Homily - Mary & Jesus & Martha – A Woman’s Role?

20 July 2019 | General Interest


Mary & Jesus & Martha – A Woman’s Role?

Lk 10.38-42 Gen18.1-10 Col 1.24-28

We might begin with One small step from Leunig’s weekend cartoon (on screen): “That’s one small step for man. That’s another small step. That’s a small flower for mankind, for kind man, for kind woman. That’s one little smile, one tiny tear, one sweet sorrow… One small sigh. That’s another little smile. That’s another small step.” Good old Michael Leunig’s philosophical imagination continues to flourish, as he puts his take on the lunar landing exactly 50 years ago today! A sobering reminder to keep our feet on the ground, to look around, and to face up to life’s realities, ups and downs.

Now, who remembers the moment and who was watching the grainy black and white images? I do believe it’s a good time to stop and reflect again on the wonder of our precious blue planet (Image of ‘Earth’ from Apollo VIII), as, alone in the universe, we look down from space on Earth, with its 7.5 million humans and precious finite resources, thinking of our responsibility to preserve and protect it for ourselves and for future generations to come. “Earthrise” (on screen) is a classic image of the barren and lifeless starkness of the moon, the darkness of space, as the LEM (lunar module ‘Eagle’) containing Neil Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (who even took Communion from his church to the moon!), first men on the moon, returns to the command module circling the moon before returning home. An extremely risky but remarkable achievement! (To those who believe it actually happened! If not, however, where did the moon rocks really come from? And why did ‘Buzz’ punch that chap who harassed him, saying it was all a hoax?) One can only marvel at the engineering and technological achievements of that time.

Speaking with 60 or so Preps in class this week, they enlightened me about Toy Story 4 (with a few new interesting characters they described, like ‘Forky’ who apparently likes rubbish heaps?), which I haven’t got to see yet (the first 3 wonderful parables about life, relationships and change). And I was pleased to enlighten them about my memories of watching the moon landing (missing Matric Maths class), that Woody’s (voice of Tom Hanks, of Apollo XIII film fame, and he’s on my Scoresby stole here!) friend ‘Buzz’ Lightyear (I need him on my stole too, for balance!), was named after good old thrice married and divorced and long retired astronaut, ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, who’s still kicking at 89!

At 17, when I started at Melbourne Uni in 1970, I attended the Vice-Chancellor’s welcoming address in Wilson Hall. It was disrupted by a group of rowdy students chanting their verse and carrying a female dressed as a Vestal Virgin down the main aisle. It turned out that she was the sole female in first year engineering, and happily complied with the stunt. Fortunately, times and attitudes have changed for the better in the 50 years since.

Related to space and the Apollo program, the 2016 documentary film “Hidden Figures” portrays 3 brilliant African American women mathematicians and physicists, themselves named ‘computers’ (pre-electronic computers!), who did much of the complex orbital mechanics and other computation required for space travel, but kept in the background, out of the public eye. One of them, Katherine Johnson, is now 100, and calculated trajectories from Alan Shepherd’s flight to Apollo XI, helped in Apollo XIII’s successful (near miraculous) return and later space shuttle missions. So even the critical role of brilliant women such as these was largely unacknowledged at the time, because of racial and gender barriers, but their knowledge certainly used to the fullest extent.

Once again, as with last week’s oxymoronic Good Samaritan, only Luke, and none of the other evangelists, gives us this one, an encounter with Mary (not likely to be Mary Magdalen, those who know say was a mediaeval fiction) and Martha, good female friends of Jesus, who, once again goes against the grain of the time in his counter-cultural way, breaking 3 cardinal rules for Jewish men, rabbis in particular, because the thinking of the day was: What would a woman know anyway, and what is more, since the tempting image of Eve way back there, women were seen as a source of temptation for men!

So, after upsetting the orthodoxy of presumed ‘bad’ Samaritans last week, Jesus is again now in the thick of controversy, alone with the women to whom he was not related, served by a woman in Martha, while he is teaching a woman in Mary in her own house – all verboten (ie forbidden) in Jewish law. It doesn’t seem to trouble them, or him, in the least. The problem is who does what? Someone has to provide the ‘vittles’ (Be it tea and scones or wine and cheese or beer and chips, or more?) But Jesus’ point is that “Man (and woman) do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” One can quite understand Martha’s complaint, but takes the opportunity to emphasize the need to listen to his Word, so that it can be taken to heart and applied in reality. There’s no suggestion that nourishment and hospitality aren’t important, but that there is a place for all in different roles.  

This Lucan story has inspired the artists through the centuries also, as we run through a few, found with the help of Dr Google! With a focus on feasting not fasting, but open ears to listening too, we move through from Tintoretto to Caravaggio (the wild man!) to Vermeer to Breughel to de Vries (move through paintings on screen).

And then we see some semi-subversive and committed religious women in our own midst, stirring the pot, as I received an emailed article from one this week, concerning women in the early church, titled “Artifacts show that early church women served as clergy”! Recent archeological discoveries have found stone carvings depicting women at the church altar in 3 of the most important churches in Christendom – Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople), St Peter’s Basilica in (guess where?) Rome, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, all in the 5th and 6th centuries. It is suggested that there is parallelism indicative of equality in their liturgical roles. There is no documentation remaining, but the images are genuine on the artefacts, which are said to provide “precious windows through which we can see the early Christian liturgy as it was once performed.” The likely conclusion is that they were at least deacons, and Pope Francis has already requested further research on the question of female diaconate. Interesting stuff, whatever! It demonstrates that traditions change through the centuries, and things are not always the same, as we might sometimes like to think. What is more, we can’t deny the massive contribution women have made to the life of the church at the grass roots. They certainly need to be given more say at the upper levels of governance and administration.

In his most recent Letter from Rome, an article headed “A Woman’s Place is not in the Vatican”, commentator, Robert Mickens, speaks of Pope Francis saying he wants to advance women in leadership roles, but it’s a tricky scenario to change the male bureaucracy well entrenched there. He makes the point that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and that change is gradual, but hopefully heading in the right direction of inclusion, albeit at a snail-like pace!!

In Tribunal work, when I was managing things, I was determined to involve women, Religious and lay, (along the lines of the pioneering model of Bishop Geoff Robinson in Sydney back then) in interviewing petitioners and witnesses, as applicants should have a choice, and it’s not necessarily a priest’s role. A female perspective on personalities and relationships adds to a broader understanding of the challenges of marriage, and the darker side, when things go badly wrong. Once trained, they made excellent and insightful interviewers, often better than the priests, including me!

Jesus’ unhesitating engagement with women, throughout Luke’s Gospel in particular, should be a wake up call to all of us, but particularly to Catholic Church leadership, to offer more than platitudes about their great role in health, education, welfare, and certainly in parish life, where I reiterate that we are blessed to have so many women, religious and lay, of all ages and stages of life, actively engaged at the grass roots where we are. But we need to do better, top down, but particularly at the top! Our story of Jesus encountering and engaging with Mary and Martha is enlightening in regard to listening, reflecting, understanding and acting on his Word as Good News in theory and practice. The importance of generous hospitality stands out here for all of us too.


john hannon                         20th July 2019


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