This Sunday’s Gospel of the story of Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42) often results in people rallying to support poor Martha who is chided by Jesus for being anxious about many things. Too often, the figures of Martha and Mary are seen as representing the contemplative (Mary) and active (Martha) lives. Folks who are accustomed to handling details concerning hospitality rush to Martha’s aid saying that, if it were not for her and people like her, nothing would ever get done. I understand the sentiment behind that but the problem is, it misreads the Gospel story.
Jesus is not setting up a contrast between the contemplative and active lives. He does not chide Martha for paying attention to the details of hospitality but for “being anxious about many things” and he commends Mary for choosing “the one thing that is better.” Jesus wants us to direct our attention in this story to what Mary has chosen over Martha’s anxiety. In other words, in this story, Martha is simply in the wrong. Period.
Now if that bothers you, recall how many times Peter was simply in the wrong. Or for that matter, Thomas. Or James and John. Martha is in good company. She is a big girl and can take care of herself, thank you!
What seems to bother so many of us is that Martha’s “job” is a lot like the work that many of us find ourselves doing either at home, in ministry, or at work, so it seems as though Jesus’ criticism is hitting a little too close to home. Jesus, however, is criticizing Martha’s attitude. Jesus spoke in general terms about not being anxious in his conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:25-34). We all love that “birds of the air” and “lilies of the field” stuff but we get a bit uncomfortable when we hear Jesus so pointedly direct the same wisdom at Martha, because we are so much like her. Perhaps we need to approach this story in another way.
Do you remember what it was like the first time you fell in love? Suddenly, you looked at the world and all of life in a whole new way. The love that you were experiencing “colored” your entire world meaning that it permeated and transformed every nook and cranny of your life. Heck, I remember as a high school student, sitting with a smile on my face in a class I absolutely hated – Algebra & Trigonometry – just thinking about the girl I was falling in love with! Discipleship is characterized first and foremost by allowing God to “color your world” so that you encounter him in every nook and cranny of your life.
This is what lies at the heart of the Gospel story of Martha and Mary. In reality, this story is about Mary allowing Jesus to color her world. Jesus’ criticism of Martha is not about her complaint that she has so much work to do but about the fact that she is “anxious about many things.” Jesus’ point is that, if he told Martha to forget about the pots and pans and to take a seat at his feet, she would still be anxious about many things, thus missing the fact that God was in her midst. If, on the other hand, Mary, who had discovered the “one thing” needed – Jesus – would have gotten up to help with the chores, she would have done so with peace and serenity, her heart still focused on the “one thing.” (Think of St. Thérèse and her “little way.”)
This notion of the “one thing” played a prominent role in the movie, City Slickers, when Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, finds himself alone with the rugged cowboy known as Curly, played by the late Jack Palance. Curly offers Mitch some advice for life:
- Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holding up one finger] This.
- Mitch: Your finger?
- Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s***.
- Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
- Curly: That’s what you have to find out.
Discipleship enables us to find out the “one thing” needed: the love of God in Christ Jesus which colors our world – every nook and cranny of it. When this happens, we find ourselves finding God in all things.
Martha, like Peter, Thomas, James and John, eventually got it right.. just not in this story.