Abraham, Sarah, Martha and Mary encountered God, at different times and in different ways. Encounters with God abound in the Scriptures; each is the occasion of a new understanding of the story of salvation, and our place in it.
The events described in the first and third readings for today took place at different, widely separated, stages in salvation-history, but they explore similar themes. Both occur within the context of hospitality, the ritual sharing of food. To share food is to share life. In both encounters God is offered the food which gives one kind of life, and in return gives the word of God, which gives another kind of life.
Abraham, our father in faith, journeyed, at an early stage in salvation history, in response to a call from God. The purpose of his journey was revealed to him gradually. This journey was sustained by a promise made to him by God that he would become the father of many nations.
One evening he was visited by three strangers, and recognised that he was in the presence of God. He bowed, the traditional gesture of servant to master, and ordered his wife Sarah to prepare food and drink, without which life in the hostile desert would be impossible. Later, Abraham's descendants, the Israelites, would be given food and drink by God during their journey through the desert.
God spoke with Abraham, while Sarah busied herself overseeing the preparation of the food, and told him that his wife Sarah would bear a son. A few verses later, not included in today's reading, Sarah, listening, challenged God; she laughed, scoffing the idea that she, well beyond the age of childbearing, could conceive. Abraham and Sarah responded differently to God's promise; Sarah's faith was not as yet as strong as Abraham's; she was still learning.
Martha and Mary, friends of the Christ, received him into their house and offered him food. Mary sat at the feet of the Christ, the traditional attitude of learner to teacher, while Martha busied herself with the preparation of the meal.
Martha, like Sarah, seemed to challenge the Christ; she complained that Mary was not doing her share of the work, and asked that she be told to help. The Christ's enigmatic reply - 'she has chosen the better part, it is not to be taken from her' - has attracted much comment. Some have seen the two women as opposed types of the Christian life, with the contemplative life, represented by Mary, as higher and better than the active life, represented by Martha. This is a very uncomfortable reading.
There are other understandings of this passage. Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century Dominican preacher and theologian, saw Martha as the more mature, in that she was already sufficiently advanced in contemplation to engage fruitfully in active works. Eckhart had learned this from his vocation as a Friar Preacher. What is gained by contemplation is not to be retained, selfishly, within oneself, but to be shared with others.
Martha's remark is not a complaint, or criticism, but a recognition that the full Christian life demands that what has been learned by listening to God be shared. The answer given by the Christ was not a rebuke, but an assurance that when Mary reached spiritual maturity she, too, would be ready to engage in the active life. The Christian life demands a combination of Martha and Mary.
Abraham and Mary seemed to be privileged, and the focus of the stories, in that they spoke with God. Sarah and Martha seemed of lesser importance, being engaged in mundane tasks, excluded from the intimacy given to Mary and Abraham. The promise of new life was made to Abraham, but it was Sarah who brought forth the new life. She who challenged became the means by which the promise was effected.
Martha seemed to complain and challenge, but it was she who was the recipient of the important truth that neither contemplation nor activity is of itself necessarily the full expression of the Christian life.
When God is encountered he speaks, and his word gives life.