What separates Mary from Martha in the Gospel reading for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time? First, we look at the names. In Hebrew, they are the same name. The root is “Mar.” Martha is a verb stemming from “Mar,” in the perfect tense. Mary literally translates, “My Mar.” We also read from the first reading, “The NAME appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre, or from Mar. There is something here Luke wants us to see. What is it?
The Jewish liturgy for Passover includes “Maror,” bitter herbs. Abraham takes Isaac to Moriah to sacrifice him. The Psalm 95:8, part of our Liturgy of the Hours, mention Meribah, same word, “Mar.” Ruth 1:20 has Naomi say, “No longer call me Naomi, but Mara,” There is that name again.
“Mar,” also has another meaning. Think of our nuns from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Remember the ruler across the knuckles. Remember going home and reporting the nun to your parents and how bitter some of them made our lives. They were strong and stronger when our parents found out what we did. The Modern Hebrew word for teacher is also “Mar.” “Mar,” also stands for a leader.
Mary and Martha are the same name. What separates the two women? The first reading gives us the answer. Abraham rushes into the tent and tells Sarah, “Quick, three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls.” He runs to the herd, picks out a tender, choice steer, and gives it to a servant, who quickly prepares it.
Then Abraham gets curds and milk, as well as the steer that had been prepared, and set these before the three men; and he waits on them under the tree while they eat. The problem is that Jews do not eat meat and dairy products together. Deuteronomy 14:21 and Exodus 23:19 state that meat and dairy are not to be eaten together. Psalm 119:89 says God’s word is eternal. The rule about not serve meat and milk together did not come into existence when Moses wrote it. It had been there all along, since the creation of the world. How is it that Abraham serves meat and milk, and the angels eat and drink it?
The answer is that we confuse the rule with its application. Leviticus 22:28 states, “You shall not slaughter an ox or a sheep on one and the same day with its young.” Deuteronomy 22:6 has, “If, while walking along, you come across a bird’s nest with young birds or eggs in it, in any tree or on the ground, and the mother bird is sitting on them, you shall not take away the mother bird along with her brood.” The rule is compassion, not only for other humans, but also for all plant and animal life. It is seeing God’s handprint in everything.
The more any animal looks human, the less likely it is to be Kosher, in Jewish, and Muslim traditions. I also remember a very devout Muslim asking where he could buy meat. I told him Kroger’s. He told me the meat in that store was already dead. In Semitic tradition, you have to see the animal die to know that it did not suffer. The same rule applies in orthodox Jewish tradition. The rule is compassion. There is also the rule of hospitality. Abraham rushes to kill the steer. He rushes to get the milk and the other items for a feast. He has guests. This means the accidents of the rules are not that important. What is important is the rule, compassion, and hospitality. The divine is here.
Our Second Reading tells us, “Now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the weightiness, of this mystery among the ethnic groups; it is Christ in you, the hope for weightiness.” When we partake of the Eucharist, Christ enters us. Christ is with Mary. In our faith tradition, we speak of the formal, efficient, material, and final causes. The Word of God is the formal cause of the universe. It is not putting liturgy before getting the work done. It is getting the work done by thinking smart, letting liturgy lead us to the most intelligent way to do the work.
When Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place, he means Torah is the formal cause of the world. If any of it changes, the world passes away.
The Breath, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit is the efficient cause working in our lives. We are the material cause. The final cause is Jesus working in us, bringing us to God, the ultimate final cause. When we do not have this, we are Sarah of the first reading, and we are Martha of the Gospel. Martha is anxious and worried about many things. She is not tied to the Eucharist, and to God. She rushes after many things and gets no place. Martha is bitter, running in vain.
Mary is a leader, taking time to listen to the world around her, in particular the Word of God as she hears it through Jesus. If Mary misses a detail of the finery of etiquette, she is in the same position of Abraham who manages to serve meat and milk together, and God will consume her imperfect meal with pleasure. Likewise with us; if we put the Eucharist and God’s Word first in our lives, even when we make mistakes, God will be with us in our meals and in our lives.