The readings in this Sunday’s Lectionary speak to us of hospitality.
In the First Reading we hear recounted Abraham’s reception of the three strangers to whom he offers his choicest food. In the Gospel we hear another story about the hospitality offered to Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary, the two sisters whose brother, Lazarus, Jesus had raised from the dead (John 11):
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, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” – Luke 10:-28-42
I find it hard to hear or read this Gospel passage without thinking back to my early years in Cheltenham. I had recently graduated from university and moved to that town to begin a new job.
It was an exciting time in my life, graduating from being a full-time student to being a proper “grown-up”. A few months before moving there I had prayed a prayer that God would use my adult life for His glory. I was fired-up and passionate about serving the Lord.
This zeal drove me to join every ministry I came across – whenever there was a call for volunteers, you’d usually find me at the head of the line. There was barely a night of the week when I wasn’t taking in part in some group, leading some study or serving in some way. I think you can probably guess where this is heading…
After months and months of frenetic activity I was thoroughly worn-out, spiritually and emotionally drained from my demanding schedule. I started to complain that other people in the church weren’t pulling their weight and I became quite jaded. The various ministries with which I had been so committed started to weigh heavily on me, feeling more like a burden than the joyful privilege they had once been.
In my desire to serve God, I had somehow lost sight of Him.
A tale of two ladies: Action & Contemplation
It is very easy to read this Sunday’s Gospel and conclude that what Mary did was right and what Martha did was wrong. However, I don’t think we can make such a simplistic judgment.
It would be all too easy to completely discredit the service Martha offered, but this would be a mistake because what she did was good. The First Reading associated with this Gospel is all about how the Patriarch Abraham provided Martha-style hospitality to those who were passing by his tent and for this he was blessed. So given that, what might we say about Martha and Mary?
St. Gregory the Great said that these two women signify the two dimensions of the spiritual life: action and contemplation. Martha sought to honour Jesus by busily working and Mary sought to do the same by giving Him her undivided attention. Both of these activities are good and give honour to Christ and one would hope that they are both present in the life of each and every Christian.
However, Jesus said “Mary has chosen what is better”…. What was it about Mary’s choice that made it “better”? The Early Church Fathers made the observation that, in heaven at the end of time, Martha’s activity will come to an end but Mary’s contemplation will reach its perfection when presented with God in all His unveiled glory.
“Now [Martha,] you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveller to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarrelling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury?
“No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. Thus what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness; she was gathering fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.” – St. Augustine
In my story, I behaved in the same way Martha behaved: “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made”. In her service, she had been so busy trying to be a good hostess she had lost sight of the guest she was hosting.
Like me, Martha became increasingly bogged down doing the chores that needed doing, and, like me, she looked around to see who wasn’t pulling their weight. Her eyes came to rest upon her sister, Mary…
[Martha] came to [Jesus] and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
I’m afraid this is the sort of thing that we Christians are very good at – pointing the finger at those we don’t think are stepping up to the mark.
The Better Part
So as good as her service was, something was lacking in Martha – the balance between action and contemplation, between doing things for Jesus and spending time with Jesus and with a greater emphasis being upon the latter.
Once this balance is disrupted we lose sight of God and become distracted by the work itself. The work ends up becoming burdensome and we end up being resentful and critical of others.
This fundamental balance is modelled for us in Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus would regularly be surrounded by large crowds, teaching and healing them, but he would always take time to slip away to a deserted place to spend time with His Father (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16, …)
So the challenge of this Sunday’s Gospel is to be both Martha and Mary, true worshippers of God. We are called to serve Him with our whole lives, but lives which are grounded, rooted and established in a love that is renewed daily through prayerful contemplation, sitting at the feet of the Master.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus. – Hebrews 12:2