“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.”
Aren’t we a lot like Martha by being anxious and upset about many things? It seems to be a universal human response. If it is universal and human to be anxious and upset, then why did Jesus chide Martha for her reaction to her sister’s unwillingness to help her?
During the Middle Ages the commentary of this Gospel passage saw the story as a comparison between the active and contemplative lives. The comparison came down in favor of the contemplative as modeled by Mary, for which Christ comments, “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” But does that explanation have any meaning for Christians in 2022 who are not in the same mindset as people who lived over 700 years ago?
The modern world outlook does not make the message of the Gospel irrelevant. The Gospel is relevant no matter what time it is heard. Although modern thought process may not contain the active of contemplative paradigm, it does include the human question about the apparent contradiction of the teaching. On one side, is the need to work in the temporal world in order to live and work is non-negotiable if you want to survive. On the other hand, we have a woman, Mary, who is so enthralled with what the Lord has to say the need for her to work at that moment takes a back seat to listening to Jesus’ teachings. Truth be known, many of us would take the side of Martha and object if we were in a similar situation. Martha so sure her opinion is correct, brings her objection to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” A reasonable request, isn’t it? After all, isn’t Christianity all about serving and helping others and making them feel welcome? Yes, it is. After all, the food doesn’t get to the table by itself.
But not so fast, there is another meaning to this teaching that doesn’t seem so obvious. The deeper level is although Martha is not wrong in her objection, she is wrong in making work the end result and absolute for every occasion. Martha’s problem is that she could not see beyond the temporal and mundane world. She became temporarily blind to the wholeness of life which is constituted by the temporal and spiritual. Mary doesn’t make this mistake and can see beyond the empirical, by envisioning the eternal and embracing the grace-filled moment presented to her. When speaking with Jesus, Mary was experiencing her on earth a bit of eternity, an opportunity Martha obviously missed.
The experience of Mary and Martha is not a one off, our God is a God who prefers to be in our life and reveals his grace through the most ordinary of events. The spiritual aspect of our life recognizes those fleeting moments and wants to hold on to them, and rightfully so, they pass so quickly.
Now let’s take a look into our own lives. Have we been more like Mary or Martha? Can we be too consumed by work and other daily activities so as to not appreciate the beauty of God’s creation? Do the tasks of keeping our families on track prohibit the time necessary from spending time in prayer and reflection about God? Are we too obsessed with our professional careers, or the constant drive to make more and more money, we become oblivious of the needs of others? Are we so busy we have lost our ability to be grateful for even the smallest of things, like the joy a family pet can bring us?
These can be moments of grace where Jesus enters our lives and speaks to us about the spiritual aspects of life. They are special and irretrievable times the grace of God is so strong, so alive, so active, to ignore them would be a shame. But ignore them we have, all too often.
All of it is right before our eyes, if we are willing to place in correct proportion the need for necessary work and the not so important work which can easily be left for another time or day. Martha’s household tasks continued, they continued after Jesus left her home, and continued after Jesus’ dead body was taken from the cross. Now can you see why Mary chose the better portion?
Potential moments of grace come so quickly, and the opportunity to embrace them comes and goes. Perhaps, the most regrettable part of the Gospel message is the story of Martha and Mary continues even in our day, and we have not learned the lesson well enough. Grace-filled moments are still present every day. When they come, let us grasp them; enjoy them; live them; always knowing that we can do the dishes a little bit later.