“Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part. It is not to be taken from her.” Luke 10, 38-42
Whenever I hear today’s gospel reading, I can’t help thinking that Martha came out second best from the disagreement with her sister. After all, there was a household to run and a meal to be prepared, and all the work seemed to fall to her as her sister sat starry-eyed at the feet of their important visitor. So, I can understand why there was some “electricity” in the air. Martha knew the practicalities that were part of entertaining a guest. So, she was taken aback when Jesus told her to stop getting het up. And when he told her that Mary had made a better choice by sitting idly on the floor listening to what he had to say, she was cut to the quick. If she gave both Mary and Jesus a piece of her mind, Luke did not record it. However I’m sure she probably felt like doing that. So, what, I wonder, was Luke’s point in putting this story right after that of the Good Samaritan?
I suggest that Luke is pointing out that, while it is important at times to put the needs of others first, especially the needs of the sick, the injured and the neglected (the Good Samaritan), there is also a time for being fully present to those who come to us with a message that deserves our full attention. There are times when true discipleship calls for generous and selfless, practical action. There are other times when it is more important to take time to hear and reflect on Jesus’ message.
But let’s briefly return to Martha, for she is a mirror for all of us. She was angry with Mary who had left her to do all the work, and she was angry with Jesus for not telling Mary to give her a hand: “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the household tasks all by myself?” There are times when we all get upset with others who we believe are not pulling their weight. Moreover, we show our disapproval by resorting to sarcasm or sharp speech, and end up feeling aggrieved and full of self-pity. Our meanness of spirit can end up closing off all possibilities for God’s Spirit to get a look in. If we’re honest, we will recognise that there is something of the Martha in all of us. We get some satisfaction out of proving to ourselves and others that we are being victimised when all the work is left to us. All we are really doing is massaging our own ego.
However, the challenge for us in the story lies in Jesus’ assertion that Mary has made a better choice. That assertion leaves me scratching my head, wondering what Jesus was getting at. The answer, of course, is that Jesus is not devaluing Martha’s hard work in the kitchen but rather the way in which she has gone about it, full of resentment and self-pity, and slipping into comparing herself with her sister.
One of the characteristics of Luke’s Gospel is the many mentions made of Jesus’ acceptance of invitations to dine with others. What especially scandalised people like the Pharisees was that most of his dining was with public sinners. But hospitality is a recurring theme in Luke. And the Pharisees could not help comparing themselves with the “disreputables” whose invitations Jesus accepted. Are there times when we decide to accept or decline invitations on the basis of who else is on the invitation list?
More important, however, is the real value on which hospitality is based - everyone who comes into our lives is a guest, worthy of respect and bringing promise. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote: “Make hospitality your special care…Have the same attitude towards everyone…Put away ambitious thoughts and associate with those who are lowly” (Romans12, 13-16).
That’s the kind of hospitality that Jesus modelled as he went about his ministry, engaging with everyone he encountered. In acting like that, he showed people something of the hospitality of God, demonstrating that nobody was outside the scope of God’s boundless embrace. Jesus extended God’s hospitality to everyone without distinction, and accepted the hospitality of others. We know he dined with those who were regarded as the riff-raff, and accepted the hospitality of friends like Martha, Mary and Lazarus. He also welcomed the invitation to dinner extended by the two disciples who poured out their troubles to him as they journeyed together to Emmaus. The distinguishing characteristic of all these encounters was the quality of his presence. And it is Mary’s quality of presence that he singles out in his gentle response to Martha’s exasperation: “Martha, Martha (notice how the repetition of her name softens his reprimand), you’re fussing too much and getting worked up over nothing; one thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it, and it won’t be taken from her” (Luke 10, 41-42).
This story echoes one of Luke’s earlier accounts of how members in the crowd listening to Jesus relayed to him the message that his “mother and brothers” had come to join him. His response was: “My mother and brothers are the ones who hear and do God’s word” (Luke 8, 19-21).
So, while there is something of both Martha and Mary in each of us, and while we know how we struggle to hold the two in tension, today’s gospel reading reminds us that reflection & contemplation and selfless service are both essential dimensions of true discipleship. In lived reality, we are more inclined to let the busy-ness of life dull our sensitivity to the need to make room for quiet reflection.
If it is true that hospitality is an essential dimension of Christian discipleship, and that presence is integral to hospitality, it follows that we have to learn to be alert to the obstacles that get in the way of presence and hospitality. Two of those potential, contemporary obstacles are the internet and the cell-phone. I read recently an article entitled “I used to be a Human Being” by Andrew Sullivan, a researcher who described what it’s like to have one’s soul hollowed out by the world wide web. Sullivan wrote about how the internet broke him and led him down a path of chronic distraction. Other research has demonstrated that, in countries where the sales of cell-phones and smart phones are booming, owners check on them over 200 times a day or in excess of 30,000 times a year. One teacher-researcher commented about his secondary school students: “Their bodies are in the classroom, but their minds are inside their cell-phones” (Dr Delaney Ruston, Screenagers, May 2016, PBS Documentary).
Excessive time with gadgets effectively reduces necessary growth time with people. The knock-on effect is that our potential for presence, hospitality and authentic discipleship risks being depleted. “What”, I need to ask myself, “are my obstacles to authentic discipleship?” What prevents me from being truly present to others?