Yesterday’s Gospel reading was from Luke 10:38-42 – the story of Jesus with Mary and Martha.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her,“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Much ink has been spilled exploring the many applications of this verse. Entire books fill the women’s section of Christian bookstores and lengthy bible studies focus on what it means to be “Mary in a Martha world.” When I saw the passage appear in today’s readings, I almost tuned out. I already know this story.
I’m glad I paid attention to the homily, however, because I was challenged to discover a perspective on the verses that I hadn’t yet considered. In almost every commentary of the Mary and Martha story I’ve ever studied, the two sisters’ behaviors were juxtaposed to illustrate two opposing attitudes; Mary was “good” and Martha was “bad,” so be like Mary. In reality, however, which woman chose Jesus? They both did! Mary chose to sit and listen to Jesus, to completely focus on him. Martha, following the customs of the day, focused on hospitality and making sure that Jesus was welcomed into the sisters’ home.
“The two women signify two dimensions of the spiritual life. Martha signifies the active life as she busily labors to honor Christ through her work. Mary exemplifies the contemplative life as she sits attentively to listen and learn from Christ. While both activities are essential to Christian living, the latter is greater than the former. For in heaven the active life terminates, while the contemplative life reaches its perfection.”
- Commentary from the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible
Thus, two takeaways here: 1) The “active life” of service is important and necessary. 2) The “contemplative life” is more important and more necessary.
I can almost hear the voice of Jesus speaking directly to me in this passage: Christina, Christina, you are anxious about many things… I might not be boiling water over a fire or washing my clothing in a river, but it is very true that I have a lot of “stuff” going on in my life that is causing angst (children! husband! homeschooling! bills! chores! business!). The angst leads to distraction and before I know it, the kids are in bed, the house is clean, the bills are paid, and I go to bed with the sinking realization that I’m living for… a to-do list. I could give you a very convincing explanation about how everything I do is part of my God-given vocation, and it is clear from the scriptures that hospitality and busyness around the home are virtuous and important. But my vocation does not glorify God if these things serve to distract me from Him!
I do not write this post as a woman who has conquered this problem. I am just one of many women who struggle with a solely active life which lacks ample time for a contemplative life. Being Martha isn’t bad, but I must emulate Mary, too. It is difficult for me to choose to attend daily mass while the laundry must be done. It is difficult for me to ignore a big after-breakfast mess so that I may take time to read the day’s scripture passages. At the end of a very tiring day, it feels almost impossible for me to forgo television time with my husband so that I might pray the evening prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours (a practice I’ve been wanting to commit to so badly). And why am I so tired? Because I’m too active – too Martha – and too tired to be Mary! No, this is not how things should be.
I hereby commit to a concerted effort at less activity and more contemplation. My house will be messier and I will learn to make peace with it. And I’ll probably never let myself zone out during the gospel reading again, either. I really needed to hear this.