After hearing this familiar Gospel account, I think most of us are inclined to sympathize with Martha. After all, her complaint seems reasonable and justified. We can surmise that she has a “take charge” personality. In a culture where men had the duty of welcoming, her brother Lazarus is not even mentioned. In fact, in the Gospel, he never speaks. Martha does the talking. It is safe to assume that her siblings looked to her for the administration of the household. Hospitality was a great value and Martha attended to its details with particular diligence. A writer described Martha this way: “Martha is the kind of person who likes to go about doing good, especially the kind of good that requires a lot of going about.”
In his poetry, Dante called Jesus “the Lord of every courtesy.” Surely Jesus would not embarrass or berate a friend who was being so generous and kind. Why this apparent rebuke to Martha?
Notice that Mary doesn’t say, “You’re right Martha, I am sorry. Excuse me Jesus let me give Martha a hand.” Jesus doesn’t say “Martha, take off your apron, sit here at my side with your sister Mary.” What is the lesson here?
Jesus took issue not with Martha’s work but with her distraction. He understood her frustration and her feeling of being overwhelmed or burdened. Ever feel like Martha?
What about Mary? Our Lord does not praise Mary for doing nothing. St. Luke tells us that she was at the Lord’s feet listening to him. That is exactly what a disciple should do when Jesus is speaking. The Lord praises her for being able to recognize this exceptional moment.
It is said that Franklin Roosevelt often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." The guests responded with phrases like, "Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir." It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. At a loss, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, "I'm sure she had it coming."
Perhaps we are too often this way with the Lord. We go through the rituals of the Mass or we hear the Scriptures proclaimed but our minds are elsewhere…we do not listen. St. John Paul II reminded us that the Word of God “ought to be our constant reference point, our light and our strength. But we must listen to it. We must learn to be quiet, create room for solitude. Contact in faith with the word of the Lord purifies us, elevates us, and gives us back energy.
Martha and Mary should not be seen in opposition to one another. Both sisters have something to teach us. Martha impresses on us a sense of duty, the value of hospitality and care for others. She reminds us that we can serve the Lord through our daily tasks. Mary reminds us not to lose sight of the need for contemplation. St. Benedict made this the center of his rule: “Ora et Labora” Pray and Work.
Our challenge is to bring these elements into balance. Let us ask the Lord for the grace to have a Mary heart in a Martha world.