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Was Jesus Too Harsh to Martha?

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As Catholics celebrate the feasts of Mary and Martha, we ask Father Hugh Barbour about the family from Bethany that was so intimate with Jesus. Famously, Jesus scolded Martha. What is this about, and what does it teach us about relationship with Jesus?


CK:
Why is Jesus so tough on Martha? Next on Catholic Answers Focus. Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus the podcast designed to help you to explain and defend the Catholic faith, I’m Cy Kellett your host. In the gospels Jesus can sometimes seem a bit harsh, almost mean. The Catholic Church is getting ready to celebrate the feasts of Mary Magdalene and Martha in coming days and the story of Mary and Martha involves one of those incidents in which Jesus comes across as a bit harsh. Martha’s doing all the work. Mary is just sitting there listening to Jesus and all Martha wants is a little bit of help. The usual way of interpreting this story involves treating Mary as the hero and Martha as the one who doesn’t get it, but is that right? Our guest today is our good friend, Father Hugh Barbour, who’s currently in quarantine at St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County. So, he joins us by Skype to help us get at the real meaning of the story of Mary and Martha.

CK:
Father Hugh Barbour, thank you very much for being with us to talk about Mary and Martha.

FHB:
Happy to be here to speak for their glory.

CK:
Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus. I want to ask you about the family in a minute, but first of all, can we settle something about Mary? There seems to be some controversy over her identity. Who is this Mary of Bethany? Is she the same person as Mary Magdalene? I never see the two of them together in the same room, so.

FHB:
Oh, well okay. When you write your revelations out maybe you can check and you might’ve found together or separately [inaudible 00:01:42] the case. If they found them separately, then it’s a false revelation, so-

CK:
Because you say they’re the same person.

FHB:
Right, right. Exactly.

CK:
Can you just explain-

FHB:
Let’s just say, “I’m partial to that position.” Because that’s the whole of the Western or Latin Christian tradition, plus the very early Latin tradition, like Tertullian in the second century and even going all the way to Syria with Ephrem the Syrian, the great doctrine of the church, there is an identification between Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany.

CK:
So-

FHB:
This was in… Go ahead, excuse me.

CK:
No, I’m just going to say though if you just read the gospels raw, without any other knowledge, you might not pick that up. You’re saying that the church remembered this, that this was the same person?

FHB:
Yes.

CK:
I have-

FHB:
Yes, because especially John’s Gospel. If you just look simply, and indications in Luke, the way consecutive or very close chapters, all deal with the two Mary’s, Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene, and especially in John’s Gospel, it’s kind of hard to see how she wouldn’t have been being presented as the same person because of the way the events are narrated.

CK:
I see.

FHB:
But in any case, all four gospels have her at the foot of the cross. That’s the key thing, but then that’s Mary Magdalene, but with the identification of Mary and Martha with Mary Magdalene, Mary, excuse me, Mary and Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene, and the identification of those two names with the sinful woman who anoints at Lords feet was made very explicit by Pope Gregory the Great in his homilies. And that tradition is followed in the West.

Not because he made it up, but he was simply repeating what was the traditional teaching in the Latin church. Now remember the Latin church, if you don’t remember I’ll tell you, the Latin church was liturgically, extremely conservative compared to the East. There was a time in church history when the Latin church maintained earlier forms and earlier notions of the calendar of feast days and so on. And so, when a Latin Father of early date, like Saint Gregory the Great says that, “This is the case.” It’s because he is holding it to be part of a longstanding tradition. He’s not introducing anything new but if you want a really good exposition of how all this can be defended, you need to look at the Catholic Encyclopedia, just go to New Advent. You know, that’s a good resource and get the Catholic Encyclopedia and they have it all there and click Mary Magdalene and you’ll find Father Hugh Pope’s defense of the traditional Latin Catholic view.

Now Hugh Pope was an eminent scripture scholar of the early 20th century. He died in the forties and his arguing is very elegant and yet it’s pretty much ignored nowadays only because the general exegetical world turned against that ever since the reformation. Except for Luther and Calvin, all the other Protestants denied the identity. Lutheran and Calvin also held that all three were the same person. So, we’ve got Luther and Calvin on our sides if Gregory the Great’s not good enough.

CK:
Luther, Calvin and Gregory the Great all agreeing that’s [crosstalk 00:05:17]-

FHB:
There you go all altogether. But in any case read that article. It’s very interesting and that will give you a full picture of the argumentation, but it simply wasn’t questioned until rather late in the game. Nowadays, if you went into a scriptures class, or a Bible study, or talk to someone that was knowledgeable on the subject of the New Testament, they would just smile condescendingly or just laugh at your naive identification of these three figures.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
But that’s typical of academic prejudices. You look at a long standing tradition that has no reason to exist, except that it was held for a long time because it’s true. If you look at the gospels without anything else, you would not necessarily make the identification so easily. But when you see the reasoning’s behind sustaining the early tradition, it begins to fall out very, very well. I mean, she’s treated in close via consecutive chapters in Luke’s Gospel and in John’s Gospel. And the praise heaped on her, Mary who had been anointed by Lord’s feet. And that… Or his head rather for his, he said he, “Did this for her in preparation for his burial.” Which is what she has done will be proclaimed in her honor throughout the whole world. And of course, then right away you see Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross.

So you say, “Well, these two different Mary’s?” Or why are they presented so close together, especially given the Magdalene’s prominent position at the resurrection. So, it’s a serious but elegant argument, but they’re always the scholars that’ll just not want to accept the traditional teaching. Now with the revision of the Roman liturgy after Vatican two, they pared-down for the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. They made all the texts refer to the resurrection accounts and left out anything that would be traditional with her identification with Mary of Bethany or the sinful woman, but they still kept of course, Martha and Mary of Bethany in the church calendar for the octave day of Mary Magdalene, which is a traditional Latin thing. Mary Magdalene, the big one is celebrated on the 22nd and then Martha and Lazarus are celebrated on the 29th. They kept that proportion but without explaining why it was there, it was there because these are all from the same family.

So, in any case look that up if you want to know all the details, but there’s a well-established Latin Christian tradition, the East never reflected on it because of course the Latin tradition is that Martha and Mary and Lazarus went to-

CK:
France?

FHB:
… Western Europe and to Provence in the South of France and evangelize people there. Well, of course, that’s that whole tradition with St. James way, way far in the West of Spain and then Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and some of the other Mary’s and different New Testament saints going out to evangelize. Now, when you consider that even in the Eastern tradition, she’s called, “Equal to the apostle.” Or “Apostle to the apostles.” It doesn’t sound that unlikely and Lazarus of course, was raised by our Lord from the dead. You think that experience might’ve made him into quite a significant, evangelizer wanting to go where some of the other apostles had not gone.

CK:
Sure.

FHB:
So, we have these traditions and because they’re there mentioned literarily kind of late they’re poo-pooed by scholars, but I think they should be taken more seriously. In the East they didn’t reflect on it that much because that whole tradition didn’t develop because she and her brother and sister didn’t go East.

CK:
Didn’t go East they went West.

FHB:
And so, Mary Magdalene is one of the [Murberry 00:09:03] women and has stood at the foot of the cross, and she’s very venerated for that, but no identification [inaudible 00:09:09] Bethany or Lazarus. Although Lazarus, there’s a great devotion to Lazarus in the Byzantine liturgy. In summary, the Latin tradition continues because, I mean, her relics and her shrine are there in Provence, the Dominican fathers run the shrine and all of that. So, it’s still a living thing.

CK:
Of course, the thing to focus on with Mary and Martha is there’s always… The story of Mary and Martha includes that active and contemplative, that intellectual and the physical, that there’s this spiritual lessons to be gained there, and I want to get to them. But before we do, I want to ask you a bit about the family, because I’d like to get kind of the facts straight about these folks. And so, they’re in Bethany, just geographically. Bethany is within a very short walk of Jerusalem, it’s just over a hill basically.

FHB:
Right.

CK:
From Jerusalem.

FHB:
It’s barely a town, it’s just a little hamlet. Yeah, it was. Yeah.

CK:
And it does seem that Christ’s in the week of his own passion, that culminates in his own passion, is going back and forth between at least somewhere near Bethany and Jerusalem.

FHB:
Right, right. And having dinners there, presaging the last supper and the passion. Yeah.

CK:
So-

FHB:
Exactly very important people.

CK:
So, this Mary, Martha and Lazarus, there’s some kind of community that’s supporting Jesus and that he wants to keep going back to, even in the week of is his passion. Maybe in other words, a kind of locus for his closest associates is somewhere there in Bethany, maybe with this family. Is that right?

FHB:
Yes. Yeah, I would say that it’s a very interesting point because of course Lazarus appears to be unmarried.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
And this is a little bit of evidence that is interesting, in that in our Lord’s time, the majority of our Lord’s followers were probably loosely related to the Pharisee branch of Judaism. That is, that’s the form of Judaism that they practiced but there was also the Essene version of Judaism, which was at a more apocalyptic movement expecting the imminent arrival of the Messiah and therefore being a little bit hesitant about getting too involved with the establishment, you might say, in Judea, but rather in maintaining the purity of their practice of the faith. So, Martha, Mary and Lazarus were probably related to this part of Judaism and they were a lot of our Lord’s closest followers.

St. John, perhaps also, but certainly St. Mark, others. And so, that might explain Lazarus as being celibate because the Essene’s were the only Jewish sect, you might say in history, that emphasize the importance of celibacy in view of the coming of the Messiah. And so, the eschatological virtue of celibacy, I mean, when you read in the gospels that our Lord tells them, “You’ll find a man carrying water in the street.” And they’re going to be directed to the upper room. Well a man carrying water was ludicrous in our Lord’s time, that was something that only women did. And so, it had to be an indication of a man who was in a celibate Essene community.

CK:
I see.

FHB:
They had their place out in Qumran in the desert and the tradition is that Saint John the Baptist went there to be instructed as a young boy, he was in the desert until his manifestation and so on. So, Martha, Mary and Lazarus are probably associated with that group. The associations were not strict. I mean, these were not like denominations. They were just forms or sympathies in Judaism and our Lord’s sympathies of course span the entire [inaudible 00:13:06] antipathies as well. They span the entire possibilities of Judaism at the time. And we see that in New Testament, but we could talk about that forever. But the thing is that they seem to be associated with that very pure, almost like religious life or monastic form of Judaism that was practiced by the Essenes. And they were obviously well-off and they were a place of comfort and rest for our Lord. And that’s the connection, his closest empathy, but obviously he shows him a favor that he doesn’t show any other group of people, except for his own immediate, mother and father. [crosstalk 00:13:46] Joseph-

CK:
It’s funny because we have no indication of how he met them. It’s not like Peter, where we kind of know where we… At some point they became associated and they were very, very close to him.

FHB:
Yes. And of course, if you accept the identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, well then there are other opportunities for his meeting them because he casts out seven demons from Mary Magdalene.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
And then there’s the sinful woman and so on. So, that makes the story a little easier to narrate. And the article I mentioned in Catholic Encyclopedia gives that sort of a narrative form so you can see the whole picture.

CK:
All right. So, to the spiritual meaning then, because that’s the main thing most people focus on in the story of Mary and Martha. Martha, Martha, she’s the one cleaning the pots and pans cooking, bringing the… And Mary is attentive as in a, almost a student like way, in a disciple kind of way, sitting at his feet and listening. So, could you maybe give us your own take on what are the spiritual fruits and gifts and insights that we’re supposed to get from this whole story?

FHB:
Well it’s, and again, and this is much reflected on in the Latin or Roman tradition, more than in the East, because Martha and Mary became the locus, this story of Martha and Mary and the dinner and Martha’s complaint and our Lord’s rebuke to her in defense of Mary. All of that becomes part of the big controversy in the West over the relative value of the contemplative and active lives saying very clearly that our Lord says, “Mary has chosen the better part. It will not be taken from her.” And therefore the contemplative life as a state is higher than the active you could say. Well, actually in the Western tradition, there’s a nuance to all of that and it has to do with the progress of the soul. And this is interpreted by different authors over time, but let’s just put it this way. If you look in the gospels and you see how our Lord treats our lady, you’ll see how a steer and minimal are his words to her.

CK:
Yes.

FHB:
And you look at it and you go, “Why is he being so tough on his mother?” “What is this do onto me woman? Why is it that you sought me?” The few exchanges we have, who is my mother and my brother, these, these are all very tough sounding words. Well it’s because our saw her and made her the companion in his saving the world. He was so close to her that he held her to a much higher, more austere standard. He was tough with her, not because she’d done anything wrong, but because he wanted to raise her up to be a better cooperator at his work. Therefore you look at Martha and you go, “Well, our Lord feels free to speak very frankly to her and she to him.”

And we see this again also at the raising of Lazarus, she’s very frank, she talks to him like a friend. She has great respect for him as a Rabbi and she knows who he is, but she’s close enough that she can complain and so on. So, our Lord rebukes her in view of the fact that she’s already closer to him. She already has the instructions, she already has, you might say the role that he’s giving her, and he wants her to take it and not fall back into an attitude less worthy of the role that he’s giving her. Whereas Mary is not yet that developed. She needs to protect the life that our Lord has given her. And remember, if you hold it, she was the one that from him cast out seven demons, she needed a little therapy, a little recuperation from all this.

CK:
Yeah, right. Trauma.

FHB:
And so, I mean, the traditional story fits much better for this and so, he treats her more gently. Now that’s separate from the fact that, of course, obviously in themselves, contemplative acts of worship and prayer to God and contemplation of the mysteries of faith are higher than just simply doing physical works. But on the other hand, if you are already a deeply established contemplative, then of course, that’s going to overflow out of charity onto your neighbor. And as St. Thomas Aquinas says, following in our tradition of the canons Regular, and also the Dominican’s, “It’s better to shed light than simply to burn.” That is you can burn with charity, but even better is when the heat of charity sheds light on others. And so, there’s that big fight in the Western tradition between the Benedictines and the Canons Regular and the Dominican’s over the relative values of the states of contemplative life, as opposed to apostolic life, they call it apostolic life. They didn’t say active life in traditional language, really traditional language just means the life of asceticism, therefore the distinction is a little confusing, active versus contemplative because in point of fact, the apostles were as the old motto of the Dominican’s is, they were giving to others what they had contemplated.

And that’s a higher act of charity than simply to contemplate because it’s actually defusing the good to others. So, we mustn’t over play the superiority of the contemplative state over an epistolic one. And therefore our Lord holds her to a high standard, was very tough with her and defends Mary, because he wants to instruct, and enlightened, and perfect Martha. Now you see this even at the raising of Lazarus, when he raises Lazarus from the dead, Martha is very frank with him and he just continues the discussion and just makes the point, but then gives to her, this revelation that I’m the resurrection and the life. I mean, these are very solid moments, you know? So, her importance is even more emphasized there and her closeness to the Lord. Mary remember remains at home, she doesn’t come out to meet our Lord because she’s busy weeping.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
Okay. So, they’re very different temperaments, but notice, and this is where the spiritual value is found, our Lord first rebukes Martha at the dinner for her complaining and defends Mary. But Mary’s going to have her day when the Lord is going to treat her like an apostle, like a close associate, where he’s going to say to her tough things, the way he said to St. Peter or the way he said to his blessed mother, not because she deserved them. I want to make that very clear, she was not a sinner, like the rest of them, but she still could grow in holiness and perfection during the course of her earthly life. So, I mean-

CK:
When is that? When are you referring too?

FHB:
What am I referring too…

CK:
When you say-

FHB:
I don’t understand what you’re-

CK:
… that later Mary will get this kind of grown up-

FHB:
Yeah, that’s what I’m-

CK:
Oh, you’re getting there.

FHB:
… treatment.

CK:
Okay. Yeah. Yeah.

FHB:
Right. Well, I mean, here we are. She loves our Lord so much. She anointed his head in preparation for his burial. And he praises her and says that, “Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, this story will be told in her memory.” That’s on Easter Monday, every year we hear that gospel, right before the blessing of the oils on Thursday, we have that revocation of the holy oils. And she goes early in the morning, she finds the tomb empty. Then she finds our Lord there and doesn’t know what’s our Lord, thinks he’s the gardener. And he calls out her name, she recognizes him and then she grabs him. And at that poignant, beautiful moment, when you would think, “Yeah, so there you are.” He says, “Don’t touch me I have not yet ascended to my father.”

So, he’s in the glory, but also the austerity of his majesty and his resurrection. He now is able to treat her the way he was treating Martha before. Don’t hang on to me, I’m not here for you to be contemplated and for us to have a party, I want you to go and tell everybody else. He gave her, her apostolic role, which is the key to understanding the value of contemplation. That contemplation is so that it can be diffused other [inaudible 00:22:15].

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
Who has preached the gospel at divine charity more effectively than she and she’s patron [inaudible 00:22:23].

CK:
Patron of the [crosstalk 00:22:24], right?

FHB:
Even though she was closed up in the [inaudible 00:22:26]. Right, [inaudible 00:22:27]. That’s the logic of Catholicism. We’re not like idealizing a contemplative life apart from the necessity, the necessity that if you have a good thing, it will out, it will be given to others and that’s what we see, Martha first, okay? And then Mary. And so, no wonder then that the Latin tradition understands what may well have happened, and I think did happen, and that is that they became Evangelizers.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
Why not?

CK:
Yeah, sure why not?

FHB:
And so, Gregory the Great didn’t think it was funny. And these people knew the scriptures. I mean, Gregory the Great was not just making stuff up.

CK:
No. Right? It’s not like it’s not like somebody today knows the scriptures better than Gregory the Great did, but I have to say the part of the appeal, but also part of the… A little bit, there’s a little bit of something painful in this way of understanding it, that part and they’re the same thing. The appeal and the little bit of sting to the way you’re saying this, is that it really strikes one that if you follow what you’ve just said and accepted that what Christ wants is true friends who are fully mature, mature enough to take him not having to hold their hand like a little child, but being able to speak very frankly with them, go and do this, take care of this. And so, that we’re not needy, like that there’s a way in which he wants to raise us up to a kind of partnership with him, which is actually very, very good and gracious on his part. But it also means let go of your neediness that he’s constantly going to be comforting you.

FHB:
Of course, my Lord says, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” You know, that that’s that one. I mean, our Lord is not giving us gifts so that we can just enjoy them in this life but rather also that we can join him in the salvation of the world, carry our cross after him, and so on.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
There’s another tradition of interpretation, which is associated with the church in Alexandria and the Fathers there that interprets the story of Martha and Mary and that binary, if you will, in terms of what is going on in the soul of each individual Christian, so that there’s a Martha in us who is braced and corrected by the Lord and is already being held to a higher standard and there’s a Mary in us who needs consolation and nourishment. And so, we’re both at one and the same time cooperators with Christ bearing our cross after him and also little children, or little lost lambs that are being carried in his arms. You know, that we’re both.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
But that’s the interior spiritual sense of the story. But because of course these were real women, they weren’t just archetypes or symbols, but the story that’s given in the gospel shows how that logic played out in their own lives as well. The closer you get to our Lord, the more he would require of you and that’s just the way it is. He’s not a guru, not that guru’s can’t be demanding, but he’s not a guru who’s promising you spiritual enlightenment and detachment from all cares in this life.

CK:
No.

FHB:
He is asking us to join him so that then we can reign with him happily and gloriously in heaven. And there’s another interesting point there that if you look at the story, if you insist on seeing it as Martha and Mary and which one is better and all of that, then you miss the point because there’s a third figure in the story, Jesus.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
So, if you want to see the perfect blend of contemplation and action, or contemplation and ministry, or contemplation and apostle, that you have to look to him.

CK:
What he’s doing, yeah.

FHB:
And he balances all of that what’s [crosstalk 00:26:16]-

CK:
Perfectly.

FHB:
… doing. He’s both receiving the hospitality of this daughter of his and God and he’s also instructing the other one he’s being fed and he’s feeding, on different levels with different people, with different relationships, but he’s the model. That’s why in the Latin tradition, the Canons Regular, like the [Normateens 00:26:36] and the Dominicans, they would trump the Benedictines by saying, “Well, of course you can identify with either one of these ladies, but we identify with Jesus.”

CK:
We win.

FHB:
“And we’re a priestly order and therefore we have to be like Jesus.” Now that is very, very, very amusing and instructive converse those days, they took the stuff seriously.

CK:
Well, these are two women who are not his mother. So, there’s something here that’s very beautiful about the Lord in his own chastity, in his own beautiful purity, being capable of great intimacy with women and great friendship with women. This is something that he’s capable of. Maybe that’s also a good example for priests.

FHB:
Well, I think that it’s the question of the collaboration in the ministry, which has always been there between men and women in the church and it still is. I mean, you think about the Catholic Church back when the [inaudible 00:27:39] schools were booming and there were lots and lots of women religious and lots and lots of priest. I mean, the collaboration was continuous and these ladies were powerful and influential over many more souls than a lot of clergy. So yes, they work together that’s the tradition of the church. There is a tradition in the East that Mary Magdalene goes to Ephesus with our lady and they lived together until the end. That’s something that’s there, but it doesn’t necessarily contradict Mary Magdalene going also to the West because things happen sequentially in life. And so, it’s possible that both are true, but there is that Mary connection that since they’re close at the foot of the cross, very significant, our Lord’s closest beloved disciple, his mother and Mary Magdalene. I mean, what could be clearer than that. And also the other Mary’s who are very important. Mary was a very common name in first century Judea for a lot of ladies. So, but they were close relatives or associates that are Lord, and they stuck with him. And then they had very serious roles to play subsequently.

CK:
Well, so the feast of Mary Magdalene, the feast of Martha and Lazarus all this month in January. So, a good time to reflect on them. Thank you, Father, for reflecting on this-

FHB:
July.

CK:
Whoa, did I say January?

FHB:
Yeah.

CK:
Yeah, July.

FHB:
Yeah, you’re back before the lockdown.

CK:
I’m a little unstuck in time I think. Yeah, I really appreciate it. On the occasions I’ve gotten to talk about this story. There’s just so much here that’s beautiful and it’s wonderful to have a chance to reflect on it with you Father. Thank you.

FHB:
Thank you. God bless you.

CK:
And you as well. So, at the very least you can take away from this podcast that the Catholic Church is not just being foolish when it says that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are the same person, but on a deeper level the story of Mary and Martha gives us a lot of insight into the relationship that Jesus wants with us. One that is not just a matter of us being saved, but is also a matter us becoming tough enough to join him in the work of saving others. Thanks for joining us on Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett your host. We do this all the time. So, invite your friends to join us, subscribe to Catholic Answers Focus wherever you get your podcasts and share it with your friends. We are trying to grow it and if you like what you hear, it really helps if you give us that five star review. It takes a lot of people to put this show together and if you’re in a position to support us financially, please visit us at give.catholic.com. You can reach us, maybe you want to suggest a future topic for a show, at radioatcatholic.com.

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