Sunday’s Readings offer two well known biblical stories of hospitality—Abraham receiving the three travelers, and Martha and Mary hosting Jesus.
In the First Reading, Abraham scrambles to receive and attend to some passing travelers. One of the visitors announce that next year the elderly Sarah will bear a son—Isaac.
In Luke’s scene of hospitality, the guest is Jesus but the focus is on the behavior of the hosts. Like Abraham, Martha is busy about many things. Mary simply sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words. Martha complains to Jesus that she is left with all the work and says, regarding the contemplative Mary, “Tell her to help me.” Jesus chides Martha and defends Mary.
Christian tradition has applied this passage in discussions of the relative worth of active and contemplative lifestyles in the community of faith. Jesus’ language about “need of only one thing” and “the better part” do lend themselves to that application. But the placement of the Samaritan parable (last Sunday’s Gospel Reading) right before this one suggests that Luke does not intend this account as championing contemplation being superior to action. The point of Jesus’ critique of Martha lies not in her activity but in her self-preoccupied comparison. Note that Martha refers to herself several times: “My sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Quite a lot of “me” “me” “me” and “my.” Martha’s generous hospitality has become more about her than about her guest.
In this case, the one thing necessary was attending to the guest—whether by cooking or by attentive listening. Martha’s fault was to be distracted from the point of her activity—serving the guest, our Lord. Jesus is not going after Busy Martha, but Distracted and Resentful Martha.
Luke may have placed the story of Mary and Martha here both to contrast it with the preceding incident of the Good Samaritan and to elaborate upon it. In the first story, the scholar cites the two great Commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor. The emphasis, through the parable of the Good Samaritan, is on love for our neighbor. In this story, we see an example of what it means to love God, as Mary devotedly sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. If we only had the story of the Good Samaritan, we might allow service for God to take precedence over devotion to God. But the story of Mary shows us that devotion to God must be the basis of all our service for him. Worship must undergird our work.
Mary chose the better portion, to sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to His Word. Martha on the other hand, was distracted with all her preparations; “burdened with much serving”.
Sitting at Jesus’ feet is something Mary chose to do. We too must choose it over and over again, day in and day out, by saying “no” to other things so that we can say “yes” to the one necessary thing. The real activity to which God calls us, the important work of loving as Jesus loved, can only be sustained by the renewing power of the Holy Spirit that we tap into when we worship and pray and draw ourselves into the presence of God.
Our modern world, with all its time-saving devices, has not eased the problem of time pressure. We all feel and deal with it. We all face deadlines, whether it is preparing the evening meal, completing a report for school, or preparing for some important event at work. Many urgent things are good causes, even necessary, but if we are not careful, busyness will crowd out that essential time we need with our Lord. Even good things, like serving him, can wrongly crowd out the necessary thing of being with him. We needn’t choose between activism and contemplation. We must choose a balance, focused in faith on what is necessary.