I love it when I read an overly-familiar Bible passage and something jumps out at me that never had before. It feels like that moment when you watch your favorite movie or read a favorite book and you discover something important that was hidden in plain sight. That happened recently as I was reading the familiar story of Jesus, Mary and Martha.
In Luke 10:38-42 we have this short vignette of Jesus and two sisters, Mary and Martha. As Jesus is invited to their home, Martha busies herself taking care of preparations for the day. Mary however sits and listens at Jesus’ feet. When Martha tells Jesus to tell Mary to help her, Jesus corrects her thinking to reveal that what Mary is doing is actually more important. That’s usually the point of the sermon: be a Mary, not a Martha.
As I was reading though I recognized something that was so obvious that I glossed over it so many times, and that was that Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening.
Most commentators would note that this itself would have been scandalous, for it was not believed to be proper for a rabbi to teach a woman or even associate with one in such a way. Some scholarship questions whether this lowering of the status of women was really in such effect at this time, noting that women had a significant role in the synagogues as well as the early church. However what I found interesting and important was that this exchange could have only happened if the space between Jesus and Mary was a safe space.
Jesus didn’t tell Mary to sit down and listen to him. Instead he created a space where dialogue and learning could happen. Mary felt welcome to sit in his presence and listen, talk, and be herself. I can imagine Mary not only listening to Jesus, but asking questions and engaging with him in a way that goes beyond the typical monologue of a teacher lecturing or pastor sermonizing. This can only really happen when we feel that we will not be judged, critiqued, or mocked for our questions. Jesus’ correction of Martha can perhaps be seen as a recognition that, for some reason, she does not feel as safe there as Mary. Martha puts on the face that she feels she needs to put on for Jesus, that of a busy, dutiful, responsible – in other words “good” – woman. But this is her false self. Mary, on the other hand, presents her true self to Jesus, because she sees that Jesus is someone she can be true to without fear.
For chaplains, this is the most important part of our job, for everything else we do requires that those we come in contact with know that we are not there to judge them or point out their flaws. I’ve had many visits where patients were reluctant to join in conversation with me because they didn’t know if I was safe or not. This is because for one reason or another they did not feel that clergy were safe to talk to. In one case the mother had been shunned from the church for divorcing her husband. In another, a man recalled how the pastor ignored them when they asked for help.
My CPE supervisor was a Lutheran minister who wore a black clerical shirt and white collar as his uniform every day. When he entered a room though, the collar came off. It was a visible sign to those in the room that this was who they were, but it was being laid aside for a time. It was a simple way to say “I’m not here to judge you. It’s OK to be yourself too.”
Chaplains often encounter folks with religious baggage, and a common question for new chaplains and other ministers is how to work around that baggage. I’ve found that regardless of how you do it, we must make the person feel that we are safe to talk to. Not just nice, but safe. Without that safety, we won’t be able to fully speak to or hear from the person in front of us.