said, whose behaviour was out of sync with the worldly. The general opinion here seems to be that Mary would not fit in the confines of married life.

Roy causes a stir
The unpredictable poet interjected with some audacity: “Mary could be explosive in love life and disastrous in married life”. Did the liberally attuned priest notice some of his lay liberals squirming?

Rosaline throws a feminist challenge
The politician was in no mood to let off Roy and the apparently male dominated group without challenging their cosy, taken-for-granted attitude towards women. “Sorry, Reverend Father”, Rosaline continued, “To me, personally, Roy is a gentleman although, at times, he behaves as a maverick, like all conceited intellectuals and literary men.”

“But, Father, I blame you, primarily, for framing the question from a male perspective. You could as well have chosen the reverse order. The question could have been formulated from the perspective of the two sisters. Left to me, it would be like this: ‘Going by their character as portrayed in the gospels, what kind of vocation would the sisters choose, and what kind of men would they invite into their lives if they chose marriage?’ And, had we had a brainstorm session on their possible responses, we would have been amazed by the varied strains of thought we would have generated this evening. We would also have discussed Martha-kind of prosaic and homely men and Mary-kind of charming guys!”

President James defuses the tension
James quipped: “I imagine, the sisters would rather have taken to politics today!” There was laughter, everyone furtively glancing at politician Rosaline. “But, in their days, convent life was probably the ideal vocation for both. I imagine, they would set up a convent, with the efficient Martha as its Superior and the charismatic Mary giving daily sermon to multitudes. And both would be venerated as living saints on their own merit.”  Singer Tony added, “And the headquarters of the Congregation would be at Lyons, to go by what Secretary Leelamma said”.

But Martha was more than a homemaker
Fr Zachariah
broke the silence that followed, and said that the group had had a good discussion. “We have learnt new things; gained new insights. We have found new ways of looking at things. And I must thank you all, for having come prepared for this discussion. But there is more to the character of Martha than what we have discussed today. We shall attempt it at the next meeting.”

Before giving his blessing, he also set the agenda and topic for the next meeting: ‘The Bold and Beautiful Women in the Gospels’! “There we’ll continue our discussion on Martha. You would eventually find that Martha too has been narrowly and unjustly typecast as a homemaker. She was greatly more than that. We shall meet a different Martha at the next meeting. Come prepared with homework.”

K X M John


One Response

  1. The story is told drawing relevent features of the chacter of both women delienating their s;pecific roles meant by Jesus and faithfully told by both evngelists.. The author has drawn on his deep and vast reading and prayerful meditation. The style is humorous while relating the topic to every day realities and modern issues like, politics and women power etc..
    Best wishes and prayers…will be interested to read your further articles.
    Fr. George

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