Hannah Coley is a Jesuit Volunteer in Belize, for the next few months check out #JVStories as she examines the way women in Scripture have given her clarity and resolve as a women in the Catholic Church. This month we will explore femininity, spirituality and social justice through the experiences of the Widow, Martha and the Infirm Woman.
On their journey, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him to her home. She had a sister named Mary, who seated herself at the Lord’s feet and listened to his words. Martha, who was busy with all the details of hospitality, came to him and said, “Lord, are you not concerned that my sister has left me to do the household tasks alone? Tell her to help me.” The Lord in reply said to her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about many things; one thing only is required Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it.I am inspired by Martha and her sense of identity and call. Martha understands the needs of her community, needs that go beyond perhaps her own desires to join Mary in conversation with Jesus, beyond her own tiredness in tirelessly caring and nourishing others. Martha, as a caretaker and nurturer, knows that her work requires ceaseless unconditional love.
Although Jesus is an incredible teacher of radicalism and loving discipleship for me, I find inspiration in and a deep spiritual connection with the women present in Jesus’ life. In this time of movement and necessary progression in social justice, specifically female justice, I have been studying and reflecting upon the characteristics, experiences and actions of the women present in Scripture in relation to my own. They remind me that my own struggles, desires and work are not my own. They are part of a much larger story. A picture layered with history, experience, progression and work to still to do.
In looking at Jesus and his own personal spirituality, I believe that the women in his life shaped his understanding of the radical love he preached about. For him, they were manifestations of God’s love and word. Martha painted a picture for Jesus of unconditional love, showing him its manifestation in real life ordinary ways. This is what is so extraordinary about Martha.
She manifested for Jesus, the kind of tireless love he only heard about from God’s word, or the experiences of great prophets written in the Torah. Similarly, we find meaning in the Gospel through its manifestations in our relationships and encounters with others. Jesus depended upon the illustrations of others of God’s love for inspiration and example.
But how was Jesus to know what was best for Martha and her community? Jesus, you do not know the anxieties that plague working women all around the world. Martha, how easily he dismissed the importance of your work and the validity of your worries. To be hospitable while also carrying out your work. We are called to find God’s love in the ordinary.
I certainly find God’s love in the process of creating meals for my community mates. In eating supper they create with their hands. Despite their own worries and anxieties, joys and fears, at the end of a long day’s work. Martha felt called to go about the ordinariness of her life even in the presence of Jesus.
Her work as a caretaker does not end. Her cooking, feeding, caring, and Jesus’ work of preaching compassion are responses to the needs of those around them. Martha, your cares and responsibilities extended beyond sitting and listening to a man preach. You felt responsible for others in your community whom Jesus said to love most. Those without loved ones, shelter, nourishment of body and soul. Your continuation to cook and nourish others was your protest.
On one hand, Jesus’ praise of Mary unmistakably empowers women, for here, his disciple was a woman. Jesus welcomed women into his community of conversation and preaching. However, Jesus praises Mary by explicitly rebuking Martha’s work. To me, Jesus’ comparison of female role seems contradictory to his preached message of equality. In this way, how can the role of teacher or student be superior to the role of cook or caregiver? Jesus said:
“The greatest among you should become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. Who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? Isn’t it the one who sits at the table? But I’m among you as one who serves (Luke 22:26,27).”
Jesus asks us to respond to his invitation of love and relationship by authentically loving our neighbor. Does Martha not respond to this invitation by cooking, cleaning and caring for her neighbor and for Jesus? Female discipleship is often overlooked when talking about the mission and lives of Christ’s first disciples and apostles.
Perhaps this is because the discipleship women such as Mary, Elizabeth and Martha lived out was “ordinary.” There was an expectation of women to be mothers, wives, cooks, caregivers, etc., and there still are similar expectations.
As a female volunteer here in Belize, I feel the weight of this navigation, specifically in the temporariness of my time here. I find discipleship with Jesus through the love and inspiration I receive from the various women in my community. I have witnessed them to be women who authentically live out and have found their own calls to leadership and discipleship. Roles as mothers, nurses, educators, religious sisters, artists, cooks.
There is an extra-ordinariness of the women in my community and in Scripture. It is seen in heir discipleship. In their ability to carry out these roles with the unconditional love and trust that Jesus invites them to take part in. As women, we share a common experience of navigating this role of discipleship.
Hannah Coley graduated from Loyola University Chicago in 2016, prior to signing the covenant as a Jesuit Volunteer in Belize for the 2016-2018 program year! She serves as a Youth/Liturgical Coordinator at St. Peter Claver Parish.