Often when hearing and then discussing today’s Gospel account from Luke, the question arises, “Are we more like Martha or Mary?” There is a long tradition within the Church regarding the interpretation of this account as dealing with the balance of the active and contemplative lives of the Church. The obvious question that causes much consternation though is, why is Martha doing all the work and everyone else, including Mary her sister sitting around Jesus?
The point that is missed in each of these perspectives is Jesus’ response: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things” (Lk 10:41). Jesus is addressing not so much the issue of Martha taking care of the meal preparations, but her anxiousness and worry about many things. I do not believe this is a paternalistic snipe at Martha, saying in effect, get back in the kitchen and complete your task. I believe Jesus is inviting Martha to follow the lead of her sister, Mary, and do the unthinkable, to sit at his feet.
The cultural practice of the time was that when people gathered for a meal in someone’s home, the women would cook and and stay in the kitchen, and serve the men while they ate and talked. Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus becomes even more profound when Jesus does not rebuke her for sitting with the men, but praises her, “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42). Jesus is saying to good effect, “Martha, lay your burdens, anxieties and worries down and I will give you rest” (cf Mt 11:28).
Martha is doing her duty and following common cultural practice. She is a good woman, a good person, a good hostess, but she is “worried and anxious about many things”. The issue for Martha is deeper than lack of help. There is a restlessness and hunger that is not being fulfilled that is causing her emotional unrest. Jesus is showing her that there is something more than being a good person, there is being one who lives a life in relationship with God. Jesus is speaking to us as well today. So many within and without of the Church are about being good and doing good work, but there is something missing.
If we do not begin our day with prayer, if Jesus is not the primary focus, if we do not bring him into every aspect of our life and live apart from him, we can and often will do good things, act in kind and caring ways, but there will be something missing, there will be a lack. We will also more easily be distracted and diverted from doing that which will truly fulfill our lives and this simple foundational pattern can have a tremendous impact on the fulfillment of our relationships, our careers, our vocational paths and how we encounter and interact with one another.
We look at ourselves, relationships, communities, country, and world, we experience and see anxiety, fear, violence, suffering and pain, and ask, “Where is God, why has he left us in this state?” If we are still enough to listen, we will hear Jesus share with us that, “God has not left you, you have left God. Why are you anxious and worried about so many things. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Hopefully, Martha tossed aside her apron that day and joined Mary at the feet of Jesus. I believe she did. May we do the same to reorient our life in collaboration with God, and find rest and renewal in him, to be contemplatives in action and begin to experience a life of fulfillment and joy.
Painting: Johannes Jan Vermeer – Christ in the House of Martha and Mary