It seems like over the centuries nothing much has changed. As Amos had God saying back in the time of the first reading, so we could easily believe God would start an angry rant today:
” Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,”
These are “good business-men” according to the values of 2016, they are very concerned with efficiency. They want the holidays (holy days) to be over so they can get back to making money, they alter the measures to give themselves a better profit margin. Any multi-national of today would gladly welcome such canny entrepreneurs into its fold! But these days the disease has spread. Schools and hospitals, care centres, churches and even charities feel the pressure to behave the same way. Everything we have is commodified and then watered down to make it cheap to produce and sell.
The needy are trampled upon, the land is ruined like never before. So if God was angry then, what might God be feeling now (no point in saying Jesus’ death cancelled out all of that, since Jesus never said that social justice was obsolete, or that his death came to replace our responsibility for how we live).
But we do slowly compromise our beliefs to get along in this very difficult and cynical society: “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
God notices and God does not overlook this. The rest of the reading is full of dire threats against the escapist sties of excess of the rich.:”The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.”
And is that not what we experience when we bury ourselves in lavish but empty lifestyles and pursuits? Having been quite well off, and recently having experienced a lack of many things that would make life easier, I have been brought face to face with the best and worst in people. Many people have dealt very generously with me, and that puts me to shame because I know that when I am well off, I forget a little about the suffering of others.
But none of us should forget the homeless in this hideous winter weather (a bus station is better than the street but still woefully inadequate when the wind howls and the rain floods). None of us should forget the children in large classes, with inadequate learning materials and exhausted teachers. It may not be my child, but it ought not to be anyone’s child. None of us should neglect the ill or the old or the mentally ill, or those who were kicked off their centrelink payments just in time for the school holidays, so that their children will go back to school with nothing to talk about the holidays apart from how cold and hungry and scared they were.
My challenge is to help people more than I do, but our collective challenge also is to change these systems, because increasingly there is too much hardship for one person’s charity to reach (and world-wide the situation is even more bleak). As God (via Amos) reminds us that the land itself has been oppressed we need to look at atrocities like fracking, nuclear weapons, excessive consumption, genetic manipulation of seeds to maximise control and profit, cynical versions of medical research, fossil fuels….the reality that we have already changed the global climate in extremely dangerous ways.
The apocalyptic message of night and day becoming skewed and wide-spread lamenting seems quite close to hand and God in the reading seems to vow that the wilfully blindly privileged will not remain untouched by this curse they are calling down. The psalm jeers at those who are foolish enough to take refuge in their excessive wealth instead of God. But the “righteous”, presumably the one who seeks God’s values for living is like an olive (judging by the olive trees I never planted, that are taking over my yard this means tenacious and resilient). Somehow withing all the apocalyptic possibilities before us we trust in the steadfast LOVE of God.
That love has never meant easy answers, or that we are off the hook. But in some way we may not yet be able to grasp it translates into hope for those who DO speak up for the poor and for the earth. The second reading adds evidence for this. We have Christ’s headship and ongoing presence making the best out of us, turning us back from evil ways to redeemed possibilities (I cannot see how, but the hope is there). But our hope is part of or faith, both things we need to steadfastly hold onto. Some aspects of this are mystery, we do not know everything. Wisdom in the second reading consists of trusting God and turning toward God’s way of life, listening to the warnings and teachings to achieve a “mature” faith.
Finally the gospel.
This is one of the ones that at times I have grappled with. Because what makes Mary so special? It seems really rough on Martha that she is excluded from the ease of Jesus and the apostles. Granted I can’t see that it would be better if Mary also had to do the “shit work”. But I can’t blame Martha for being angry that she has been left with all the work. I enjoyed a book called “Through a Woman’s eyes: encounters with Jesus” by Chris Burke that I read several years ago that put a different possibility on this story, with some of the male apostles being less entitled and helping Martha out so that Mary could have her connection and teaching from Jesus. To me those sort of imaginative possibilities are helpful but in the context of today’s readings I can see another twist to it too.
Ignoring questions of gender (and I realise we can’t always do this) and relegating Jesus and the apostles to background in the power-play between Mary and Martha, I put myself into the place of Martha (easy for someone like me to do). I am resentful, jealous, tired. I resort to judging because I am not getting what I need. If I then read Mary as a special little flower who has more important things to do than help me then I remain angry! But the fact is I don’t know about Mary. I have not walked in her shoes. I do not know her inner battles, her exhaustion, her background or why she needs to simply sit at the feet of Jesus, drawing in healing, life, teaching.
So my challenge (still as Martha) is to get my needs met in a way that does not judge Mary. I don’t think that this is a perfect way of reading this episode of the gospels, but it becomes relevant to the other readings of the week if we consider our society’s suspicious and grudging attitudes towards artists, thinkers, “dole bludgers”, the disabled or single parents. We feel envy and resentment at how hard we need to work and the fact that others are given what they need whether they appear (to us) to have earned it or not. We are beginning to teach ourselves to see taxes NOT as a public good, but as our hard-earned cash that ought to deliver a measurable good to ME the individual consumer. Instead of thinking about what is missing in our own lives (more family time, leisure, creative expression, meaningful connection, spirituality) we can get caught up in feeling self-righteous about how unpleasant it feels to “have to” be an economic participant in such a flawed society and losing our compassion in the fear that added pressures will be put on us, or that something will be taken away.
I have felt like this. It is related to the panic that people from overseas will come and drive down our minimum wage and take away our (seemingly) inadequate share of the cake.
Martha’s thinking is twisted because she says “make Mary work” instead of “I need to find a way to spend less effort so that I too can come and connect in with the Word and have Life”. We ought to have compassion for Martha because I feel that we all make that mistake one way or the other when we look at “others”. But as Jesus explains, Martha does not fully understand what is going on with Mary (or the possibility that she could and should have it too).
Jesus reminds us to look at ourselves, and get our own priorities right instead of trying to take away the joys, interests and vocation of others. I don’t think he is endorsing the exploitation of Martha (and if he is I would quarrel with him). In Amos we see the devastation that comes when people’s wrong priorities are allowed to fester into selfishness, and their skills go into getting ahead instead of getting along. The psalm echoes this and reminds us that our safety is in God not in wealth. Colossians reminded us that hope comes from coming to Jesus with a steadfastness.
All of us have things in our lives we could cut back on or slow down on to focus on relating and to redirect ourselves toward hope. All of us have people like Martha, who judge us when we don’t “look busy” or compete at mundane things. Perhaps we also have the tendency to show off unimportant things instead of just relating, and to try to control the contribution of others.
What is the “better part” and how do we choose it? How do we also free up our sisters (Marthas) and others to have some “better part” in their own lives too?