“Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet only few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part: it is not to be taken from her.”
Last Sunday the Church presented us with the popular story of The Good Samaritan, where three persons: The Priest, The Levite and The Samaritan, came in contact with the same incident of a man who fell among the robbers but responded differently. On this Sunday, we have two sisters, Martha and Mary responding differently to the visit of our Lord. Humans beings are certainly unique. This reminds me of a story of two criminals jailed in a dark condemned cell for three years. One day, they were given ten minutes each to look out through a small window. At the end, each was asked to state what they saw. The one said he saw very muddy ground with dirty stagnant water and refuse-congested gutters. The other said he saw beautiful blue sky and a very bright sun at its zenith. It is intriguing how uniquely we see things and how differently we respond to them. I wonder how differently we would all respond to a visit of Jesus to our homes today. What would you do? What would you like Him to say to you? And what would you say to Him? Would you prefer to just sit and listen, like Mary in our story today? Or, would you, like Martha, be happier to find something for Him to eat and drink?
In our story, Jesus went into a village. Luke does not name the village, but we learn from the Gospel of John that Martha lived in Bethany with Mary, her sister and Lazarus, her brother (John 11:1). Now Bethany was a suburb of Jerusalem, only about two miles away. Jesus was going down to Jerusalem, the city where he knew He was going to be betrayed, condemned, scorched, crucified and killed. Every trip to Jerusalem was loaded with emotions, fear and agony. Perhaps it was this kind of feeling that made Him to stop by a friendly home to relax with them and loosen some tensions. Did He really want to be served? Was He really interested in much food and services? I like the English culture, where a guest is always asked: “Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?” Or simply, “Tea or coffee, please?” or, even much simpler, “What would you like?” Whether it is mere formality or out of a sincere desire to be hospitable, it offers the guest the opportunity to choose the kind of service he/she would prefer at the particular time. For often we tend to be kind towards others in our own way – the way that pleases us, not considering the preference of the person we are serving. Martha made this mistake. Perhaps, if she had asked Jesus what He would prefer, she would have responded better. The next time we have to serve anyone, let us consider the needs of the person.
“Martha, Martha”: The visit of Jesus was both an honour and a privilege so there was nothing wrong in seeking to entertain Him with some kind of hospitality. Martha took that upon herself because, as Luke tells us she “welcomed Him into her house.” So the house to which Jesus went was the house of Martha. Being her house, it was directly her responsibility to serve the guest, who was Jesus. Here Martha represents hospitality and service, or as some prefer it, work and activity. Hospitality, service, work and activity are all good in and by themselves; but when taken beyond necessity any of them could become a problem. In this case, Martha placed her focus on service and hospitality beyond the Person of Jesus. She simply misplaced her priorities. She concerned herself with serving Jesus to the point that she became a distracted and anxious. Martha is a classic case of the “third soil” in the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8: 7, 14) where the seeds (word) fell on thorns and as soon as they begin to grow are choked by the cares, worries and anxieties of this world. She was choked and misled by her passion for service. In other words, the work she was doing was pulling her away from the presence of Lord, and not only that, she initiated the idea of taking someone else away: “Lord do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please, tell her to help me.” To this, Jesus answered: “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet only few are needed, indeed only one ...” By this Jesus was correcting Martha that she had allowed herself to be distracted and anxious by her service. The response of Jesus echoes His teaching in Luke 12: 22 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body …” Like Martha, sometimes, we allow legitimate concerns about the things of this world to take our focus away from Jesus. We often hear Christians say: “I am too busy to go to Church”; “I work all week; the only day I have for myself is Sunday.” But I urge us, let nothing take the place of Christ in our life.
“Mary has chosen the better part”: Mary, on the other hand, “sat down at the Lord’s feet, listened to Him speaking.” This position describes the position or posture of a disciple with the master. It describes one who is learning from the master. In Acts of the Apostles (22: 3), Paul describes his tutelage under Gamaliel, the great Rabbi of the time, in these words: “I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of our fathers …” Mary represents for us the act of discipleship and listening or contemplation. Considering that Jesus was going to Jerusalem, the city of His death, as noted earlier, perhaps what He needed most was someone to talk to, someone to listen while He shed off His gloom. Be that as it may, the action of Mary must have appeared to be that of an idle and lazy sister, who preferred to just sit while Martha ran around for what to serve their august guest. Therefore, she requested from the Lord: “… Please tell her to help me.” The Lord would not have Mary leave Him because whereas service is good, listening to what the Lord had to say was far more important. This indeed is “the best part” because it can never be taken away from her; it is what endures. The Word of God, when it finds a home in our hearts (Ephesians 3: 17; Colossians 3: 16), can never be taken away from us. It endures forever and leads on to eternal life. Mary symbolises listening, prayer, contemplation and desire for the Lord. Her action challenges us to seek the Lord’s company by reading His Word in the Bible and listening to what he has to say to us; communicating with Him in prayer; and learning from Him so that we can be His disciples to our world.
It is important to note that the two sisters were faithful to the Lord in their own ways: one was engaged in serving the Lord, as Abraham served the three angels in the First Reading of today (Genesis 18: 1-10), and the other was listening and learning the hidden mysteries of the God, like St. Paul in the Second Reading (Colossians 1: 24-28). There is an intrinsic connection between work and prayer: prayers guide us to do our work well; and our work directs the intentions of our prayers. Each of us is called to be a perfect blend of Martha and Mary, of hospitality and discipleship; of service and listening, of prayer and action. May the Lord’s Wisdom guide us to always have the balance.