Mary, Martha, and “the better part”

On the Readings for Sunday, July 17, 2016

• Gen 18:1-10a
• Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 5
• Col 1:24-28
• Lk 10:38-42

Americans are, generally speaking, a pragmatic and practical people. We know how to get things done, how to organize, how to make a plan and put it into action. Work may be “a rat race” and “a grind,” but we take satisfaction in knowing we work hard, do a good job, and are productive members of society. 

But to what end? 

By “end,” I mean “ultimate end.” This question is pursued relentlessly and with sometimes unsettling results in the little classic, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Ignatius Press, 2009), written in the 1950s by the German philosopher, Josef Pieper. Western man overvalues work, Pieper argued, and he has lost the meaning and importance of true leisure, instead substituting shallow entertainment and empty diversions. Leisure is essential to be whole, and the soul of leisure is “divine worship” of the Creator. “Celebration of God in worship,” writes Pieper, “cannot be done unless it is done for its own sake.”

Hold that thought and cut away to the dusty, first-century village of Bethany and the home of Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. Jesus, having told his disciples of his approaching suffering and death and having performed healings and exorcisms (Lk. 9), was likely ready for a brief respite before heading into Jerusalem, just two miles away. Martha was an exemplary hostess. She believed, at the very least, that Jesus was a great prophet, and she took pride in treating this friend and guest of distinction to the finest care and food (note the clear parallels with today’s reading from Genesis). And so Martha was busily preparing and serving food, even while her sister, Mary, sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to him speak.

What happened next was not an ordinary part of Semitic culture and hospitality: Martha sought to draw Jesus into the middle of a domestic disagreement. And she pulled out all of the stops in doing so, employing the guilt trip (“Lord, do you not care…”), playing the victim card (“that my sister has left by myself…”), and employing the exasperated demand (“Tell her to help me”). Things went from agreeable to awkward quickly!

I’ve heard the words of Jesus interpreted sometimes as being a rebuke to Martha. But that is unfair to Martha and it skews, or misses altogether, the essential point. The Church Fathers are quite agreed on this point. St. Gregory the Great, for example, wrote, “For what is set forth by Mary, who sitting down gave ear to the words of our Lord, save the life of contemplation? And what by Martha, so busied with outward services, save the life of action? Now Martha’s concern is not reproved, but that of Mary is even commended.” He then arrived at this vital conclusion: “For the merits of the active life are great, but of the contemplative, far better.” Everything that Martha did was good. Yet in pursuing good things, she overlooked the greatest good.

What was it? Mary, in sitting at Jesus’ feet, showed her submission to him. She literally “listened to his word”; that is, she listened to the logos of the Logos. She was completely and wholly present to the Incarnate Word; there was no practical end to this being present, for it was simply an act of love and worship. “To cling to God and to the things of God,” wrote St. John Cassian, “this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly. Any diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary, low-grade and certainly dangerous.” And St. Ambrose sums it up perfectly: “Do not let service divert the knowledge of the heavenly Word.”

Mary, in choosing “the better part” had made the right choice. She completely gave her attention and herself to the Lord, fully aware of the Word of God present in flesh and blood, and in spoken word. In so choosing, she gained what could never be taken from her.

 (This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the July 18, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.