I have to admit that the Gospel story of Jesus going to visit the two sisters, Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42), is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. I am sure that many of us, if not all of us, can readily identify with the encounter as it unfolds. It is such an ordinary, homey event. After all, what could be more natural or human than going to visit a friend or family member. Then there is a domestic tension that becomes something of a spat between the two sisters: Mary seems to sit around, while Martha is doing all the work. Martha even turns to Jesus and complains: “tell her to help me.” Incidentally, we are not told anything about their brother Lazarus: perhaps he wisely kept out of things! Whatever the case, Jesus uses this domestic drama to teach and to encourage. 

Look at the dynamic again. It is not that Martha is wrong. Today, if we had a visitor, especially an important one, who would not offer some refreshments and hospitality? We know how important an experience of welcome is for those coming to church (often number one or two on the list of why people go to church). In the time and culture of Jesus (as is still the case in the Middle East and many other parts of the world), not to offer welcome to a traveler or a visitor would be unthinkable: it would go against all social customs. We see this in our First Reading (Genesis 18: 1-10) as Abraham is visited by three strangers. Although it is the hottest part of the day, he welcomes the strangers and prepares something of a feast for them. Interestingly, the three strangers have been viewed by some as the Holy Trinity and this incident is the subject of the famous Rublev icon of the Trinity. Another thought. Every parish truly believes that it is welcoming: let us be sure that this is so! 

So, why does Jesus appear to chide Martha; at least just a little? Martha seems to be a natural worrier; worried about so many things and now her latest worry is to make Jesus feel welcomed. She also seems to have a bit of a short fuse as she complains about her sister, but then, worry does have a habit of shortening fuses very effectively. The same is true when we get overwhelmed with activity. Martha, we are told is “burdened” by all her work in being hospitable. In fact, the phrase in the Gospel literally says that she was “pulled about” by all her work. That certainly can sound familiar! Jesus gently tells Martha that, in the end, only one thing really matters. Perhaps our Lord is reminding her (and us) to keep things in perspective and balance. Again, worry or too much activity have a nasty habit of blowing so many things way out of proportion and of numbing our ability to focus and disabling our better judgment. 

Perhaps too, Martha’s mistake is to think that she knows what Jesus wants: food and drink after his journey. However, Jesus really wants to visit with her and to be, we might say, spiritual food for her and to quench her spiritual thirst. Have you ever been in that situation when you have gone to visit someone just to see them; yet they have rushed off into the kitchen to fix some refreshments for you? Meanwhile, you are yelling from the family room trying to have a conversation with them. Your host is being kind and hospitable, but you have come to see them, rather than to have something to eat or to drink. They think they know what you want, but this is not really the case. 

Mary chose the better part (literally the “good” portion: good as in the sense of something intrinsically good or as a solid foundation) because she sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him. Jesus can visit with her and she can visit with him. It is not right to say that Mary chose the only good thing and that Martha was wrong or chose a bad portion. No, Mary chose the better part because she listens and is still and focused first. Then, and only then, she is equipped and ready to spring into action: to be like her sister Martha. Prayer then action, or, better still, prayer leads us and guides us to action. St. Augustine sets it out beautifully: “Martha assumes what Jesus wants, Mary asks. Martha chose to feed Jesus; Mary chose to be fed by him. Martha was preparing a feast for the Lord, but Mary was feasting on her Lord.” This then might be the best lesson of all from our Gospel.  

We need to be like Mary as well as Martha. So often we too need to slow down and listen to the Lord, to sit at his feet for a while, even if it is just for five minutes a day. We may feel that we are too busy to pray, but it is worth remembering what St. Teresa of Calcutta often said: “if I am really busy then I need to pray twice as hard and long.” A final word about parish and church meetings: hopefully we have a real Mary moment or two before diving into the Martha mode. After all, we might have got it the wrong way around if we put aside Him who is the Lord of all things, for the sake of the things of the Lord!