July 29: St Martha (Lk -42)
The story of Martha and Mary sounds like a lesson in hospitality, but it is really a lesson in the true following of Jesus Christ. Luke uses hospitality merely as one example among many to make his point.
Mary “sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking.” This is the biblical picture of a disciple learning from his master. Paul sat at the feet of Gamaliel; we say that he studied under him.
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’ 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, ), 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, and they are not sound teaching.
Luke is saying that the activity of the follower of Christ should develop out of his 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 for ever, 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 ). Then Martha would not fall victim to worry or complaint.
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 ). Our busy-ness will degenerate into distraction and complaint. But the listening without the doing, if Mary stopped at that, would be fruitless.
So, let’s make time to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his word. It’s too easy to lose ourselves in 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 five minutes a day at least, take it to ourselves, then as a result of it, to persevere in doing something worthwhile for others.