At Home with Martha and Mary

Sister Regina McGarry OP

A Reflection on Luke 11:38-42

We have all heard homilies on the Gospel story of Martha and Mary. I must say, though, I don’t remember any of them, except a comment Bishop John Crowley made when we had this gospel at Mass on the feast-day of St. Martha. He said that Jesus was not reprimanding Martha’s actions in any way. What Martha was doing was very good. Martha’s problem was that she was focusing, not on her service to Jesus, but on someone else, on her sister.

It is important to remember where this gospel story is situated in Luke. It comes immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ beautiful and powerful teaching on reaching out in service. The priest and the Levite considered themselves in favour with God, attending to religious rituals. They probably considered themselves good listeners to God’s word in the Scriptures that they read in the synagogue. But not in Jesus’ eyes. It was the love and action of the Samaritan that Jesus gave as the answer to the teacher of the Law’s question, “What shall I do to receive eternal life?” It is good to keep this in mind whenever we are tempted to read otherwise in the story of Martha and Mary.

“Martha, Martha”, Jesus says. In the Old Testament we have examples of God calling someone by name twice. “Abraham, Abraham, Moses, Moses, Samuel, Samuel. God was calling them for a particular task. Here it’s like Jesus says her name twice to really get her attention, to enable Martha to listen to Jesus, not to herself.
“You are anxious and troubled about many things.”

What was Martha anxious and troubled about? Was it that her cooking would not be the best? The gospel suggests that Martha was a very capable woman. She welcomed Jesus into her house. Jesus did not travel alone. He had his disciples with him, probably all twelve of the apostles. We read it was Martha’s house. She had a brother Lazarus and her sister Mary. Martha was obviously the oldest of the three. Otherwise it would be called Lazarus’ house.

She welcomed Jesus. And then she got very busy. She got caught up in what she was doing. And in her eyes Mary should have been caught up too. Martha seemed to become more concerned about her busyness and her sister Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, than her honoured guest. She even turned on Jesus, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the serving?” One could almost say she has become resentful, certainly somewhat angry.

It seems to me that the joy of serving Jesus has gone out of it at that moment for Martha. Jesus is certainly not reprimanding Martha for being busy, he is gently reminding her of his presence. If she was focusing on Jesus, her guest, all would have been well for her.
“Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Martha momentarily put what she was doing for Jesus before Jesus himself. She got anxious. Jesus gently reminds her of this. If she hadn’t been so caught up in her doing she would have been going about her preparations and her hard work with a song in her heart. I think Martha does us a real favour. She reminds us how we can get so caught up in our busyness, even our good works, that we forget the ‘one thing necessary’. Sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to him. We can only do this by giving time to God in our lives, by putting Jesus at the centre of our lives, at the centre of our doing, whether this is the in the mundane tasks of everyday life, of going out to others in service, at prayer. We are all asked by God to do the best we can, we are not asked to succeed in being the best. I remember when I was young I had a huge perfectionist in me. When I was a student in the days before laptops I would redo a piece of work if there was a slight mistake or smudge. When I had progressed to the typewriter, correcting with tipex wasn’t good enough for me. The whole page got typed out again!

With my music I’d remember the wrong note I played on my violin, not the lovely sound I managed to create. People would often tell me I had played beautifully, they hadn’t noticed a mistake, but to me the wrong note stuck out like a sore thumb. Fortunately, after much effort and getting to know myself better, I grew out of this. Then I could enjoy giving of my best when playing, whether there was the odd mistake or not. It brought me the freedom to lead choirs and play the organ in parishes for many years with great joy, even though I was a self-taught organist. The old me would never have tolerated that.
Perhaps there was something of a perfectionist in Martha. The thing about being too identified with the perfectionist in oneself is that you are not just hard on yourself but you expect the same perfection from others too.

“Martha, Martha, only one thing is necessary”.
Whatever our leaning by temperament there is Martha in all of us. And like to Martha, Jesus says to us sometimes, “You are anxious and troubled about many things. Only one thing is necessary”. The trouble with us sometimes is that we don’t see this. Even in church we can become so busy doing the work of the Lord that we have no time to sit and listen. I think there might be a collective church perfectionist. That breeds intolerance. We are a messy church; we are not a perfect church. We are the church that God loves, because we are a church of people.’ Come as you are, that’s how I love you.’ We need to hear Jesus saying that to us. We need to listen, not to do.

If we are like Martha, busy with, and burdened by much serving we need to hear the invitation of Christ to listen to his words and make sure that our work is the fruit of prayer and love. If we are like Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, we need then to stand up and live the Gospel we have heard and contemplated.

A really important thing to remember is that both Martha and Mary have gifts to share with each other. They have gifts that each can emulate.

I’d like to share a personal observation and understanding which you may or may not agree with. I preface this with the statement that the ideal is not to be a Mary or a Martha but to be a Martha with a Mary heart.
Knowing the gifts of both Martha and Mary, Jesus is using Martha’s busyness and Mary’s contemplation to make a point about the balance that is essential in communities of faith.

My observation. In my experience I find two attitudes in those who identify more with Mary or Martha. In Martha’s I often find a kind of intolerance of those less naturally active or busily competent. In Mary’s there can be a kind of inferior complex that they are not as practically capable as others. They can tend to leave the more naturally competent one to get on with it: e.g. In the kitchen, Martha is organised, she is creative, she can do things with a flair. Mary can be viewed sometimes as lazy, when in fact she can be feeling quite at a loss when her more practical sister is around. So, she lets her get on with it.

If we go back to the parable that immediately precedes the Martha and Mary incident, we can see that Jesus is definitely saying that we are called to go out to help our brother and sister, our neighbour in service. So, the task of the Mary temperament is to learn to do this practically and efficiently. Jesus is not saying that Mary’s role in life is to be totally contemplative. Contemplare et tradere, to give to others the fruit of our contemplation, is our great Dominican motto. It is the Dominican ideal. The Dominican ideal is the Christian ideal. We only have to look at the life of Jesus to see this in action. Jesus was a man of prayer and a man of action. How often we read in the gospels that he went off to a quiet place to pray. Jesus could only do what he did, reach out to people tirelessly, because he took time to commune with his Father.

Jesus was totally present in everything that he did, and reading the gospels we become aware of what an incredible busy life he led in service. But he never lost his cool because someone else was not ‘helping’ him. I’m sure there must have been times when he wished his apostles could help more with the load he carried.

The temptation for each one of us is to over-identify with either Martha or Mary. That is a distortion. We are called to be both. Some of us will need to work a little harder at developing Martha’s gifts, some of us will have to work at Mary’s ability to sit still and listen.

But for all of us we need to heed Jesus reminder “Mary has chosen the better part”. The better part is to take time to listen to God, to be attentive to God’s voice in our hearts. We can only do this by setting aside time to pray, to hear God’s voice speaking to us in the Scriptures, to hand ourselves and our cares, and the care of the world over to God in trust. To trust that God is there, to give our all, in action and in prayer, and to leave the rest to our God.

“Make your home in me, as I make mine in you”, are Jesus’ wonderful words to us on the night before he died. When the apostles learnt to do this after the coming of the Holy Spirit they worked wonders. In our own small way, so can we. And we become free of measuring how we are doing. Whether what we do is a flop or a success we are at peace. And we become free of measuring and judging each other too.

The ideal we seek is service in love.

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