Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Friday, July 16, 2004

Augustine the Lector, Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 

This Sunday's 's readings from the lectionary include this Gospel passage:
"Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.  She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.' The Lord said to her in reply, 'Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better partand it will not be taken from her'" (Luke 10:38-42)
This passage offends our sensibilities, in a way, because we are more sensitive to the practical needs which the situation demands, the necessary duties of hospitality.  Our response is to praise Mary's piety, because, well, Our Lord does, but to secretly wonder if she isn't being a bit impractical. 
St. Augustine sees the obvious: Martha is a symbol (or rather, a 'type') of the day-to-day duties which this life requires.  Mary, on the other hand, is a 'type' of the duties, or rather the concerns, of the next life.  In his fifty-third homily on the Gospels, he fits the entire scenario into an eschatological setting:
"The words of our Lord Jesus Christ which have just been read out of the Gospel, give us to understand, that there is some one thing for which we must be making, when we toil amid the manifold engagements of this life. Now we make for this as being yet in pilgrimage, and not in our abiding place; as yet in the way, not yet in our country; as yet in longing, not yet in enjoyment. Yet let us make for it, and that without sloth and without intermission, that we may some time be able to reach it."
Recall that for St. Augustine, the bodily needs of this life arise only because of our fallen condition.  They are never evil -- they are divinely ordained to constrain our sinful impulses in our fallen state, signified by the 'fleshly coverings' given to Adam and Eve in their expulsion from the Garden -- yet they are temporal, transitory, ephemeral, and their value can only be relative to man's vocation to eternal blessedness.  Even those tasks which we would refer to as the 'works of charity' -- clothing the naked, feeding the poor, etc. -- which serve as concrete means of loving God and neighbor, even these have only relative value, compared to that 'one thing' which is truly necessary:
"These things are good; yet better is that thing which Mary hath chosen. For the one thing hath manifold trouble from necessity; the other hath sweetness from charity. A man wishes when he is serving, to meet with something; and sometimes he is not able: that which is lacking is sought for, that which is at hand is got ready; and the mind is distracted. . . These things are manifold, are diverse, because they are carnal, because they are temporal; good though they be, they are transitory. But what said theLord to Martha? 'Mary hath chosen that better part." Not thou a bad, but she a better. Hear, how better; "which shall not be taken away from her.'  Some time or other, the burden of these necessary duties shall be taken from thee: the sweetness of truth is everlasting. 'That which she hath chosen shall not be taken away from her.' It is not taken away, but yet it is increased. In this life, that is, is it increased, in the other life it will be perfected, never shall it be taken away"
For all these temporal tasks and duties, we are reminded, will pass away.  They will not characterize the state of blessedness (though they must now serve as a means of attaining this state):
"Yea, Martha . . . When thou shalt have got to that country, . . . wilt thou find the hungry, to whom thou mayest break thy bread? or the thirsty, to whom thou mayest hold out thy cup? . . . None of all these will be there, but what will be there?  What Mary has chosen; there shall we be fed, and shall not feed others."
The only activity of the blessed in the caelestial city, of which we are capable of performing here on earth, is that of the contemplation of God, listening to His Word, dwelling upon His command.  This does not rule out bodily activity, on the other hand it requires it, but neither must it be obscured and overrun by such activities.   This, the 'one thing necessary,' is the part chosen by Mary: "Mary her sister chose rather to be fed by the Lord . . . Martha was troubled, Mary was feating; the one was arranging many things, the other had her eyes upon the One.  Both occupations were good; but yet as to which was the better . . . the Lord gives judgment." 
This theme would be picked up by many of the Medievals as a basis for the distinction between the 'active' and the 'contemplative' life.  It is not yet that, for St. Augustine, although he is aware of the distinction (in his City of God he goes to great pains to emphasize that the good life consists of both an active and a contemplative dimension), much less is it a simple distinction between the monastic and the secular life.  It is, however, a means of offering a supernatural perspective through which to judge and assess human action, from the point of view of the ultimate 'end.'
(See also St. Augustine's similar reading of Jacob's two wives, Rachel and Leah, in Contra Faustus 22.52.)
(Check previous installments in this series here and here.)

# posted by Jamie : 3:02 PM


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