The story of Jesus in the home of Martha and Mary complements the story of the Good Samaritan, which we heard last week in Luke’s Gospel. Both stories are unique to Luke. The story of the Samaritan opens with the words “a certain man.” Today’s reading opens with the words “a certain woman.” The Samaritan is an example of how a disciple should see and act. Mary is an example of how a disciple should listen. Mary, a woman, is a marginalized person in society, like the Samaritan. Both do what is not expected of them. As a woman, Mary would be expected, like Martha, to prepare hospitality for a guest. Here again Jesus breaks with the social conventions of his time. Just as a Samaritan would not be a model for neighborliness, so a woman would not sit with the men around the feet of a teacher.
Both stories exemplify how a disciple is to fulfill the dual command which begins chapter 10—love of God (Mary) and love of neighbor (the Samaritan). These are the two essentials of life in the kingdom. By using the examples of a Samaritan and a woman, however, Jesus is saying something more. Social codes and boundaries were strict in Jesus’ time. Yet to love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbor requires breaking those rules. The Kingdom of God is a society without distinctions and boundaries between its members. It is a society that needs times for seeing and doing and also times for listening and learning at the feet of a teacher.
I always feel that Mary and Martha’s home was a kind of sanctuary where Jesus could take time out to be among his friends especially if he had things weighting on his mind. The Bible tells us that Jesus loved Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. I wonder why he was so fond of them. Maybe because they allowed him space and time to unwind and share with them his innermost thoughts and feelings. In the first reading Abraham and Sarah did the same bending over backwards to accommodate their three mysterious visitors who turned up at their tent unannounced.
Do we ever make space in our lives for people who could do with a listening ear especially if they catch us on the hop and we’re not expecting them? Loving someone is not just about helping them in a time of crisis, like the Good Samaritan in last Sunday’s gospel, but also about making space and time for them on a more mundane level and especially if it inconvenient to us.
But before this happens it is important to make space and time for God in our busy lives. It mentions a number of times in the Gospel that Jesus took time out for prayer usually in a place where he wasn’t likely to be disturbed. According to the old catechism answer prayer is ‘a raising up of the mind and heart to God’. That simply cannot be done if our minds are all over the place. How can we raise up a restless heart to God if it is preoccupied with other things?
The gospel tells us that Mary sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to his words. Blaise Paschal, the renowned 17th century philosopher and mathematician, wrote that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
If that was true of the 17th century, how much more relevant is it for modern people. Even Sunday rest, which the Church calls for, is paid lip service to by many. We need to make uninterrupted space and time for God if we are ever going to give quality time to others. Martha and Mary were equally loved by Jesus. On this occasion he gently reminds Martha that Mary had chosen the better part on this occasion, and it would be a shame to take it from her
If you read about the lives of saintly Catholics who were very active in their ministries, like Saint Teresa of Calcutta or St. Rita, you may be surprised at how much time they spent in a chapel each day, praying at the feet of the Lord, before engaging in their ministries of service.
For this reason, I believe every one of us needs to have both a Mary and a Martha in us. To be a healthy Catholic is to unite in the soul the contemplative life and the active life. That mix will be different for each and every one of us. For those who work all week on the job and at home, this can be a challenging message indeed. My friends, can we devise strategies to help ourselves, every member of our family, circle of friends, and parishioners here at St. Michael’s to be rooted in the Mary side of our relationship with God and neighbor? Do we care enough to voluntarily give the Martha’s in our lives a break every so often, so she too can be rooted in the better part?
For we know the task of running a healthy parish here at Saint Michael’s takes the joint effort of an army of Martha’s, everyone doing their part. On the other hand, if we are not first Mary’s in our daily lives, our efforts are in vain. The Gospel challenges our parish, and in truth the Gospel needs all of us at home and outside of home, to root all of our activities in our prayerful discipleship of the Lord. This is very important because, as imperative as all the things we have to get done each day, if these activities are not rooted in a relationship with Jesus Christ, why does it matter?