16th Sunday in Ordinary Time — Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

SCRIPTURES & ART: Martha and Mary remind us that prudence is a cardinal virtue — there are many ways to do the good, but which is the best here and now for me?

Diego Velàzquez, “Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary,” 1618
Diego Velàzquez, “Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary,” 1618 (photo: Public Domain)

This Sunday’s Gospel tells us about Jesus and his visit with two very different women.

Mary and Martha are sisters, siblings of Lazarus. They lived in Bethany, which we might say today is on the “outskirts” of Jerusalem, about two miles from the Old City. I mention this because today’s Gospel doesn’t: it might seem from this excerpt of Luke that Jesus popped into the house of some random “Martha” and “Mary.”

They have a guest in the house. In Polish, we say: gość w dom, Bóg w dom, “a guest in the house is God in the house.” That’s clearly another example of how Christianity shapes a culture, even in how it thinks and speaks. In Martha’s and Mary’s case, it was literally true.

In the ancient Near East, hospitality was not just nice manners, it was an obligation, even a moral obligation. One does not send travelers out into the desert hungry and thirsty, as today’s First Reading (the visitors in Abraham’s tent) illustrates.

So, Martha’s busy. You can imagine her taking out the dates she picked this morning, looking for the better wine, perhaps skinning some fish she got at the market, peeling some garlic and onions to cook with them, etc. Oh, no! Lazarus must have eaten the bread I made: can I go to my neighbor and borrow a loaf, or have Shimon and his kids gone to bed? Good thing Dad brought some fresh eggs this morning. 

Now, while Martha doesn’t have enough hands to do what she wants to do, Mary isn’t giving her a hand. She’s rather sitting and listening to Jesus.

Now, that might have been a sign of hospitality: you don’t leave your guest to look out the window. And it almost certainly was a sign of interest: Jesus speaks compellingly.

But that still didn’t get the onions peeled.

The fact that Martha feels comfortable enough to complain — “tell my sister to do something” — suggests Jesus hasn’t been in this house for the first time.

Jesus’ answer values Martha, but puts things in perspective. She’s worried about a lot of things. That’s not bad. Ordinary things in ordinary time have to get done. Prayer is more elevated than eating but, absent a divine miracle, do too much of the former and too little of the latter eventually will lead to you doing neither. 

Martha’s concerns are not bad. But they also have to be put in perspective. Ultimately, there is nothing more important than salvation. Since salvation isn’t something but Someone — the encounter with Jesus — well, Mary’s already done that “and it will not be taken from her.”

At some point, Mary will also have to peel onions. And at some point, Martha will sit and listen to Jesus. “For everything there is a season …”

But let’s not lose priorities, either. Life will go on if Shimon yells through the door, “the door is locked and me and my children are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything.” Knowing Martha and her banging on the door, maybe he will. Or maybe won’t and they’ll just have to eat fish without bread. Life will go on.

But without Christ, life won’t go on.

Traditionally, Martha and Mary are also taken as archetypes of the active and contemplative lives, respectively. There’s some truth to that, even though neither “type” is encountered in absolute purity: active religious need to pray and contemplate, lest their activism degenerate into spinning wheels, and contemplatives need to have a feast if Easter is not to be Lent. That’s why prudence is a cardinal virtue: there are many ways to do the good, but which is the best here and now for me?

Today’s Gospel is depicted by the 17th-century Spanish master, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). “Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary” is in London’s National Gallery and dates from about 1618.

Velázquez is part of the Spanish “Golden Age,” a period when Spain was among the superpowers of the day and its domestic arts and literature scene was flourishing. When Velázquez painted “Jesus at the Home,” Jamestown was 11 years old while the Pilgrims still hadn’t bought passage on a boat called the Mayflower. 

At the height of his artistic powers, Velázquez would be a representative of the Spanish Baroque but, at this early stage in his career (he’s just finished his apprenticeship), he is a “tenebrist,” a painter that worked with light and especially shadows. 

This particular painting represents a genre experimented with at that time in Spain called bodegones (from “bodegon,” tavern). They were still lives — a common artistic form — but set in kitchens, taverns or other eateries. In Spain, they usually combined that kind of still life kitchen scene with the Bible. 

On the left, we have two women in a kitchen. The younger one is slaving away at cooking, and Martha doesn’t look too happy. On the table there are fish, eggs and garlic. She’s grinding up something with a pestle. As evidence of his artistic talent, look at the detail Velázquez puts into the four fish. 

The older woman (elders are supposed to be wiser) is saying something to the younger but, more importantly, she’s pointing. Mary’s finger leads us to the image in the upper right of Jesus with Martha and Mary.

I’d interpret the image as a painting. This sacred scene is captured and Spanish Mary might be suggesting to discontented Spanish Martha to consider the situation of Biblical Martha and Mary. That Spanish Martha might be thinking about how that story applies to her is suggested by the fact that she’s not looking at the image but at us, her eyes somewhat lost in thought.

Others, however, have suggested there is “ambiguity” in the painting. Is the image in the upper right hand corner a kind of insight into what’s going on in Spanish Martha’s head, not unlike the balloon in a cartoon expresses in writing what Charlie Brown wants to say?

Or is perhaps the whole painting set in Jesus’ day? Is Spanish Martha really Martha herself, clearly stewing over the lack of help with the fish stew? Maybe the older woman is just a neighbor who happened to be visiting when Jesus showed up? And maybe the image on the right is just two times represented in one painting: stewing Martha on the left, Martha complaining to Jesus on the right and Jesus answering her? Or is it just one time, and the image on the right a window from the kitchen into the main room? Is the other woman behind biblical Mary (who is enraptured in Jesus’ presence) another neighbor lady who’s also joining the conversation? She, like the woman in the kitchen, also has an extended hand and those two look to be siblings of an older generation.

One commentator observed that this ambivalence is part of the greatness of Velázquez: there are multiple layers of meaning in this single work. I chose this work both because it shows how sacred art can convey multiple meanings. If it’s all one time — Jesus’ time — it images the Gospel. If it’s first-century Israel and 17th-century Spain, then it reminds us to weave the lessons of the Gospels — what they teach us — into our lives today.

Even in the kitchen over fish, onions and eggs.