Being Martha and Mary

I offered the reflection at the Masses at my parish this weekend, when the Gospel reading was Luke’s account of Jesus eating dinner at the home of his friends Mary and Martha.

Most of us are familiar with this story: Jesus is dining at the home of his friends, and while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him talk, Martha is bustling around taking care of cooking and perhaps other chores.  And so Martha complains to Jesus that she is doing all the work while Mary does nothing, probably hoping – maybe even expecting – that Jesus will prod Mary into helping her.  He does not such thing, and instead chides her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”            

We meet here two different women, who model two ways of being, but ways I do not believe are meant to be mutually exclusive.  While I used to quip that I’m Martha and want to be Mary, the reality is that (except for those few who are called to a cloistered life) we are all called to both Martha and Mary. And there is much we can learn from each of these women.

Martha illustrates a boldness and honesty that is necessary if we are to grow in our relationship with Jesus.

Here is a woman in a time when women didn’t speak up to men, and they certainly didn’t chastise them.  Yet Martha has the boldness to speak her piece with Jesus.  Many women of her time would have held their tongue.  But Martha spoke what was on her mind, understanding that being in relationship with Jesus means speaking what is actually on our mind and in our heart.  Not saying only what we think we are supposed to say.

We cannot move forward with God unless we are honest about what is troubling us.  It may be that Martha’s point was misplaced; indeed, from Jesus’ reaction we know it was.  But that doesn’t change that had she stayed silent, she would not have learned from Jesus.  Only her honesty and courage in speaking up allowed her to do that.

Martha also illustrates a take-charge organization and efficiency that the world could not operate without.  Someone does have to do the cooking, change the sheets and set the table if Jesus and his friends are going to eat and stay overnight. Someone had to make sure there is enough wine for everyone, and so on.  Someone had to run the household.  Martha, in the words of Joanna Weaver “is an administrator extraordinaire – a whirling dervish of efficiency with a touch of Tasmanian she-devil thrown in to motivate the servants.”

Mary, on the other hand, represents an extravagant worship.  She sits at Jesus feet, not giving in to the tyranny of the urgent.  She will later falls to Jesus’ feet when he arrives at the death of her brother.  And the next time he comes to their home on his final journey to Jerusalem, she will lavish expensive ointment on his feet  – an amount Judas says could have been sold for three hundred days wages.

Mary also represents a receptive availability.  She sits at Jesus feet, just listening, not moving a muscle.  She didn’t try to come up with some clever response.  She simply listens.

The reality is that we need both of their tendencies. I say both because of a conviction that God calls each of us to take our part in his plan of salvation, to use our gifts for the divinization of our world.  And it is God’s plan we are about, not our own.  And that requires not only action, but time with God to discern his plan and our role in that plan.

In Ignatian terms, we speak of being contemplatives in action.  Contemplatives in action unite themselves with God by joining God’s active labor to save and heal the world.  Doing so is not optional.  Contemplatives in action join God’s active labor to heal and save the world from a contemplative stance that requires we take time with God.

Joanna Weaver, in her book Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World speaks of “Kitchen Service resulting from Living Room Intimacy.”  She writes

Because we are his children, Kitchen Service will be the natural result of Living Room Intimacy with God.  Like Jesus, we must be about our Father’s business.  The closer we draw to the heart of the Father, the more we see his heart for the world.  And so we serve, we minister, and we love, knowing that when we do it for the “least of these,” we have done it unto Christ.

When we put work before worship, we put the cart before the horse.  The cart is important; so is the horse.  But the horse must come first, or we end up pulling the cart ourselves.  Frustrated and weary, we can nearly break under the pressure of service, for there is always something that needs to be done.

When we first spend time in his presence – when we take to heart his voice – God provides the horsepower we need to pull the heaviest load.  He saddles up Grace and invites us to take a ride.

So we need both – the boldness and action to help realize God’s plan, but the receptivity and extravagant worship that deepen our relationship with God.  We need to leave the kitchen long enough to experience the intimacy of God in the living room.  We need to know God, to listen to him, so that we know what it is he is asking of us, and have the strength to accomplish it.