Monday, November 14, 2005


Sarah and Martha

A few years ago I was attending mass with a very dear Catholic friend of mine (we have known each other since kindergarden!) and the readings for the day were the story in which Sarah receives news that she will have a child and the story of Mary and Martha.

I thought this was a perfect, though perhaps not entirely intended, compare and contrast between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.

First let me say the story of Mary and Martha has always puzzled me: why would a supposedly perfect man like Jesus show such a lack of tact. I can understand being more appreciative of Mary's company than Martha's good food. But why not just send Mary to the kitchen to take over for Martha and speak to Martha privately, saying

You know Martha, while I absolutely love your cooking, what I really miss when I am on the road is good company from my friends ... if you don't mind, would you just let me talk to Mary ... if you feel overwhelmed -- why not try to get the food to a stopping point and we can eat later? I would also like to talk to you as well as Mary.

Perhaps this would have been what Jesus said -- but the NT sources decided to shorten the words the, I hope this is not too offensive to my Christian friends, rather tactless reply of Jesus saying Mary is more blessed than Martha. Perhaps this, along with the story of the fig tree not bearing fruit, is an illustration that Jesus, like the Jewish Founders, was not perfect but flawed? Perhaps the point of these stories is in fact to show that Jesus lacked what we would call the "human touch" -- the Christian view, after all, is that Jesus is not merely human but divine, so these stories are in the NT to show that Jesus is not merely human.

But what I, as a Jew, found most interesting is that while Jesus says Martha is blessed, in the Hebrew Bible, the angel's good news, a child, is not something to benefit Abraham, who already had his heir in Ishmael, but Sarah. In the Christian NT, Jesus prefers Mary, the host, to Martha the cook. In the Hebrew Bible, Sarah the cook is preferred to Abraham the host, who presumably wanted other things besides another son he would be all too eager to sacrifice later anyway.

What does this say about the distinction between the Jewish and Christian views of holy works? I do not know -- but I bet it says something interesting.

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