Cecilia Olson, OSB | February 10, 2021
Two people immediately came to mind when I began to reflect on today’s gospel.
For those of us around before Vatican II, we no doubt remember the “no meat on Fridays” law. In the late 50’s, when my sister, Jean, was dating her future husband, she was invited to his parents’ home for dinner. They were not Catholic, it was a Friday and the main entrée was ham. Jean, who is the walking definition of kindness, couldn’t imagine breaking the Church law, so she passed up the ham hoping no one would notice. Naturally, everyone did notice and Larry’s mom felt terrible! Many times over the years someone would recall that evening and everyone would have a good chuckle, including Jean, who would shake her head and say: “How on earth could I have done that?”
A few years ago scripture scholar Fr. Eugene Hensell of St. Meinrad Archabbey, gave a homily on today’s gospel that has stayed with me as it presented an entirely new perspective on the story. Wanting to share some of his insights with you, I emailed him, asking if I could share some of what I remembered. He responded: “Yes, you certainly may. A good number of folks appreciate my take on the story. I do not do the traditional approach.”
Fr. Eugene first points out that the entire scene of the Martha/Mary story is out of the ordinary in terms of what was appropriate in Jewish custom. When Jesus arrived at the home of his friends, Lazarus is not there and the custom was that men did not enter a house where only women were present. Jesus doesn’t seem concerned about this. Before long he is in a conversation with Mary, who listening intently, is sitting as Jesus’ feet. This too is not the custom! Sitting at someone’s feet was the posture of a disciple – and everyone knew that disciples were men! Fr. Eugene perceives that Martha’s fretting is not due to needing help fixing the meal, but because she is very anxious that Jesus’ actions could prove embarrassing for him and them! What will the neighbors think? Doors and windows didn’t have screens or glass or curtains; anyone walking by could see inside. So, for the ever-cautious and letter of the law Martha, the solution is to ask Jesus to tell Mary to come and help her, hope that her sister will come into the kitchen and that Lazarus will soon be home. Fr. Eugene’s exegesis is definitely not the traditional approach!
Throughout the Gospels, there are countless times when Jesus did not hesitate to choose love over custom and legal laws and this story is no exception. He simply reminds Martha that she worries too much and that her sister has chosen the better part. I like to think that after hearing Jesus’ gentle correction, Martha put aside her worries and sat right down on the floor alongside her sister.
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Scholastica. We know well the story in the Dialogues that recounts the last visit between Benedict and his sister. Like Jean and Martha, Benedict comes across a tad rigid and somewhat of a stickler when it comes to keeping the rules. What would his brother monks think if he doesn’t get back before nightfall? This isn’t proper! This isn’t the way we do things! Meanwhile, Scholastica isn’t perturbed in the least. Perhaps she had a sense that this would be their last time together and she wasn’t about to let go of this golden opportunity. Like Jesus, Scholastica enters into the moment, choosing love over law. As the rain is pounding down on the roof, can’t you picture a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face as she looks at her brother and says: “Leave now if you can.”
I like to think that as Benedict walked back to his monastery the next morning, reflecting on his sister’s great love, he decided he needed to make some additions to his Rule. Maybe after getting back home, he went back to his chapter 3 on “Summoning the Brothers for Counsel” and added: “The brothers for their part are not to presume to defend their own views obstinately” (these words are not in the Rule of the Master) or in his unique chapter 72, maybe he added the words “ferventissimo amore”, fervent love. He had used those words in describing God’s love and Christ’s love, but in this chapter he calls the monks to be living examples to one another of good zeal, ferventissimo amore.
Perhaps each of us we can recall times when our anxiety about doing things the correct way or our fear of being misunderstood closed our heart to doing the good. Hopefully we came to admit our failure for it is in those humble moments of responding to God’s grace that our hearts of stone begin to become hearts of flesh.
When all is said and done, our journey here on earth is so brief. As a community of monastic women, may we witness to one another and to our world that because we prefer nothing to the love of Christ, the loving choice must take precedence.
Jesus – and Scholastica – remind us that love is strong as death and that choosing love over law is always the better part.