by Fr. Mike Stubbs
The Bible abounds in accounts of sibling rivalry. It begins with Cain and Abel (Gn 4), continues on with Jacob and Esau (Gn 25:19-34; 27:1-45), and goes on with Joseph and his brothers (Gn 37-45).
Sibling rivalry reappears in the New Testament with the parable of the prodigal son and his older brother (Lk 15:11-32) and a dispute over inheritance between brothers (Lk 12:13-21).
All these accounts of sibling rivalry involve males. Are they more prone to fighting? Where are the women?
Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 10:38-42, provides us with the answer. We hear the story of two sisters, Martha and Mary, who have welcomed Jesus into their home. Martha is busy offering Jesus the lavish hospitality traditional in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Mary is satisfied with only listening to Jesus as his devoted disciple. Consequently, Martha criticizes her sister Mary and turns to Jesus for support.
But Jesus sides with Mary. What does this stance mean?
Compare Martha to the older brother in the prodigal son parable. Her sense of responsibility interferes with her seeing the wonderful gift that Jesus is bestowing upon her sister. Similarly, the older son’s sense of duty prevents him from recognizing the mercy that his father has shown his younger brother.
In both cases, Martha and the older brother are preoccupied with themselves. Their focus on self makes them unable to see how God is at work in others around them, bringing them mercy and grace. They are so caught up in their own work, they are blind to God’s work.
Now, this is not the only lesson that we can draw from the story about Martha and Mary. The story also underlines the importance of listening to God’s word, compared to engaging in activities to please God.
During the Middle Ages, some interpreted the story as illustrating the greater value of the contemplative religious life, as opposed to a more active religious life (not cloistered, but deeply involved in living out the Gospel in the midst of the world). But in our own time, few would favor that interpretation.
In any case, the story encourages us to reflect on how we are responding to our call to discipleship. In comparing ourselves to others around us and seeing how they are responding to that call, perhaps we also can learn from them, just as Martha could learn from her sister Mary.
After all, she had chosen the better part.