What is the Better Part?

marthaandmary-1The story of Martha and Mary is like an old friend. As women, sometimes we feel like Martha and sometimes Mary. What is there to tease from this periscope that hasn’t been said again and again?

I’m a liberation theology student and have read a fair number of learned tombs on the subject. One that I never got around to is the perhaps “bible” for women’s liberation theology, In Memory of Her, the groundbreaking work by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Dr. Fiorenza is no doubt the most famous of all women in the work of retrieving women’s voice in the early church.

I thought it might be useful to use that lens of women’s liberation theology to look at the story and see what insights one might gain.

As far as we know, all the books of the bible were written by men, men who lived in a time and place in which patriarchy was the norm. Roles were highly gendered, and sexes were often segregated in the home and in the synagogue. Women were lumped with children in their general irrelevancy in decision-making and in leadership.

Of course the role of Martha was the norm in the Palestine of Jesus’ time. Women were servers of men. They were in charge of the hearth. We see this in the initial story from Genesis wherein the strangers visit Abraham. The code of hospitality requires Abraham to make strangers comfortable, to feed and lodge them as needed. Note that Abraham doesn’t do the work himself, he orders his servant to slay the steer and prepare the meat while he tells Sarah to get busy making the bread. The man, Abraham of course entertains the guests while others do the work of hospitality.

Similarly Martha gets about the business of preparing food for Jesus and those of his followers who have arrived. Such a large entourage, no doubt there was much to be done. But Luke introduces something new here, Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him. Luke’s readers or listeners surely would have seen nothing untoward in the Martha end of things, but they must have been taken aback by Mary’s unusual behavior.

Women in that time did not eat with men, and they surely didn’t sit in on men’s conversations. So Mary’s actions surely got everyone’s attention when the story was first heard. Martha’s actions are what would be expected as well. She is put out by having to do all the work herself.

Martha seeks assistance from a male in getting Mary back to her business of helping in the kitchen. This again might be the norm  since it would have been unusual for women to live alone (we believe they had a brother Lazarus  from the Gospel of John. Although John was written well after Luke’s account and it is never a good idea to conflate Gospels to “fill in the blanks”, it would be more likely that the women did not live alone than not). Yet Martha seeks out Jesus rather than the male of the household to make her complaints.

Jesus here is suggesting, that women should be part of the preaching and teaching diakonia. It was service of a different kind. Jesus, through Luke, announces that in this area, his followers are to be different as well. Women were not simply in the background, ducking in and out discretely as they tended to the food and drink of those men who were about the business of spreading the gospel. Women were to learn too, and thus to be ministers of the Word.

Luke’s framing of the story suggests that the early communities were conflicted on this issue of women serving in teaching, preaching and leadership. And Luke seems to come down kind of in the middle.

What is disturbing in the text is the manufactured fight between women. Surely diakonia involved  serving at table (eucharist), listening to the Word (and resultant preaching) and leadership within the community (Martha welcomes Jesus to her home). Yet Luke manages to split the combined diaconate and make Martha’s “part” of it lesser and somewhat derogatory by reference to the “better part” of Mary’s service. This must have echoed the fight going on within the church itself a the time of Luke’s writing.

As well, Luke makes Mary’s service a “listening” and inactive service. While to sit around at the feet of the rabbi was a full-interchange of back and forth between teacher and disciple, we see none of that in Luke. Again, even though the listening is more important that the diaconate of table service, it has been reduced to being “preached to” rather than to be educated to preach.

Thus we get the watered down vision that learning the word of God is more important than the normal business of everyday life. This is what is often preached in the pulpits of our churches. This is, I would suggest, superficial and really a misunderstanding of what is going on here. Luke has served to deflate the argument going on about what is “woman’s place” by turning the entire story to one that reflects nothing about the role of women at all, but merely suggests that listening to the word of God is always preferable to doing everyday things. In doing so, we miss the real and very shocking teaching that Jesus actually expressed.



What Did Jesus Mean?

Well, you can imagine the fun I had today at Mass. Given the conservative bent of my parish, I was treated to a thinly veiled reminder of what “true marriage” amounts to rather than that “thing” which is nothing more than the whims of the day, to be replaced no doubt by something else tomorrow.

Following that I got the old “marriage is forever” and the appropriate readings of today which “prove” that. We ended with a reminder that nothing could be finer than a trip through natural family planning which is a-okay with God, while contraception leads to abortion and promiscuity.

Let me straighten out this mess if I can.

First it might be useful to understand the history going on here. (Mk 10: 2-16)

In Jewish law, in the time of Jesus, marriages were not entered into voluntarily by men and wome. They were arranged by a set of parents who put forth their child and as did the family of the other child. The resultant “marriage”  was a union of whole families, not the two actual children. These chosen “spouses” were considered to be God’s choice through the parents. Since these families ere now bound together, no PERSON had the right to separate the internal union.

But the people were unable to abide by this law, so through Moses, God allowed divorce. However it was only the man who had the right, and he had the right to divorce his wife for ANY reason whatsoever. This worked, as you might expect great hardship upon women who might be turned out for simply not being good-looking, or not  being a good cook, and very often for not being sufficiently fertile.

Jesus first rectifies the inequality of divorce by saying that men have no more right to summarily dismiss a spouse, and further than either spouse who initiates divorce and marries again is committing adultery. This was contrary to the social world of the time, where no woman could, by definition, shame another woman.   Jesus equalizes this and moreover, makes brings shame upon the man who “commits adultery” which  thereby brings shame to his entire male family.

Since this shaming would lead to feuding and often bloodshed, divorce must be avoided at all costs. They were simply too devastating to the families and the small communities involved.

Jesus did not speak to the issue of marriage when it breaks down or where divorce is desired by both parties.  Today,  people make their own choices, often at young ages and without due thought. Marriages don’t involve the larger families either in today’s world, where families are often spread out over many states and sometimes countries.

When we read these passages, who should be sure to remember that they are joined to the act of creation (in Genesis) whereby God made it clear that he wanted his creation to experience an openness and closeness that required a similarity of being. Adam could not relate in that intimate way with the creatures that God created for him to name and care for. A creature of similarity (woman) was created that Adam might share that sense of open-hearted intimacy that he could not enjoy with any of the other creatures.

Similarly, Jesus reminds us that Moses allowance of divorce was the result of a hardness of heart that the people evidenced. Jesus thus calls us to relationships that bring about that openness of heart envisioned by God’s creation.  Jesus speaks to the misuse of power rather than to the denial of divorce in our time.

In addition, I would argue that Genesis should not be read as some definition of marriage as between a man and a woman only but rather that it acknowledges that human relationships of mutual openness are what are desired by God.

It is especially painful as I stated last Sunday to see folks who avoid communion out of a belief that they are unworthy based on current Catholic teachings on these subjects. I am left with the wonderful words of John Kavanaugh S.J. who stated:

We Catholics have our liturgies, our communions, our Eucharists. Some of us attending are divorced and remarried and place it all before God, not knowing really whether we have put asunder what God had once joined in us. Some have annulments, a human judgment offered only after long analysis and painful remembrance. Some of us weep in the back, not approaching the altar of union. Some trust God and abstain. Some trust God and partake.

Few, thank God, judge. For no matter what our rightful relationship to our church, its laws and traditions, we all pray in an assembly of believers who are sinners; and, most assuredly, we all stand before our good and great God as children.


**I am deeply indebted to the remarks of Joyce Ann Zimmerman, John Kavanaugh S.J., and John J. Pilch in The Sunday Liturgy of St. Louis University. My remarks reflect my understanding of their thoughts and reflections.

Imposing Politics on the Mass

Today we celebrate the feast of John the Baptist. Except we were prevented from doing that. Many exciting and profitable homilies lay in storage instead of being gifted to needy congregations.

Instead, the USCCB decided that today we should watch a video on the Affordable Health Care Law and it’s requirement that people working at Catholic institutions be allowed to receive benefits which would be termed contraceptive in nature.

Let’s be clear. Catholic institutions, universities and hospitals mainly, employ thousands of people who are neither Catholic, or who are but have chosen to use contraceptive methods in their health regime. It should  be noted that fully 95% of all Catholics use contraception to manage their families. It should also be noted that various contraceptive methods which have nothing to do with avoiding pregnancy, but in fact are helpful in the cure or management of other conditions having nothing to do with family planning.

Let us also be clear that some 22 states required Catholic institutions to provide the ability of their workers to obtain insurance covered benefits for contraception long before the President and his health care plan came along. Funny, but I never heard any outcry, and somehow they have been handling the matter without the necessity of a call to arms as it were.

We would also note that Catholic institutions, apply for and receive vast sums of federal and state monies the same as private companies do. They whimper not about the “tainted” money they receive, money that in part goes to various policy implementation that they would consider immoral and/or simply wrong by their interpretation of scripture.

When the issue first came forth, the hue and cry raised by the now ultra-conservative bishops of the American church, caused the Administration to re-examine the issue and look for a compromise. They found one, when the insurance companies themselves agreed to absorb the additional cost for contraceptive care and not “charge” the Church any additional monies. They did this not our of some high-minded goodness, but because in the long run, it is profitable to prevent pregnancy from their standpoint rather than pay the expenses of a normal pregnancy, let alone those of an abnormal one.

The fact that religious organizations are tax-exempt is no small issue. It is enormously beneficial on its face, but it allows them to avoid “paying” for immoral wars and other practices it finds against the precepts of its faith. Somehow, accepting government funding is “okay”, which is just another way of saying that they have avoided thinking about that sort of participation in the body politic.

Which leads to this morning’s video. The priest who gave the presentation, went on with all the usual claptrap about how this was an assault on religious freedom. But he went much further. He insisted that the Church was being ordered to pay for something they found morally repugnant. He suggested, that the Obama Administration was imposing what amounted to a totalitarian society, with liberal use of the word “secular” as if it were some awful disease.

He called the President a liar, claiming that when Notre Dame had the bad taste (he pointed out that he was against it) to offer the President an “honorary doctorate of law” (as if the President has no such degree), the President promised to protect freedom of religion, and now we find that he has “utterly broken his promise.”

He claimed that Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers inserted a protection of religious freedom in the First Amendment, precisely to combat the totalitarian tendencies of democracy.

He urged all the parishioners to contact their representatives and do all they can to pass a “bill of conscience” which would allow every person the right to refuse equal treatment to all based on their own particular moral beliefs.

Well, I came to church to celebrate the feast of John the Baptist. He was barely mentioned by our newly ordained priest, who did his best to underscore the danger posed by the Administration, the cost of which would bankrupt the poor church. Instead I was subjected to pleasantly concocted web of lies, innuendo, half and mis-truth, in order to further the agenda of a small minority of controlling men.

It was a sad day in my church, and I expect it was in churches all over America.

Shame on the Roman Catholic Church which continues to avoid real issues of poverty, immigration, and corporate greed and the ensuing inequality it brings, while it concentrates on the only two things it thinks are important, contraception and homosexuality.

Shame on them.

Shame on us if we don’t speak up.

I pray as called upon by the Bishops. However, my prayer is simple: Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.


The Most Perfect Disciple

When he was in Bethany reclining at table
in the house of Simon the leper,
a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil,
costly genuine spikenard.
She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.
There were some who were indignant.
“Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?
It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages
and the money given to the poor.”
They were infuriated with her.
Jesus said, “Let her alone.
Why do you make trouble for her?
She has done a good thing for me.
The poor you will always have with you,
and whenever you wish you can do good to them,
but you will not always have me.
She has done what she could.
She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.
Amen, I say to you,
wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world,
what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mk 14: 3-9

One cannot but be awed by such an act. Crossan and Borg have suggested that this unnamed woman was the “first Christian”. And she might well be, although I might suggest that the Samaritan woman at the well has a claim on that title as well.

But at least we can agree, that in Jesus’ mind, she exemplified what is best and perfect in discipleship. She gave all she had in offering to her Lord. She recognized, as none of the others did, that they were in the final days of the Master’s earthly life.

One of the things that is most ironic in this passage, is that Jesus proclaims that her actions will never be forgotten. And that turned out to be true, but alas no one remembered her name. Unless we conflate it with John 12: 1-11. In that case, we would realize that it is our wonderful “friend” Mary of Martha and Mary, longtime friends of Jesus, and brother to Lazarus.

Since Mark is by far the older of the two texts, it’s unlikely that John suddenly discovered the name of the woman. I have not investigated the history of the passages however, and so it might be possible.

In any case, we are confronted with the stark differences between the perfect disciple and those who are caught up in the technicalities.  The technocrats worry about how much money has been wasted that could have been spent on the poor. She worries about nothing, not her even her own livelihood. She simply honors Jesus, and presages the burial process to come.

We too, can get lost in the weeds. Much is done in the name of religion and faith that would no doubt offend and shock Jesus. People cut corners and tell untruths in the name of greater good that they have so defined. They tell themselves that this lie or that turning away from righteousness is okay, because we must keep our “eye on the prize.”

But Jesus surely did not teach us that.

Do good.

No matter what it takes.

No matter how much it is unnoticed.

No matter how much it is ridiculed.

Just do the right and good thing. At every juncture. Not for some “greater good.

I have heard many a police officer justify lying under oath because “given the protections afforded the criminal, it’s the only way to convict the guilty.” Guilty in their minds. Perhaps guilty in reality.

But what do we do when we offer to those we wish to “redeem”, lies and cut corners? We do not offer truth. We offer nothing more than a new way to scam the system. We are the authors of every televangelist who promises prosperity if only we will send in our “love” in the form of a check.

She, in her utter faith and simplicity offers nothing but the purity of her faith and love for her Redeemer. She offers no manipulation. She willingly accepts, without defense, the harsh words of her “betters” and the company men. She simply loves.

She is the true disciple. The one who has perfectly understood and answered the call.

Let us all reflect on Her.

If I’m Being Led by the Spirit, One of Us Has Been Drinking

Vemeer's "The Glass of Wine"

Given my rather erratic journey of faith, one would have to conclude that the Spirit can’t really be held responsible.

As any good convert, I was more Catholic than the Pope. It was important to believe everything as told, and to do everything right.

I actually did scour the books for the “correct” version of a prayer, which version of the Bible was “Catholic” and so forth, no Protestant stuff for me.

This went on for some time. I was leery of biblical scholars and theologians who were not Roman. I couldn’t trust them you see. They might not be giving me the “official” version.

As such, I was not concerned with the issues of celibacy and women’s ordination. I assumed my Church had good reason for this. I was for and against them respectively.

Of course, today, I laugh at such things. In fact, I started moving distinctly away from “doctrine” and official dogma once I started taking a Master’s program in Pastoral Ministry at a Catholic liberal arts college in Detroit. Happily I was introduced to all the fine theologies that were and are making the rounds–liberation, black, women’s, feminist, Latina, LGBTQ–the list gets longer by the day.

Some of it cut across the niceties of what I considered acceptable. I definitely disliked James Cone‘s Black Liberation Theology for instance. I too thought some of the feminist stuff was a bit too strident.

But time changes one. At least it did me. Now I respect and love Cone, and I have a big “go sista” to the feminist Christian movement. I recently read and reviewed New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views, edited by Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu. You can read a copy of it at my other blog AFeatherAdrift (please don’t mention this one–My Episcopal friends have no idea yet of my Catholic struggles).

I read it with fervor and joy, happy to see that feminist work is continuing and broadening in terms of subject and locale. As I said, once, I looked quite askance at this. But that was before I realized by gentle but helpful teachers, that God is diminished when we construct Her in this limited way, with hierarchies of power and leadership. A good healthy dose of good biblical exegesis helped hugely as well.

One of the things I learned from the book was that there is no “women’s voice” there are many, as the name suggests. There is no Latina voice, nor lesbian voice. We do not judge each other. For some women, leaving the Roman tradition is necessary. For others, like myself, it turns out to have been a mistake.

I can only speak for me. I am Catholic, and that informs much about me in the end. I choose to stand and oppose my faith on issues that I discern them to be wrong. I do it perhaps because my personality is confrontational, or perhaps for some other reason. But that is the path I am on, though it no doubt looks odd and troubling to others who know me.

Catholics on the extreme right had convinced me that I had no place in the Church. They were real and I was a “cafeteria” one, barely worthy of the name. I needed to go to a church that I found that agreed with my self-serving needs. I was contemptible.

But of course I was not gay, nor did I seriously want to be ordained. I am well past child-bearing, and thus I have no personal issue with abortion or birth control. My troubles with doctrine were heart felt, and supported by serious intellectual study and reflection.

What was worse,  were the things they said about American Catholic universities and colleges (most of them that is) and about religious men and women (excluding of course ETWN). I was nothing but the product of “liberalized” nuns and priests who were never taught properly in the first place.

It is with deep sadness that I hear of the Vatican’s examination of religious men and women in the US, with a view to determining their degree of orthodoxy. It is a shame, since these men and women carry the lion’s share of the social justice work being done on behalf of Mother church. They present the Church as loving and concerned, as politically involved, and as caring for the least among us, something Jesus presented to us as our duty.

I am also deeply sad that on the Internet, there is a paucity of liberal Catholic blogging. I have searched with almost no success to find bloggers who are like myself, walking in the shadows of their faith, formally rejected, yet finding a vibrant welcome here and there. I believe with all my being that most Catholics are supportive of us.

It would be nice to be able to talk to others who struggle as I do.

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