Luke 10.38-42: Martha and Mary
What is a non-place? It’s a curious word isn’t it. It was invented by the French anthropologist Marc Augé. He uses it to describe a specific sort of location that has come to exist in our post-modern world.
A non-place is a spot where human beings come and go. But we do it so transiently that we remain completely anonymous – as if no one notices us. A non-place is a location where humans collide with each other in huge numbers, yet where no true connections, no lasting relationships are made. A non-place is a crossroads where all we physically need in terms of food, drink, shelter is all there, yet what we really need as humans – friendship, love, respect, identity, culture – is all wiped out.
The classic non-places Augé points to are airports, railways stations, shopping malls, hotel rooms, motorway service stations, supermarkets. They give us the physical things we need in life, but too much time spent in those places can leave you bewildered, alienated, lonely, and feeling uprooted.
I wonder whether some of those ideas that Augé has come up with might be a useful lens through which to look at our gospel reading this morning.
The story we’ve just heard seems very simple on the surface. Martha is the busy fuss-pot who allows the nuts and bolts of life’s practicalities to take over and prevent her from listening to Jesus. Mary, by contrast recognises that listening to her guest is more important. Jesus teaches us that it is Mary who choses the better way.
I was thinking to myself the other day. What if this story is less about how we should act as individuals, and more about the sorts of community we build? What if Martha and Mary represent two sorts of community? What if this story tells us more about what sort of parish community we should aim to be?
What I mean is this. What if Martha represents the sort of thing that Marc Augé was going on about when he talks of non-places?
Martha is rightly concerned with making sure the externals of everything that Jesus needs are catered for. Food drink, accommodation, yet she seems to over look the fact that something more is needed for true human flourishing. She’s like the motorway service station or the airport that gives you a square meal, but which leaves you feeling pretty bewildered and lost and exhausted. She’s like the hotel or the B&B that gives you a comfy bed, but which can never be a home or a place where you put down roots.
But what is the opposite of what Martha represents? Humans need places where they can grow in their true identity, where real encounter and community can grow. I think that might be more what Mary represents, because she quite simply wants to remain close to Christ.
For our parish to be a place of true community, it needs to be a place that stays close to Christ. For it is in him that our identity is to be found. By rooting ourselves in his love, we will find the energy and the inspiration to help make true human flourishing in our world possible.
For it is the Gospel that teaches us that all humans are of infinite worth; that there is more to human existence than a mortgage and a large car; that in the life of Jesus Christ, God shows us we are loved beyond our wildest dreams. And it’s through being close to Christ that we are then prompted to do the kinds of things that show God’s love in the world. Think about our parish winter night shelter, or our food bank, or the work we do at Ash Court care home, or with our children in Messy Church. We don’t do them for their own sake, but because they help build up the kingdom and show God’s love in the world – they help build true human community.
So let’s try to follow the example of Mary in remaining close to Jesus. For in doing that, it is the gospel that will help us build the sort of parish community where genuine human flourishing is possible – a community where all are valued, and cherished, where deep, loving relationships are nourished, and where the hope of glory and eternal life with God are lived out as a daily reality for Jesus’ sake.