St Martha - July 29

Luke's Gospel has been subtitled: "the Hospitality of God". The story of Martha and Mary sounds like a lesson in hospitality, but it is more specifically a lesson in the true following of Jesus Christ. Luke is concentrating on the life of the true disciple of Jesus. He uses hospitality as one example among many to make his point.

Luke describes for us the true attitude of the disciple, personified here by Mary, "who sat down at the Lord's feet and listened to him speaking" (Lk 10:39).This is the biblical picture of a disciple learning from his master. Paul sat at the feet of Gamaliel. We say, he studied under him. Listening to Jesus is the most important thing and we can't do without it if we want to live in conformity with the word of the Master.

The unusual thing here is that the disciple is a woman. That point is lost on us, because women nowadays are into everything. But it is a significant insight into Jesus's acceptance of women.

Martha is so busy that she doesn't give herself a chance to listen to the Master. But, (I'll draw on another of Luke's examples, 11:28), happy are "those who hear the word of God and keep it!"

Jesus doesn't draw a contrast between listening and doing. He doesn't say one is better than the other. He certainly doesn't contrast religious life and lay life in the Church. And he doesn't say that, in religious orders, the contemplative life is better than the active life. These are not valid interpretations.

Luke is saying that the activity of the followers of Christ should develop out of their listening to Jesus. As the situation is presented, Mary is doing what is more fundamental to the true follower. She is centred off herself, present to the Lord, listening to him. She can't sit at the Lord's feet forever, but at the moment she is doing something that Martha needs also to do.

Martha needs to integrate listening to God into her doing something for people. Listening to Jesus should give rise to practical attention to his needs. Luke indicates what is still needed in Martha's following of Christ: she needs to hear the great commandment, and act on it: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself' (Lk 10:27). Then Martha would not fall victim to worry or complaint.

The disciple who is "on the way" with the Lord should not be worried or fretting "about so many things". Time is too precious to be over-concerned about material cares. We mustn't allow ourselves to be distracted from the presence of the kingdom of God, and carried away by thinking too exclusively about earthly realities.

Our task is to combine Martha and Mary. Both listening and doing are essential to our true following of Christ. The doing without the listening, like Martha, will be choked by the worries of life (Lk 8:14). Our busy-ness will degenerate into distraction and complaint. But the listening without the doing, if Mary stopped at that, would be fruitless.

Attention to the Master and hearing his word is for the disciple the "better part and it is not to be taken from her" (Lk 10:42). But for Luke, to hear the Master's word involves more than blissful contemplation. Rather, it results in concrete and demanding action.

This holds for every Christian, and in a special way for Secular Franciscans. The Rule states: "Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and from life to the gospel" (Rule 4) "As Jesus was the true worshipper of the Father, so let prayer and contemplation be the soul of all they are and do" (Rule 8) .

It becomes all the more essential for those Spiritual Assistants who are religious. "Renouncing all things for the sake of Christ, (they) follow him as their one necessity, listening to his words and being taken up with his work" (Perfectae caritatis, 5).

St Francis grew to understand his gift from God in balancing contemplation and action as his way of life, and he set a pattern for all of us who share his charism by God's grace. He struggled for some time with an either/or proposition: "That I should spend my time in prayer, or that I should travel about preaching?" (Major Legend XII 1, FA:ED II p.623).

He saw clearly the advantages of prayer and the disadvantages of going out to preach. But one thing outweighed all these considerations, and that was the example of Jesus; "And because we should do everything according to the pattern shown to us in him, it seems more pleasing to God that I interrupt my quiet and go out to labour."

We notice that Francis only "interrupted" his prolonged periods of contemplation, in order to move out from contemplating the gospel to down-to-earth living the gospel. He arrived at a both/and solution, which characterizes our Franciscan way of life.

So, let's make time to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his word. It's too easy to forget the Lord of the work and to lose ourselves in the work of the Lord, the worries and cares of serving our neighbour.

Let's resolve to listen to the word of God. One way would be to read the scriptures for at least ten minutes a day, take it to ourselves, then as a result of it, to persevere in doing something worthwhile for others.