Lessons From Martha


Most Christians know the story.  Jesus and His disciples were kicking back in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Martha was busy in the kitchen, trying to prepare a meal for the houseful of men.  And where is her sister, Mary?  Sitting with the guys at Jesus’ feet, in rapt awe.  Frustrated, Martha finally goes to Jesus and insists he tell Mary to help her.  Jesus responds, “Martha, why do you worry?  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Poor Martha.  Loaded with the work and rebuffed by Jesus.  What does it really mean?

The fact is, most of us relate more to Martha than Mary.  In American culture, at least historically, we pride ourselves on our hard work and ingenuity for solving problems.  We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and press on.  We roll up our sleeves and get to work.  We put our shoulders into it and move full steam ahead.  Things don’t get themselves done, we have to do them.

This viewpoint can also color the way we see and understand vocations in the Church as well.  A young man I know, also called to a contemplative, monastic life, shared with me a conversation he’d had with someone else.  At one point in their conversation, the other person looked at him and said, “I just don’t find your story compelling.  We need priests and religious in our parishes and streets, helping people, feeding the poor…there is so much work to be done!  What value is there to living in a monastery in the middle of the desert?”

What we often forget is a very important truth: God doesn’t need us.  Think on that for a moment.  God is perfect, whole, and complete without you and me.  He doesn’t need our presence or our activity.  So why did He create us?  Purely out of and for love.  He loves each person into being.  We continue to exist because He continues to love us, individually.  He desires nothing more than for us to freely enter into a communion of love with Him.  That was the better part Mary discovered.  That was what Martha had missed. 

Our busyness, our activity can actually hide a very insidious and dangerous deadly sin: sloth.  St. Thomas Aquinas defines sloth as boredom or indifference with spiritual matters.  We can be energetic about our work, our service, our families, but when it comes to the things of God – Mass or reading the Scriptures, or spending time in prayer – we yawn and say to ourselves, “Meh.  Too hard.  I’ll do it later.”  The antidote: practicing the virtue of discipline.  Spend time with God anyway.  Fr. Barron also suggests in one of his talks, “Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Lively Virtues” to seek and embrace your mission.  Ask God what particular purpose He made you for, and what are you to do this day.  Then do it.  But it starts with spending time with God and listening for His response.

After this exchange between Jesus and Martha, she appears two more times in the Gospels.  The second time is when Jesus raises Lazarus from death.  Martha goes out to meets Jesus, saying Lazarus would not have died had He been there.  Martha then makes a proclamation of faith that mirrors Peter’s, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  Jesus responds to Martha’s statement with, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

The final time we see Martha in the Gospels, she is again serving Jesus and His disciples, this time with joy and peace.  Imagine the scene – Jesus teaching and conversing with His disciples, caring for His flock.  Mary sitting at His feet, contemplating His words.  Martha joyfully exercising her gift of hospitality and looking after the practical needs of the group, this time, no envious comparisons between her and her sister.  Both are free to live in the knowledge of Jesus’ love for them and exercise their gifts for the benefit of all.

This is a window into the Church.  Christ is the head and we are each a member of His body, connected to each other.  Each of us needed by the other, and each of us needing the others.  As Paul writes, “the eye cannot tell the hand, I do not need you.”  Mary, in contemplation, sits at the feet of Jesus, and is an example to us of what is ultimately most important.  The monastic contemplative life is at the heart of the Church.  Your heart is hidden from the outside, and to a certain extent, how it works is also mysterious.  But without it working continuously and properly pumping blood to the rest of our limbs and organs, we would die.  In a similar way, monastic, contemplative life in the Church brings life to the rest of the Church.  Monastic contemplatives, day and night, are praising God and interceding for the Church and world.  Their contemplative life serves as an example of our ultimate destination – to love and be with God for eternity.  Everyone is called to contemplative prayer, but relatively few are called to a contemplative life. 

At the same time, contemplatives need the apostolic activity of the Marthas.  Without the hands and feet of bishops, priests, active sisters and laity, the heart would go nowhere.  We need each other.  This was what our Heavenly Father intended.  In Christ, we learn what it is to love, to will the good of someone else for their own sake, not because of what we may receive from them.  We learn to put ourselves at the service of one another, as we have been gifted by the Holy Spirit.  It is not a choice of “either/or”; it is a complimentary union of “both/and.”

One week ago, we remembered St. Mary Magdalene on her feast day.  Today, we remember St. Martha.  Let us be challenged today to remember who we are in Jesus – His dearly cherished beloved – and from that knowledge, respond to Him by asking, “What do you have for me to do this day?”  May we also remember to see the gifts in one another and show each other gratitude for them, praising God for the beautiful complementarity He created in each one of us.

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