16th Sunday in Ordinary Time — Christ in the House of Martha and Mary | National Catholic Registry

This Sunday’s Gospel tells us about Jesus and his visit to two very different women.

Marie and Marthe are sisters, brothers and sisters of Lazare. They lived in Bethany, which today we might say is on the “outskirts” of Jerusalem, about three kilometers from the Old City. I mention this because today’s Gospel does not: it might seem from this excerpt from Luke that Jesus entered the house of some random “Martha” and “Mary”.

They have a guest at home. In Polish we say: gość w dom, Bóg w dom, “a guest in the house is God in the house.” This is clearly another example of how Christianity shapes a culture, even in the way it thinks and speaks. In the case of Martha and Mary, it was literally true.

In the ancient Near East, hospitality was not just good manners, it was an obligation, even a moral obligation. Travelers are not sent into the wilderness hungry and thirsty, as today’s First Reading illustrates (visitors in Abraham’s tent).

So Martha is busy. You can imagine her pulling out the dates she picked this morning, looking for the best wine, maybe skinning some fish she bought at the market, peeling some garlic and onions to cook with, etc. Oh no ! Lazare must have eaten the bread I made: can I go to my neighbor and borrow a loaf, or put Shimon and his children to sleep? Luckily Dad brought fresh eggs this morning.

Now, when Martha doesn’t have enough hands to do what she wants to do, Mary isn’t giving her a hand. Instead, she sits and listens to Jesus.

It could have been a sign of hospitality: you don’t let your guest look out the window. And it was almost certainly a sign of interest: Jesus speaks forcefully.

But that still didn’t peel the onions.

The fact that Martha felt comfortable enough to complain – “tell my sister to do something” – suggests that Jesus did not come to this house for the first time.

Jesus’ answer valorizes Martha, but puts things into perspective. She worries about many things. Not bad. Ordinary things in ordinary times must be done. Prayer is higher than eating, but in the absence of a divine miracle, doing too much of the first and too little of the second will eventually cause you to do neither.

Martha’s concerns aren’t bad. But they also need to be put into perspective. In the end, there is nothing more important than salvation. Since salvation is not Something but Someone – the encounter with Jesus — well, Mary has already done that “and it will not be taken away from her”.

At some point, Mary will also have to peel some onions. And at some point, Martha will sit down and listen to Jesus. “For everything there is a season…”

But let’s not lose our priorities either. Life will go on if Shimon shouts through the door: “The door is locked and me and my children are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything. Knowing Martha and her knocking on the door, maybe he will. Or maybe not and they will just have to eat fish without bread. Life will go on.

But without Christ, life cannot go on.

Traditionally, Martha and Mary are also seen as archetypes of active and contemplative life, respectively. There is some truth in this, even if neither “type” is encountered in absolute purity: active religious people need to pray and contemplate, lest their activism degenerate into spinning wheels, and contemplatives need to have a feast if Easter is not to be Lent. This is why prudence is a cardinal virtue: there are many ways to do good, but which is the best here and now for me?

Today’s Gospel is represented by the 17th century Spanish master, Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). “Jesus at Martha and Mary” is in the National Gallery in London and dates from around 1618.

Velázquez is part of Spain’s “Golden Age”, a period when Spain was among the superpowers of the time and its artistic and literary scene flourished. When Velázquez painted “Jesus at Home”, Jamestown was 11 years old when pilgrims had still not purchased passage on a ship called the Mayflower.

At the height of his artistic power, Velázquez would be a representative of the Spanish Baroque, but at this early stage of his career (he had just finished his apprenticeship) he was a “tenebrist”, a painter who worked with light and especially colors. shadows. .

This particular painting represents a genre experienced at that time in Spain called bodegones (of “bodegon”, tavern). They were still lifes – a common art form – but set up in kitchens, taverns or other restaurants. In Spain, they usually combined this kind of still life kitchen scene with the Bible.

On the left, we have two women in a kitchen. The youngest is obsessing over the kitchen and Martha doesn’t look very happy. On the table there are fish, eggs and garlic. She is grinding something with a pestle. As proof of his artistry, look at the details that Velázquez puts into the four fishes.

The older woman (old people are supposed to be wiser) says something to the younger one but, more importantly, she points her finger. Mary’s finger brings us to the top right image of Jesus with Martha and Mary.

I would interpret the image as a painting. This sacred scene is captured and Spanish Mary might suggest to disgruntled Spanish Martha to consider the situation of biblical Martha and Mary. This Spanish Martha might think about how this story applies to her is suggested by the fact that she is not looking at the picture but at us, her eyes somewhat lost in thought.

Others, however, have suggested there is “ambiguity” in the painting. Is the image in the upper right corner a kind of glimpse of what is going on in the head of the Spanish Martha, a bit like the balloon in a cartoon expresses in writing what Charlie Brown wants to say?

Or maybe is the together painting set in the time of Jesus? Is the Spanish Martha really Martha herself, clearly brooding over the lack of help for the fish stew? Maybe the older woman is just a neighbor who happened to be visiting when Jesus showed up? And perhaps the image on the right is represented only twice in the same painting: Martha boiling on the left, Martha complaining to Jesus on the right and Jesus answering her? Or is it just once, and the picture on the right is a kitchen window in the main room? Is the other woman behind the biblical Mary (who is delighted with Jesus’ presence) another neighbor who also joins in the conversation? She, like the woman in the kitchen, also has an outstretched hand and these two seem like siblings from an older generation.

One commentator has observed that this ambivalence is part of Velázquez’s greatness: there are many layers of meaning in this unique work. I chose this work at once because it shows how sacred art can convey multiple meanings. If it is one time—the time of Jesus—it represents the Gospel. If this is first-century Israel and 17th-century Spain, it reminds us to incorporate the lessons of the Gospels – what they teach us – into our lives today.

Even in the kitchen on fish, onions and eggs.

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