Today’s reading tells us that Jesus entered the village of Bethany, and accepted an invitation from friends, Martha and her sister Mary, to stop for a visit. In the midst of their time together, one sister, Martha, is described as being “burdened with much serving”, while her sister, Mary, has simply parked herself on the floor with Jesus. Having had enough, Martha interrupted what was going on and asked Jesus to intercede: “Tell her to help me”.
The differences between these two sisters—Martha the busy-body and Mary the mesmerized listener—has been understood through the centuries, as the contrast of two states of religious life: the active Christian and the contemplative Christian. And Jesus’ response about Mary having “chosen the better part” has left many to draw the conclusion that he’s declaring the contemplative life to be superior. Instead, I propose a different way of looking at this narrative: both sisters are doing something important—one is serving and one is listening—but only one is doing what Jesus needs in the moment: and ironically, it’s the one who is doing seemingly nothing.
We might ask: How is sitting on the floor useful? And how can that be what Jesus needed? Martha’s getting a lot done—preparing a meal and serving it—isn’t that more likely to serve a need? Especially given that we are of a culture where quantifiable results and productivity are so valued. Our American identity is built upon what is called the Protestant Work Ethic, which holds that one fulfills his/her duty to God by hard work and indicators of measurable success. We tend to be do-ers. It’s in our American blood. Sitting and listening, as did Mary, is not a measurable activity, if it’s to be considered activity at all.
Perhaps the context within this reading helps. As we move week to week through the Gospel of Luke, we are now in chapter 10. It was three weeks ago that we heard the verse that declares: “Jesus resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51, 13th Sunday in OT). That verse begins a long section, chapters 9 through 19, in which Jesus makes a long, slow, southward journey toward Jerusalem, where rejection, public humiliation and certain death on a cross await him.
And so, as he stopped along the way to visit and share a meal with Martha and Mary, he knew all that awaited him in the holy city. He knew that he would not be returning to Bethany and that this would be the last time to visit them in their home.
In a situation like this, one is less likely to need a person bustling about, fulfilling tasks, but instead to be with friends, to be close and to be present. And it’s Mary who seemed to know what was needed. We have no idea what Jesus said to her, but only that he spoke, and that she was attentive and present.
Mary reminds us today that so often what people need is not for something to be done, but that they need us to be present. That’s not easy for people whose first response is typically to try to fix the problem or to simply be do-ers. I remember learning this (and I’m still learning it.), serving as a chaplain at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. I learned that so much of pastoral ministry, dealing with the inner workings of another person’s heart, is simply listening, being attentive and being present. I had to learn to just shut my trap and listen and to love the person before me. I had to resist the temptation to seek how to fix their problem, because in almost every case, their problems were beyond my fixing.
The other trap we can fall into with people in crises of the heart is to retreat. I remember as a young man being uncomfortable being around someone who was dealing with death, failing health, or depression. I didn’t know what to say or do and so I tried to escape the situation altogether. Who knows, maybe that’s what Martha was doing by being a busy-body.
The fact is that like Martha and Mary, part of our lives is dealing with people who are facing difficulties: their crises of the heart. There’s a time to attend to practical needs, like Martha. And there’s a time to be just be present, like Mary.
Here, in this Mass, let us look to Mary as a model: the one who listened attentively to the Word of God. She listened to the pain of Christ and loved him. In a few minutes, Jesus as our High Priest, will speak to us, saying “This is my Body and Blood…broken, blessed and given up for you….it is my covenant with you….my gift of love to you”. As he did with Martha and Mary, he shares a meal with us, he visits us, here in our home. Like Mary, let us be present to him, at his feet, listening attentively and loving him.