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Mary, Martha, and “the better part”

On the Readings for Sunday, July 21, 2019

'Christ with Martha and Mary' by Mikhail Nesterov (1911).
'Christ with Martha and Mary' (1911) by Mikhail Nesterov [WikiArt.org]

Readings:
• 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.

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 me 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 1113 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. 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.

9 Comments

  1. If Martha had not treated Jesus to the “finest care and food” – Jesus would not have had the finest care and food.

  2. Prayer (Contemplation) comes before action but nevertheless they are intertwined.

    We see this in St Mother Teresa, who (I have read) instructed her sisters to leave those in their care, at set times of prayer, unattended. When confronted with this action, her words were, to the effect of, that they, the patients, would be drawn into that contemplation (Prayer) also.

    What a wonderful example and teacher she was/is, as she gave them “the better part” also.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. I call on Martha in my household problems and she always answers – we figure because nobody ever asks her for help, so we get all her attention, lol. My daughter likens this Gospel story to the scene in The Brady Bunch with Jan’s “Marcia Marcia Marcia!” only this is Martha’s “Mary Mary Mary!” (Her sister, not our Blessed Mother.) We smile. 🙂

  4. Thank you for the needed reminder ; the good book here also good help in reinforcing same , so that persons would have the right priorities –
    https://www.ignatius.com/In-Sinu-Jesu-P3388.aspx
    In the writings of Bl.Emmerich , surprisingly ,there is mention that the Mary in this episode is not the other Mary of Magdala , their still wayward sister whose feast is tomorrow , that this Mary was a ‘simple ‘, who had a child like love for The Lord , and had an early death .( Pardon any errors in my recollections about this narrative in her books .)
    ‘ The best wine for the last ‘ – if there is such a hidden surprise in there , would it even be that God is using this Mary , to give us , in these times under all the false ego excitements and distractions that the enemy possibly is loving and eating
    up , for its induction of the bestial spirits in many , to make it hard to take in any more the spiritual truths and its goodness and holiness and blessings .
    Thank God that our Holy Father makes enough mention to discern and cats out such ,
    promotes adoration too . One such false and idolatrous idea that the enemy has instilled – would it be that the Holy Father is the 266th Pope , thus all the negatives and even idolatrous focus on those #s . Tried counting to see if he really is the 266th or the 267th , still unsure – that counting in itself can be a good exercise though , to see and ask for the prayers of so many holy Popes ..
    It could be too that God in His mercy , to humble us , is giving us another surprise , just as Jacob crosses his hands while blessing the children of Joseph ..and with Pope Emer. being around , to see the Papacy itself as being sort of between both , ? thus , the 133rd …
    or even any other number , depending on how much is shared , in the depths , in the area of the responsibility of the Papacy , through prayer and contemplation and the guidance by The Spirit at any given moment ..
    or telling us not to fret over frivolous ideas and #s , in wanting to be a good hostess to The Spirit ..
    Bl.Mother too, in her last days , was in Ephesus , away from all the distractions of Jerusalem..a good truth revealed through Bl.Emmerich , another taste of the best wine ..
    May the prayers of these holy saints help and deliver us , our families too from those who might be more under even familial spirits of ego idolatry and trying to use others for same .
    Mercy , my Lord !

  5. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ ‘Yes, Lord’, she told him, ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world'” (Jn 11:20-26). Martha preoccupied with many things witnesses to Christ with deepest faith equivalent among the disciples only to Peter’s Confession. Jesus loved the two sisters and Lazarus. Apparently they had a significant spiritual, prayerful relationship with Him. Aquinas taught that while contemplation is the highest order of religious life the combination of active ministry and contemplation is the more perfect. The perfection of life in Christ. The beauty of this is that priests, and Laity both single or married can achieve that perfection of life. The Divine Love can do all things.

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