July 29, the Feast of St. Martha, gives us a day to reflect upon Luke’s familiar story of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha. Whenever this reading comes around, I fear the resulting homily. Another chance to feel the shame of being all-consumed by my anxieties and constant activity rather than spending enough time in contemplation.Last year, however, I was pleasantly surprised during the homily. The priest at my parents’ parish emphasized the connection of the Mary and Martha story to both the Good Samaritan that comes directly before, as well as the first reading, the story of Abraham and the three visitors. The story, the priest suggested, invites us to think about how we understand hospitality and practices of hospitality. Hospitality need not only be expressed in providing elaborate meals and shelter, but must also be expressed in the way we listen and be present to others.
Now, I know it may seem that given my line of work, I should have come to see this on my own. But truth be told, my interpretation of the Mary and Martha story has been so stuck on the narrative of action vs. contemplation, I have not been able to see it in a different way. This unexpected homily on hospitality got me thinking about the way familiar stories need to be constantly revisited and reimagined if they are to remain transformative.
Human beings are storytellers. We use stories to make sense of our lives and to understand who we are. And Luke is a magnificent story teller. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ parables and actions challenge the cultural narratives that have dominated the collective imagination of his first listeners. We see this most clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). Not only does Jesus portray a despised Samaritan as the hero of the story, he also challenges the purity laws the priests and Levites were supposed to uphold. The story of Mary and Martha challenges the assumption that hospitality is only expressed through the preparation and serving food and drink.
These stories from Luke’s Gospel are comfortingly familiar for many of us who have heard these stories from Luke time and time again. Familiar stories and familiar interpretations can become too comfortable and stagnate if we do not continue to reflect and challenge our own assumptions of what they mean. We must, as Kate Mahon points out, “expect the unexpected” when we encounter these familiar stories and open ourselves to the living power of the Word and the meaning that springs forth in the here and now.
It is not only the way we interpret Gospel stories that needs to be checked. We must also do this with the ways we tell stories about our lives. Recall a life-changing moment you have experienced: leaving home to go to college; your first experience of love and heartbreak; the death of a significant person in your life; even a funny family story about your grandfather or great-aunt. Reflect on the way you tell the story—either to yourself or to others. What is your interpretation of the events? What assumptions do you make in order to fill in inevitable gaps? Who does the story center on? And, most important, what conclusions about yourself and others do you draw from this story?
If you are anything like me, you find yourself telling these significant stories over and over–whether to others or in your own head. And the way we tell these stories shapes how the event impacts our life in the present. This is one of the great gifts of human consciousness. This story-telling capacity helps us keep memories, to learn from our personal and collective pasts, and to make meaning in and of our lives.
But as with any great gift, there are dangers that come from the way we tell our own narratives. Just as we can become stuck in the way we hear and interpret the familiar Gospel stories, our self-narratives can hinder our growth—especially when we do not reflect on others’ perspectives and interpretations, or if we remain ignorant of significant aspects of the events. The way we perceive and tell own personal stories have the potential to shadow our perception of reality as much as illuminate it. We have to be vigilant about the ways we understand and tell our own stories and be brave enough to change them when new truth comes to light.
This call to be vigilant and courageous becomes even more important when we consider our collective narratives. I have been thinking about this a lot in the midst of all the violent tumult in our nation and in our world. How we see and interpret the world is based largely on the stories we just assume to be true. And sometimes our perception of these stories hinders our ability to understand reality.
A relevant if rather simple example is the narrative of the Civil Rights movement. So many of us are learn this story at a young age in our social studies and history courses. But the narrative many of us are told and believe hook, line, and sinker—particularly white Americans—is that the Civil Rights movement is something of the past and when it ended, so too did racism. This neat and tidy narrative suggests that there once was a problem (and, of course, it was limited to the South!), but thanks to a few significant leaders, a solution was found and implemented. And so there is no longer a problem. This seemingly innocent narrative is anything but innocent. It dangerously dismisses our nation’s continuing struggle with racism and the struggles of African-Americans and other racially marginalized groups in our society. And even when we know it to be untrue, we have a hard time altering the power of that ingrained narrative we learned as small children.
In an episode of the podcast OnBeing a few years ago, Krista Tippett interviewed the writer and commentator Rebecca Solnit. She has written extensively on unpredictability, human agency, and the need for hope particularly in the midst of disaster and trauma. She has been especially interested in the ongoing story of Hurricane Katrina and the rebuilding of New Orleans. At one point during the interview she stated:
“I feel so much of what we’re burdened by is bad stories… people who have amnesia who don’t remember that the present was constructed by certain forces to serve certain elements…”
One “bad story,” she continued, is the way the media reported the supposed outbreak of violence in the aftermath of the hurricane. This exaggerated and fear-laden narrative, heavily influenced by other narratives steeped in racism and fear, led to those in power taking a violent stand against the citizens of New Orleans rather than providing humanitarian care. This directly contributed to the deaths of many innocent people. These deaths, Solnit laments, were a direct result of the power of misleading stories.
And so that’s political failure. But behind those political failures are stories. And what’s interesting is that a lot of people believe those stories. And we often treat stories like they’re very trivial, they’re story hour for kids…but people live and die by stories. And people died of vicious stories in New Orleans.
But Solnit still holds out hope in the power of human narratives. Towards the end of the interview she stated,
“I want better metaphors. I want better stories. I want more openness. I want better questions….And that starts with rejecting the narratives we’re told, and telling our own stories, becoming the storyteller rather than the person who’s told what to do.”
The way we tell these collective stories shapes our perspectives of the present and shapes the decisions we make about the future. As Solnit stated, we have to be willing to critically and humbly reflect on our collective narratives, to challenge them, and to courageously change them.
As we continue to struggle with horrific violence and divisive and dangerous political jargon, we need to reflect on and re-imagine our collective stories. How do we tell our collective stories? How do our perceptions shape the way we as a society tell the stories of mass shootings? Police violence? Terrorism? Racism? Sexism? White privilege? Refugees? Immigration? Poverty? Crime? Justice? How do the stories we tell about people who are not like us prevent us from seeing with merciful and loving eyes?
How do we critically reflect on our narratives and how do we change them when they need to be changed?
Angelica Sotirious “Road to Emmaus”
Luke’s account of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35) offers another story that I believe can be instructive for those of us desiring to transform our personal and collective narratives. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus have just witnessed the horrific execution of their leader and friend. They are leaving Jerusalem. As far as they are concerned, the story is over and hope is lost.
But even in the midst of their excruciating grief and pain and their justified fear, the disciples do not forget what Jesus taught them about discipleship. They welcome a stranger they meet on the road to journey with them. They share their story. And, most important, they listen to his. Then they invite him in to dine with them, to continue to the conversation over a meal. And in the breaking of the bread, they recognize that it is Jesus, alive and present with them! The story they thought to be finished is anything but. Like the simple bread and wine, their story is transformed and they are compelled to run back and tell this new life-changing story of encounter with the Risen Christ.
Luke offers us a praxis that can help us all become better disciples committed to telling and re-telling life-giving stories of hope and resurrection. Like the disciples on the road, our narratives can be transformed when we walk with and share our story with others, listen attentively to the others’ stories and perspectives, and open the doors of our hearts and minds to the possibility of being transformed by others.