Remember last week’s Gospel lesson? When a religious scholar asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus reminded him (and us) that we must love God with our whole beings and with all our strength — and that we must love our neighbors as we also love ourselves. And how do we love our neighbors? By paying attention and giving our service to their needs – by acts of love, acts of mercy – like that Samaritan fellow did.
To summarize: Jesus cares about our relationships – with God and one another. And putting love of neighbor into action is an important part of our relationship. That was the lesson last week . . .
In this week’s Gospel we walk with Jesus into the home of Martha and her sister Mary. Martha is working hard to welcome her beloved and esteemed guest. The text doesn’t specifically say so, but it’s generally assumed that Martha is working in the kitchen – getting a dinner prepared for the guest of honor. Martha appears to be trying very hard to give Jesus her very best while her sister Mary does nothing to help her. But Jesus ends up chiding Martha, upholding Mary’s inaction as better.
A classic interpretation of this story sees Martha and Mary as representing two contrasting evangelical Christian lifestyles: Martha is the activist, Mary is the contemplative . . . Martha is called to action, Mary is called to quiet prayer . . . Martha is a doer, Mary practices being. So, in taking Mary’s side, is Jesus teaching us that contemplation is better than action – end of story?
Somehow this doesn’t seem quite right. And on first reading this story doesn’t seem to line up with last week’s story about actively loving our neighbor. So how can we reconcile these two teachings?
We might try thinking of today’s passage as part two of Luke’s story about how to live faithfully – about how to inherit eternal life. In part one from last week, the story about the Good Samaritan taught us about loving our neighbor, and today’s story, part two, is about loving God. With the Good Samaritan we saw the importance of putting love into action – how to DO love. And in the story of Mary and Martha we learn the importance of building a relationship with God by just being with Him.
Let’s try entering into the story again on a more personal, imaginative level. Consider: How would you welcome Jesus into your house?
The story begins:
”Jesus entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house.”
If I were Martha in this story, I think I might want to offer the hospitality of a fine dinner party. Table hospitality was as popular then as it is today. And naturally, I would want the dinner to be the finest I could put together . . .
The story continues:
“Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving.”
Again, taking Martha’s place in the story, I would probably do everything I could to host a fantastic party. And at some point I might say to myself, “I’m working pretty hard here – trying very hard to get everything right. And now things aren’t going as well as I’d like . . . there’s too much for me to do alone and there’s no one to help me. Can’t they see how important my work is?”
And then I might complain as Martha did …
“Martha went to Jesus and said: ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’”
Here Martha appears to be solid in her belief that her work is more important than whatever her sister and Jesus are talking about. And maybe Martha is getting tired of being invisible and unappreciated in her service … being the “only responsible one” . . .
And the story continues:
“But the Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the better portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Jesus’ answer seems to indicate that he’s not so concerned with her desire to offer hospitality or even the work itself. He knows that her original motivation was love. But rather he is concerned about her anxiety . . . and the trouble her anxiety is causing her. Martha has gotten lost in her doing – in her busyness, in her ego.
And then Jesus defends Mary in her choice to remain with him, listening to his words. Mary is growing spiritually in His presence, nurturing their relationship.
Martha’s worldly activities and busyness will come to an end . . . but Mary’s relationship with Christ is eternal – it is the one thing that is needed – it will never be taken away from her.
But what WERE Mary and Jesus up to – while she was sitting at his feet while Martha was working away? What is this contemplation all about?
Contemplation is prayer: it’s a level of communicating with and being with God – and it doesn’t necessarily need words. It leads to knowing, not thinking. In contemplative prayer, we pay attention to God and allow ourselves to be open and to listen . . . If we happen to be on the wrong track with our lives, in contemplation we begin to notice the problems, the discrepancies. . .
Contemplative prayer a transformative process, a conversion of our hearts. Contemplation is spending time with God to develop a relationship with Him – letting His love grow in us – letting him change us for the better.
So in the Mary / Martha story, is Jesus teaching us that one way of life is better than the other – contemplative better than active? Perhaps. But that’s for each of us to know for ourselves. And certainly there are times when charity demands action.
Martha’s service was good . . . Mary’s attention to Jesus was better . . . and Jesus just may be suggesting an even better way – a best way – a life that intertwines both contemplation and action.
Meister Eckhart, the 13th century theologian, mystic and prophet, put it this way: “What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.”
Jesus teaches that our prayer and active service need to be balanced . . . and the good news is that our actions will actually be nurtured and blessed by those times of doing absolutely nothing but sitting and being with God.