Oh, Martha, Martha, how did you feel when Jesus spoke to you like that? He said your name twice – was that because you were so hot and bothered by all that serving that you couldn’t even hear him the first time? Or was it because that’s the way God likes to get his friends’ attention? Remember “Moses, Moses”?
How did it feel, Martha, to hear him say all that, after you’d been basically turning the house upside down to get ready for his coming? You’d made such a big deal out of getting things just right for his arrival – why? Because you loved the guy. Your response to his arrival is a bit like Abraham’s in today’s first reading, really. The narrator there insists that Abraham really flew around when those three men/angels/God showed up at the Tree of Mamre. Of course, Abraham’s hospitality was mostly limited to ordering others to do the actual work, as servants and Sarah got their instructions: “Quick!” You, on the other hand, seem to have been in the heart of the action, whipping up some falafel maybe, making sure that the stew was tasty, that the tablecloth was clean. Unlike some other gospel hosts who won’t be named here, you surely provided water for Jesus to wash his feet and gave him a kiss as he entered. So how did you feel when, after all that, Jesus spoke to you as he did?
Some people over the years have made a case for the idea that Jesus was putting you down at that moment. They’ve even made you into a kind of symbol of something called “the active life,” and your sister Mary into a symbol of something called “the contemplative life.” For these people, you and Mary were locked in some kind of big struggle; in their understanding of Jesus’ words, it’s clear that since Mary “wins,” you lose.
But that’s crazy. First of all, when did Jesus ever put anyone down? Especially someone whom he loved and who was working hard to make him welcome? No, that idea doesn’t fly, Martha, as I’m sure you’d be the first to say. And the other notion, that there are two types of “life” and the smart money is on the “contemplative” type? That’s also absurd. Jesus says: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He says: “I came that they may have life, and have it to the full.” He even says to you, on the occasion of the death of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Granted, he says these things in the Gospel of John, but still -- you won’t find those adjectives -- active or contemplative -- in any gospel. There’s just Jesus, who is Life.
Equally absurd, of course, is that notion that Jesus, aspiring to have his own cooking show, maybe, was telling you: “We only need a casserole, Martha.” Don’t laugh, Martha; some people have really claimed that to be the meaning of his comment.
But now, tell me, please, how did you feel when you heard him say:
"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.”
What did you understand from his words? We don’t have your reply in the text here, but I’m guessing that you got the message, spoken with love from a dear friend who knew you better than you knew your own self. I’m guessing that you realized – slowly? quickly? Who knows? -- that your anxiety over all the details of the meal and the irritation you felt with Mary, familiar as they might have been, were getting in the way of what you really wanted to do, which was to welcome Jesus into your house and into your heart. Maybe you had to think for a minute about what kind of a person he was – was he really someone who would want the whole “Downton Abbey” treatment or was he a dear friend who had something to share and wanted to share it with you as well as with your sister?
When he spoke about Mary, your little sister there, the object of your complaint: you’d been sisters forever; since you were kids, she’d always been the dreamy one, you the solid citizen. This time, she’d let you down, and you were, you thought, rightfully annoyed. But when Jesus said that: did you look again and see something else in her then? Something that you were surprised to realize that you wanted, too, even though you’d always prided yourself on your brisk efficiency and consistency? Maybe even prided yourself on not having any time to waste just sitting around listening to…him?
Jesus said: “Mary has chosen the better part.” He did NOT say: “And sorry, Martha, you can’t have it.” When he said that it wouldn’t be “taken from her,” did he mean that there was only enough for Mary? Or was he inviting you to change your own attitude and join her? Did you hear his words in such a way that you understood all of a sudden that, contrary to everything you’d imagined about “real life” till just that minute (that it was your house, that you were the hostess and thus responsible, etc. etc.), in fact, he was the Host who wanted to give something wonderful to you, his beloved Guest? Did you laugh then, Martha, and throw down the dishtowel and sit down next to Mary, still wearing your old apron but now also wearing the new attitude of the disciple? Did you?
I hope so, Martha, because that would mean that a lot of people, including me, could feel free to join you as disciples of Jesus. We wouldn’t be giving up our ability to feed people or do all the other things that he himself said are so necessary in this hurting, lonesome and dangerous world of ours, wouldn’t be giving up our active answer to the call of service, not one bit. But we would be choosing to ground that answer in Jesus. And that would surely be the best part, wouldn’t it?
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA, Provincial of the U.S. Province