Modern society attaches inordinate importance to activity – work, travel, sports, etc. The world generally values people based on what they do. The most celebrated and admired people are those who look like they are really accomplishing something: successful businessmen, award-winning actors and actresses, star athletes, anyone in the news headlines. The culture tends to make us feel that we should always be “doing something.” And, sadly, for many people, life is useless if they are not engaged in any kind of purely human activity.
Influenced by this environment of unbridled activism, many people now believe that the defining standard of the Church is essentially that of doing good works: outreach, hospitality, service projects, ecumenical gatherings. But the reality is that activism does not give meaning to our existence in the long run. Certainly, human activities and charitable works constitute an essential aspect of the Christian life. The Lord himself taught us that whatever we do for the least of his brothers we do for him (cf. Mt 25:40). However, simply remaining busy is not worth much, and is not necessarily meritorious before God. Our frenzy of activity can even distract us from God, leave us empty, make us angry, and lead us to be unfairly judgmental of others.
This is the condition of Martha in today’s Gospel. Preoccupied with the many details of hospitality, some of which were undoubtedly important, she becomes angry and critical of her sister. She even tries to teach the Teacher: “Do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.”
Jesus lovingly draws Martha’s attention to her inner state, and to the distinction between what is burdening her and what is really necessary. “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.” Jesus is certainly not denigrating the generous hospitality of Martha, nor is he praising Mary for what would look to contemporary human reckoning like passivity or laziness. No, he is pointing out that Mary has found the true Wisdom, “the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past” which has now “been manifested to his holy ones.”
This is the mystery about which St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Colossians. It is not some vague concept; it is precisely “Christ in you, the hope for glory”! Paul continues: “It is he whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom.” He is admonishing and teaching us today, proclaiming Divine Wisdom, so that we may all be “perfect in Christ.”
What is Mary doing in today’s Gospel? Not sitting and doing nothing but rather sitting at the feet of the Lord, “listening to him speak.” She is allowing Wisdom Incarnate, our Hope of glory, to instruct her with his life-giving word, to nourish and transform her heart. She is, so to speak, immersing herself in the love of Christ, in his real Presence, where there is joy, peace and true freedom. This is what Martha, in her anxiety and worry, is missing out on, hence she lacks inner joy and peace.
If we learn from the example of Mary, the “better part,” the love of Christ, will not be taken away from us. In this regard, St. Paul writes to the Romans: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? …. I am convinced that neither death, nor life, … nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rm 8:35-39). Every human activity, even the most wonderful of our charitable works, can be taken away by sickness, persecution, hardships, and eventually death. But the love of Christ cannot be taken away by anything.
The message of Jesus in this account about Martha and Mary is about getting our priorities right. Life is not so much about what we want to do for God but rather about opening ourselves to what God does for us. Our faith does not pit contemplation against action. However, the life of contemplation – understood as being with and living for God – is our greatest privilege and most noble duty; it far surpasses any human activity. And everyone, irrespective of circumstances or health condition, can participate. We are all called to foster an attitude of active receptivity. The correct inner disposition, in which we unite ourselves with God, is what makes for fruitful activity when he calls us to serve.
Today’s first reading gives us an admirable example of how this works. Abraham’s ready faith and his covenant relationship with God made him ready to provide hospitality to the “three men” who appeared near his tent one day. The Catechism teaches that his spirit is comparable to that of Mary when she welcomed the word of the Angel at the Annunciation. “Because Abraham believed in God and walked in his presence and in covenant with him, the patriarch is ready to welcome a mysterious Guest into his tent. Abraham’s remarkable hospitality at Mamre foreshadows the annunciation of the true Son of the promise” (CCC 2571).
The Church offers a short summary of today’s lesson in the Gospel Acclamation: “Blessed are they who have kept the word with a generous heart and yield a harvest through perseverance.” Keeping the word in the heart, like Mary, is what we do; yielding a harvest of fruitful and meritorious activity is what God makes possible for us.
What are my interior and exterior responses to the actions of Martha and Mary? When have anxiety and worry hindered me from answering the call of God to serve? In the busyness of life, how do I express welcome and fraternity to those I encounter?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 5. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.