Scenario 2: Acquiescence
The familiar household of Mary and Martha in the village of Bethany provides the setting for acquiescence (Luke 10.28-32). The conflict in this gospel story puts both Mary and her sister Martha in their proper places.
Martha wants Mary to help her with the work of hospitality. Instead of asking Mary to help directly, Martha asks their guest, Jesus, to tell Mary to help. She calls on Jesus’ authority to stir her sister into action. Psychologists call this triangulation.
Jesus exercises his voice of authority, telling Martha she’s busy about too many things and insisting Mary has chosen the better part. Feminists have noticed that the better part involves a subordinate position, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening without having any voice. But isn’t it proper and positive for a disciple to sit at a teacher’s feet? The scene clearly includes a woman among those Jesus teaches.
Luke writes in the middle of the AD 80s. He tells not only the story of Jesus’ ministry in AD 30 but also reflects the life of the Christian communities for whom he writes in AD 85. During Jesus’ public ministry Martha and Mary are Jesus’ followers and friends, eyewitnesses of his teaching. What if by AD 85 some people challenge women’s leadership among Christians? What if Mary and Martha’s home has become a house church in the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection? What if Martha extends hospitality to the community that gathers and finds Jesus present in their midst? What if Mary remembers and hands on Jesus’ teachings? What if Luke’s story functions to silence Mary and stop Martha from extending hospitality?
John’s gospel makes Martha and Mary much more active than Luke (John 11). Martha takes the place of Peter in the synoptic gospels, professing her faith in Jesus, “I believe that you are the messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11.27). Mary anoints Jesus’ feet in chapter 12, anticipating the same servant gesture that Jesus makes as his signature action at the last supper in chapter 13.
Mary and Martha are icons of active faith in John’s gospel. Luke’s gospel puts Mary and Martha into passive, subordinate roles.
In the LCWR investigation the sisters want dialogue with the bishops. The bishops want dialogue, too, but not as equals, which makes real dialogue impossible. They see themselves as the teachers who take Jesus’ place in Luke’s scene. Dialogue means obedience to their wishes—acquiescence.
The Mary and Martha story suggests that controversy about women’s place in the Christian community may have reared its ugly head from the earliest decades. Women through the ages have taken Mary and Martha as models, trying to balance activity and prayer in their lives, contemplating Jesus’ teaching in their hearts, assuming it’s not their place to speak up or out. In decades before Vatican II, women could not teach theology.
My community, the Sisters of St. Joseph, grew out of the preaching of Jesuit home missioners in France in the century after the Reformation, the 1600s. Women responded in great numbers to the needs of the sick and poor. Our Jesuit founder called women to do all of which we are capable, a call to magnanimity and excellence that has resounded down the centuries. The first sisters moved into houses among the poor, refusing cloister. The Sisters of St. Joseph were the first apostolic community to receive approbation from Rome. Apostolic means not cloistered. We wore the dress of widows at the time. Many religious orders that teach and serve the sick and the orphaned began much this way.
The Second Vatican Council challenged sisters to study our origins (ressourcement in Italian) in order to envision our future (aggiornamento). We reclaimed our initial commitment to the poor and to serving among the people. This went against the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which re-monasticized the sisters, establishing rules that separated us from our neighbors and obligated us to parts of the Hours.
Today sisters stand with the people of God and in our more horizontal Church, we no longer have or claim a place of privilege. Along with the women’s movement we have become active agents of change and educated voices for justice within the Church and in the world. The Vatican investigation first of religious communities and then of LCWR, the conference to which 80% of us belong, has resulted in unprecedented solidarity across communities. We cannot go back to pre-Vatican II ways of being— acquiesce. I doubt Mary and Martha went back either and put a lock on their house church.
What is women’s place in the Church?
What might a Martha active and inclusive in her hospitality today look like?
What might a Mary who stands up and speaks out look like?
What does it cost the Church to keep women subordinate in its structure?
Check back on Sunday, November 25th for the 3rd Scenario