In one episode of the “Brady Bunch,” middle sister Jan gets fed up with center-of-attention oldest sister Marsha. “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” Jan cries in irritation. I can’t remember the problem or how it was resolved, but I do remember Jan’s tone: total exasperation. And thanks to the similarity in the sound of the names (Marsha and Martha), for years this same exasperation echoed through my mind every time I read the story of Mary and Martha in the gospel. It is as though Martha comes out of the kitchen and with the same exasperation says (in so many words): Mary, Mary, Mary. And then finds herself on the carpet, so-to-speak, in front of Jesus and whole room.
Martha is not “on the carpet” because of her hospitality. It was not her cooking, cleaning, or serving that bothers Jesus. Jesus names the problem: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” She is in such a state that she is being rendered asunder, being torn apart, pulled in all directions – and feels alone, unappreciated, and ignored. She is so agitated that she could not enjoy Jesus’ company, enjoy his presence, find inspiration in her work, or receive anything he wished to offer her. Instead, all she could do was question his love (“Lord, do you not care?”), fixate on herself (“…my sister has left me left me by myself to do the serving” and triangulate (“Tell her then to help me.”)
Does any of this sound familiar? We all have points at which our interior life feels like we are being pulled apart, so much so that remembering to share love, compassion and charity are a struggle, more likely a distant thought. Think about the times we flash react to a rather routine and normal situation with annoyance and exasperation. Think about the times you are so busy that the ones we are supposed to love and serve become another task on the list. All of this, and more, has its own way of keeping us from being fully present, fully engaged, fully alive. We are either so flummoxed or busy there is little time for intimacy with God or with others. It is as though the very person we want to be, the person God calls us to be, is coming apart at the seams.
It likely makes us more ready to hear Jesus’ words: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things” as a criticism rather than an invitation. To hear a rebuke rather than words to calm the anxious soul. To hear Jesus’ call to the quiet moment, the contemplative life… or is it? Is this what is going on in this passage? Is Jesus is telling us to choose contemplation over action. Word over deed. The mystic over the activist. Worship over service. I think it is kinda’ hard to reach that conclusion. The Gospel is very clear that we are called to action and prayer; we need both.
How would the Church ever survive without Marthas – be they women or men? Those who prepare the church for Mass, who tend to the details of the parish, who serve in ministry, who tend to the altar – the ones who do so many things, large and small, seen and unseen. We need the Martha’s and the Mary’s. After all they are sisters. Their differences don’t erase the basic fact that they belonged together. They needed each other. They held each other in balance. Right? Better to be balanced, right? Is this the message of the Gospel?
The problem is that Jesus’ words are kinda’ clear: “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Rather hard to make the claim the reading is about balance. That seems a rather tepid understanding. The story is about being whole, not balanced. It is about choosing the one thing, the best thing — and forsaking everything else for its sake. I would suggest that the story is about single-mindedness. About a passionate and undistracted pursuit of completeness. Think of Jesus’s most evocative parables; they all point in this same direction. The pearl of great price. The buried treasure in the field. The lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. Christianity is not about balance; it’s about extravagance. It’s not about being reasonable; it’s about being deeply in love with Jesus – and then pursuing that love with a single-mindedness, knowing that complete love will be accompanied by the right balance.
In our work-frenzied, performance-driven lives, it’s easy to believe that pondering, listening, waiting, and resting have no value. It’s easy to roll our eyes at spiritual earnestness. We are who we are. We are Martha, we are Mary. We are called to be both even as we excel in one or the other. And if we are paying attention, there are moments that call us to single-minded pursuit of the one thing, the best thing, those moments will also bring us balance, the completeness in Christ. It offers to give Martha a good injection of Mary and vice-versa, putting together what was torn apart
As soon as Jesus entered Martha’s house, he turned the place upside down. He upset Martha’s expectations, routines, and habits. He insisted on change. Perhaps Martha’s mistake was that she assumed she could invite Jesus into her life, and then carry on with that life as usual, maintaining control, privileging her own priorities, and clinging to her long-cherished agenda and schedule. What was Jesus’s response to that assumption? Nope. That’s not how discipleship works.
We mostly assume Mary was the “spiritual one.” I suspect Mary was every bit the homemaker and host. As a first century Jewish woman she understood and accepted the role and way of hospitality. But Mary recognized that Jesus’s presence in her house required a radical shift, a wholehearted surrender. Every action, every decision, every priority, would have to be filtered through this new devotion, this new passion. Why? Because Jesus was no ordinary guest. He was the Guest who would be Host. The Host who would provide the bread of life, the living water, and the wine that was his own blood. The Host to anyone who would sit at his feet and receive his hospitality.
This gospel is about choosing not just any part, but the better part – the best part that will make you complete. Choose well.