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Catfights of biblical proportions: sibling rivalry may make good reality TV, but pitting Martha against Mary doesn't do either of them justice.

EVERY THIRD YEAR IN JULY I'M TEMPTED TO SCHEDULE a dental appointment for Sunday morning. That's because I'd rather go to the dentist than listen to another homily about Martha and Mary. The temptation to present these two sisters as adversaries seems irresistible. We're invited to a catfight in Bethany between Martha, queen of the kitchen, and Mary, high priestess of the interior life. It's like setting Martha Stewart against Oprah Winfrey, with Martha always wrong and Oprah always right. But I'm just not buying it. Setting these two amazing sisters at each other's throats is just too simplistic.

Hair-pulling between sisters always sounds more like Hollywood than real life anyway. Love is the bottom line in most families. Filial loyalty starts at the bassinet and continues in the schoolyard, during the dating game, and on through weddings, births, and funerals. Most of us will share tears of joy with our siblings and clasp hands wordlessly over sorrows. There are seasons, too, when we disagree and relations cool until our love catches up to our bullheadedness. But that business about blood being thicker than water holds a lot of truth. We are as close as muscle to bone.

So why does the stereotype of feuding siblings persist? Maybe because it makes for a better story. In school we were taught that literature contains only a few great themes: man against God, man against the elements, man against man, man against himself. If you were going to write a great book, then your hero (woman or man) had to be opposed to some fierce and contrary force. "Happily ever after" might make a good ending for a book, but it's a rotten way to begin one.

THAT'S WHY GENESIS HARMONIC BEGINNING QUICKLY unravels into chaos. Pretty soon you have Cain swinging at Abel, Esau gunning for Jacob, Jacob's sons selling their brother Joseph into slavery. In the same way, nobody cares about the sisters Leah and Rachel when they tend the hearth fires of their father. It's not until they are rivals for their husband's bed that we're invested in their story.

The Bible is clearly more interested in conflict than in tranquility. When the land is at peace, those years are dismissed in a sentence: "And the land was at peace." The story immediately resumes when an old enemy returns, or new evil lurks, or famine descends, or the people turn to dark desires.

So when David befriends Jonathan, son of King Saul, their closeness is noted but never really explored. Far more compelling is the madness of Saul aroused at the sight of David. Many of us can hardly remember sympathetic bonds in the Bible--the great antipathies are so dazzling. Ruth loved her mother-in-law, Naomi. Moses got along well with his father-in-law, Jethro. But we are much more likely to remember Moses' contentious hour with his brother Aaron over the golden calf incident than how his sister Miriam lovingly watched over her brother's basket in the reeds.

Even in the New Testament, good times are passed over and tension gets the lion's share of attention. Mary of Nazareth runs to her kinswoman Elizabeth, and they share an embrace and a song. It's a nice photo-op; now back to the real story, where the birth of these babies leads to mayhem. How little we're told about Joseph and Mary, the peaceable couple. Joseph takes Mary into his home. Even the Holy Family isn't considered a good read because, let's face it, they get along.

And here's the thing about conflict: As much as none of us enjoys it, it's necessary for growth. We learn things through adversity that we don't learn when things are just dandy. A seminary rector once told me about a handsome young man who presented himself as a candidate for priesthood. He drove up in a slick convertible, admitted to being wealthy and successful, and said he wanted to be a priest because he had never been in want for five minutes of his life and felt the need to "give something back." The rector told the young man frankly, "Come back after you've suffered." Pain, obstacles, and limitations teach us things about our humanity that we may fail to appreciate when the good times are rolling.

SO LET'S GET BACK TO MARTHA AND MARY, WHO HAVE BEEN theologically divided for centuries, perhaps for no good reason. Something peculiar lurks behind their story. First of all, they are not living with their parents, and they are apparently not married. Two women living alone in the Near East in the first century would be rare--but we forget Lazarus, of course. Their brother lives with them. The presence of the male regularizes their situation. Almost. Suppose their parents were killed off by illness or accident. The fact that these three are still together in adulthood and obviously not desperate to get off into their own marital households suggests--can we consider this?--they get along.

The next strange thing we notice is that it is Martha who welcomed Jesus. If anyone should have done the welcoming, it should have been the man of the house--and that would be Lazarus, even if he were younger than his sisters and only a teenager at the time. Martha had no right to approach Jesus, no right to act as if the home he was being invited into was hers. Lazarus, meanwhile, isn't even present when Jesus comes to dinner. Martha and Mary are unchaperoned when Jesus comes under their roof. These women are flouting the rules and, moreover, are spectacularly unconcerned about it.

We don't know if Martha cooks this meal alone, with Mary, or at all. What we are told is that she serves it. Since men and women ate separately, a woman would not presume to serve a man. She would leave the food and exit. The word used for service here is diakonia--a special word Luke uses elsewhere to denote the work of deacons, apostles, and heads of house churches in the Acts of the Apostles.

Martha behaves like the head of a household while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus in the typical posture of a disciple. Both women act in a liberated way that only men in this culture would. What unites these sisters is quite exciting, although it is rarely mentioned.

What's most exciting is that Jesus never tells Martha that she can't serve, and he doesn't rebuke Mary for wanting to be taught. By his silence he accepts both of these roles as suitable for these women. But he does prioritize them, which we can imagine was an instruction the early church took to heart. When choosing between table service and teaching, instruction took priority.

WE ARE SO USED TO HEARING THIS STORY IN TERMS OF conflict between action and contemplation, the pious sister versus the practical one. If we tell it as the story of two outlaw sisters who learn together how to be church more perfectly, it may take all the fight--and all the fun--out of it. Martha and Mary are more alike in their radical response to Jesus than anything that may divide them. If anyone is in conflict with this story, it might be us.

By ALICE CAMILLE, writer of the series "Exploring the Sunday Readings" (Twenty-Third Publications) and co-writer of the homily service "Prepare the Word" (TrueQuest Communications).
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jul 1, 2007
Words:1229
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