Luke 10: 38-42
38 As they were on their way, Jesus entered a village. A woman named Martha greeted him. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his word. Martha, on the other hand, was busy with a demanding table service. Rushing out, she said, "Lord, do not you care that my sister leaves me alone to watch over the tables? Tell her to help me". 41 The Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you worry and agitate for many things, yet you need only one. Because Mary has chosen the function par excellence, it will not be taken away from her".
So much to do
Gospel commentary - Homily
What is important?
The story of Martha and Mary is well-known. But, in my opinion, it is usually very poorly understood. Most of the time, we will see the affirmation of the superiority of contemplation over action: what Mary does to listen to the word of the Lord is much more important than what Martha does in her kitchen. From there we place on a pedestal the groups dedicated to prayer, to the detriment of those engaged in social action, or what the clergy do to the detriment of secular action.
The first light shed on this story comes from the author himself, in his other book, the Acts of the Apostles. Remember this scene where the non-Jewish people of the Christian community are frustrated because their widows are forgotten by Christian social service, because in fact the apostles are overwhelmed. How do these react? It is not proper, they say, that we forsake the word of God for the distribution of food. So we decide to delegate the distribution of food function to seven people, which traditionally some will call "deacons". By this delegation, the apostles want to be able to continue to lead prayer and service of the word. Thus the tension between watching on tables and the service of the word of God has been resolved.
A first observation is needed here about the story of Martha and Mary: the role that Mary plays and that Jesus intends to support is the very one played by the apostles. What? A woman with the same eminent function as an apostle? Yes, Luke answers. Moreover, his entire gospel is marked by the eminent role he gives to many women, beginning with Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the current debate about the place of women in the Church, Luke would have a lot to say. And in my opinion, the tension between the role of Martha and Mary, represented by Martha's reproach to Jesus himself, reflects a situation of the early Church, especially in Corinth, and it is partly a answer to this question that is presented here.
But, you can guess, our story contains much more than a statement about the organization of roles in the Church. But what is the message given us by the gospel through Martha's face, this very busy woman, concerned about carrying out all that she has undertaken and who does not understand that the energies of everyone do not go in the same direction? In Martha's face, I see my life at certain times, where I feel overwhelmed by work, trying to control everything, crushed by responsibilities, worried about my future, anxious about what awaits my children. I also see the local churches, where people, laity as priests, burn themselves at work, in the service of pastoral units, hoping that in this way the Church of tomorrow will be born. In contrast, I see a crowd of people dazing in a thousand and one activities, to escape the emptiness of the present.
What is the issue here? The challenge is to discriminate between what is worth doing and what is not, to determine what is important and what is not. However, the question arises both on the human level and on the spiritual level. Someone like Stephen Covey presents the effective man as one who has been able to clearly identify the purpose of his life, and therefore constantly gives priority to actions that go in that direction, and thereby builds his person. His life is integrated, unified. For Luke, it is through the inner union with Jesus, both in prayer and in reflection, what he calls listening to the word of God, that I can step back and look at my life with the right perspective, that things take their true meaning and so I can determine what is important and what is not. It is the Mary in me that makes it possible to set the proper place to Martha in me.
As we see, we are far from an opposition between action and contemplation. Moreover, the scene preceding our story is that of the good Samaritan, who illustrates the man who knows how to act in the right way. But, to be able to act in this way, one must first take the time to listen to the one who keeps repeating to us his love. Otherwise, we just writhe and spend our life doing unnecessary things.
It is my conviction that the new face of the Church will come only from these long moments of listening. May this Sunday be one of those moments.
-André Gilbert, Gatineau, April 2004