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Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

What is the relationship between matter and spirit? What is the relation between the will to self-preservation and the will toward sacred atonement? Here’s an answer, where you may or may not expect it.

Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Here we have one of the best known and most frequently cited anecdotes from the New Testament. Typically, the story is read as a lesson in discernment, in distinguishing the righteous from the unrighteous, the holy from the impious. But the passage is not without controversy, and interpretations vary widely. For the line that separates the wicked from the virtuous is hardly as clear as the distinction between Martha and Mary. Indeed, the very subtlety of that distinction is the crux around which this fable revolves.

It should come as no surprise that Mary, who stoops down low, by Jesus’ feet, should be exalted higher and presented as the sister with greater virtue and sublimity. Variations on this theme recur throughout the Gospels, most notably in the parable of the Prodigal Son and the story of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume.

What fewer interpretations appreciate however, in their need to draw a strict line between right and wrong, between heaven and earth, is the importance of Martha and Mary being sisters and living together. Like the sets of brothers who star in so many ancient legends and myths, the housemates here do not represent separate and distinct characters, but the divergent aspects of a single individual.

Differentiating between good people and bad people is one thing, but the more important task is to recognize and acknowledge the sacred and the vulgar impulses within ourselves. Martha and Mary occupy the same house, just as their characteristics co-exist in a single personality. Maintaining a healthy household and a harmonious family, allegorically speaking, means tending a healthy psyche and balancing the circle of inner forces.

Martha tries to shame Mary for neglecting the cooking and cleaning, the daily duties of earthly living. Meanwhile, Jesus criticizes Martha for failing to attend to the “one thing needed,” the eternal matters of singular importance. In fact, genuine health requires both; we must be mindful of our material needs, but we must also remember the questions of ultimate importance.

For Jesus, the paragon of holy perfection, it’s easy to look down on those who bother themselves with the mundane duties and household chores. But for the rest of us, we would wallow in filth and starve if we simply ignored the housework and shrugged off our basic material needs. All too often though, we end up getting lost in the daily routine, consumed by worldly matters. And once our earthly pursuits have crowded out and supplanted our spiritual endeavors, then we have gone astray. As it’s been said, we cannot serve two masters.

What then is the genuine master? What is that “one thing needed,” which Mary looks after and Martha neglects, the one thing which cannot be named? That of course is the great question, and it must remain forever the question, because every time we name it, we think we own it. But we we do not. And so it slips a bit further from our grasp.

For one, that article of singular importance may be wisdom, or love. For another it may be justice, or motherhood. For the Greeks, these ideals had titles, like Hera, Athena, Aphrodite. These were their gods, which is another way of saying that these were the things that gave meaning and depth to their otherwise ordinary lives. These ideals were portrayed as  living and dynamic, capricious and ephemeral. And I think the Greeks were on to something here.

But Jesus was emphatic on this point, that Mary had made the right choice by directing her attention to the holy and the eternal, as personified in this text by Jesus himself. By the same token, he insisted that Martha, distracted by so many menial things, was missing out on the one thing she could not lose. And in order to understand and identify that singular thing, we must look deeply within ourselves.

Unless we take time to nourish the soul, the daily duties become mere motions, sterile and meaningless. Still, if we try to dwell exclusively in the astral and the eternal, we cannot expect to thrive or even survive in this world of objects. We can model ourselves after the great sages, but ultimately we cannot live like Alyosha Karamazov, always on that higher plain but never without a clean shirt and a fresh bite to eat in his hand. Concerning ourselves exclusively with the otherworldly, we are more likely to suffer the tragic fate of Prince Myshkin, to borrow another page from Dostoyevsky.

It’s not that Martha is up to no good. She’s not dabbling in witchcraft, she’s not obsessing over monetary gain or collecting trophies, and she’s certainly not acting out of selfishness or malice. She’s simply seeing that the kitchen is in good order and that a good lunch is properly prepared. These are hardly the actions of an audacious sinner. But these material concerns are respectfully inferior to Mary’s interest in the kingdom of god, in entering that realm where all things are connected as one.

To lead a healthy life, Mary and Martha each have their roles to play. We should invoke the spirit of both sisters, so that the two aspects can function together. But in order to be effective, we must render unto Martha what is Martha’s and render unto Mary what is Mary’s. When we are working in practical areas, we need to focus on doing that work properly. And when we strive to reach a higher plane of spiritual connectivity, our attention must be concentrated like Mary’s, and our minds must be free from the clutter and those ongoing to-do lists, the many things diverting Martha’s attention.

The house of Martha and Mary serves as the model for right mindfulness, right action, and proper balance. It’s critical to remain mindful of Martha, to tend the hearth, take out the garbage, and file your taxes. Grand ideas give us meaning and purpose, but they rarely put food on the table or shoes on your feet. At the same time, we ought to remember Maslov’s pyramid of needs. Once the basics have been provided for, we can—and should—move onward and upward. To give our lives real meaning, we must embark on that spiritual journey, humble ourselves before the vast and mysterious, and devote our attention to the highest ideals, that which cannot be touched or taken away.

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Christmas Nativity

Children await it, grinches hate it, and retailers celebrate it; even as coffee mongers declare war on it. What better time than now to ponder the meaning of Christmas? Not the so-called Real Meaning of Christmas, mind you, for there are nearly as many meanings of Christmas as there are celebrants, but the meaning as any of us might glean after a lifetime of observing traditions and a moment of subtle reflection on the ambiguity of myth.

Consider some of the deeper, archetypal meanings of Christmas. We have, for starters, the differentiated ego-self emerging from the unified spirit, as expressed by the metaphor of God and the birth of His human son. We have the vengeful, disciplinarian God of the Old Testament entering the world as a man in order to understand the suffering inherent in the human condition and to experience genuine compassion for mankind.

From an even more primitive perspective, we can recall the dawn of winter, the Solstice, and the victory of light over darkness, as the days begin to lengthen once more. And still earlier, before our ancestors understood the changing of the seasons, they surely acknowledged the magic of childbirth, life’s truest miracle. Few narratives illustrate the notion of miracles and childbirth like the story of the virgin Mary and the baby Jesus in the faraway stable in Bethlehem.

Today we have elegant models and theories to explain the fertilization of the egg and the replication of genetic material, laws of probability to predict all the possible genotypical recombinations, and ample evidence to describe the resulting phenotypes. These scientific strides have empowered us with knowledge and emboldened us with certainty, but they have largely robbed us of that innocent sense wonder.

To our sophisticated eyes, what is left that we could possibly think of as miraculous? Only those things that cannot be measured by our deft instruments. The unshakable bond between a parent and a child, the perfect unspoken understanding between and mother and her newborn son, the look in a father’s eyes when he examines his newborn daughter’s fingers and toes for the first time. Not that these marvelous sensations must be attributed to some supernatural, higher order, but it would behoove us to bear in mind and cherish the irrational side of life that enriches that human experience but cannot be measured and quantified.

No matter how wise we may become with our laparoscopic surgeries and our personal genome maps, there will always be something magical about the maternal act giving of life, bringing a child into the world and watching it take its first breath, as a partnership of two suddenly erupts into a family of three and then four. It is essential that we remember this magical event, the event with which each of our own lives began. And therefore, we keep our holiday traditions and practice our Christmas rituals, whatever they may be.

This season, let’s spend time with our families, let’s honor our parents and elders, and let us never stop loving the children. As King Herod entreats the Wise Men in Matthew, chapter 2, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

 

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