The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across.
Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
O let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleading. (R./)
If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is found forgiveness;
for this we revere you. (R./)
Because with the Lord there is mercy
and fullness of redemption.
Israel indeed he will redeem
from all its iniquity. (R./)
As they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
We must keep a healthy balance between contemplation and action, so that each of us reflects the characteristics of both Martha and Mary, Paul and Peter, Jonah and the Ninevites. They are all icons for something God expects of us. This does not deny their individual reality but enshrines Paul's view that "everything in the Scriptures was written for our instruction" (Rom 15:4).
Jonah was a man of action, though not always prudent or praiseworthy action. When given a mandate to to preach repentance in Nineveh, he acted promptly but went off in the wrong direction. He could have avoided all trouble by ignoring his mission and sleeping away his life at home in Israel. Martha is like others who threw parties, in Luke's version of the Good News, beginning with Simon Peter's mother-in-law (4:39) and including the father of the prodigal son (15:22-24), Zacchaeus the tax collector (19:5-6) and indeed the Last Supper (22:7-13). Silent contemplation is the exception, not the rule, in both the Old and New Testament. In Jonah's case, repentance meant more than the ritual acts of sackcloth and ashes. All persons were required to "turn from their evil ways," a phrase repeated twice in this book, as signs of true conversion. Both ritual and moral repentance were expected.
The more contemplative attitude of Martha's sister Mary is also a valid option. We may be surprised at Jesus telling Martha not to be so anxious and upset about things, for only one thing is required. "Mary has chosen the better portion." Was he implying that the "Mary spirit" should exist in Martha too, and in each of us. He bids not to be overly anxious or upset. We need to be reminded of the secret, inner aspect of life. The "better portion," praised by Jesus in no way makes activity unimportant, but we need to make time for spirit and soul, direction love and concern. We each need to imitate both Martha and Mary.
Most Christians feel sympathy for Martha of Bethany. She was working hard to prepare a meal, and yet Jesus declares that Mary has chosen the better part. "Poor old Martha" would be a normal response. Surely Jesus is not opposed in principle to people working hard in the service of others. In the parable of the Good Samaritan he praises compassion and active love. But as the book of Ecclesiastes says, "there is a time for every matter under heaven," which could be paraphrases as "there is a time to be active and a time to be silent and listen."
For Jesus, this visit to the two sisters was a time to simply listen to his word. He had something vital to say that they both needed to hear. Mary instinctively recognized that this was the kind of hospitality required on this occasion, listening rather than doing. Mary was more attuned than Martha to what the Lord really wanted. Christ wants us to work on his behalf, but he also wants us to listen to him. Wisdom prompts us when to be active and busy and when to simply to sit and listen to his word.