It is hard to find more vivid character drawing greater economy of words than we find in today’s gospel showing serious clash of temperaments and the wrong type of kindness. Two sisters – Martha and Mary represent two different approaches to Jesus. One remarkable difference between the two sisters was that Martha wanted Jesus to listen to her, while Mary wanted to listen to Jesus. These two characters not only draw the values of both contemplative and active spirituality but underline the positive blend of both in our ‘techno-crazy’ environments.
We identify with Martha when we have work to do, problems on our mind, things to finish before we can relax. When we try to pray, our minds spin with a dozen distractions. We remember a phone call we should make, something we need to get at the store, a task that just can’t wait. And – God forgive us – like Martha we sometimes put down the “Mary’s”: “It must be nice. Look at all the stuff I have to do. I wish I could get a break.”
Fair enough, but that’s not the point. All of us know deep down that the best gift we can give to someone is not large sums of money or a delicious meal. That would be wonderful, but we want something more. When you and I think about our lives, we recognized that the best gift someone ever gave us was this: open-ended, undistracted listening. That is the gift Mary gave to Jesus. Martha was busy doing something for Jesus – and, to accomplish it, she wanted Jesus to listen to her. Mary on the other hand, just wanted to listen to Jesus. “Mary,” said Jesus, “has chosen the better part.”
In our human relationships (friend to friend, husband to wife, parent to child) we can easily recognize the power of open-ended, undistracted listening. Something similar applies to prayer. Jesus has all the time in the world to listen to you or me. He comes from the point of view of eternity, which by definition is undivided and perfectly open-ended. The problem is not on Jesus’ side. He can listen to each one, all day and all night. The problem is on our side. We are reluctant to do what Mary did – to put aside other activities and to listen. Recognizing the fact that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem- to die and atone for our sins, his whole being was taken up with the intensity of the inner battle to bend his will to the will of God. Jesus’ visit to the home in Bethany recaptures every moment we spend with him, where Jesus seeks to find an oasis of calm away from the demanding crowds. Martha in her kindness destroyed what Mary so generously gave. One of our great challenges in life is our approach to be kind to people in our own way. We need periods of quiet prayer in our lives if we are to keep our balance and perspective in life. We can get so much involved in what we are doing that we forget why we are doing it. We can get so involved in living that we forget the purpose of living. We can get so involved in pursuing the things money can buy that we forget about the things money can’t buy. It is this kind of mistake that Martha made in today’s gospel. She got so much involved in cooking a meal for Jesus that she forgot why Jesus came. He didn’t come for a meal, rather he came to be with friends.
Based on Sunday readings of July 17th 2016