You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me.
Now as they went on their way, he 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."
While good intentions can drive one to over-activity and even to misguided zeal, the Scriptures defend human activity and good works as essential to salvation. For today's readings we must keep in mind this healthy balance between contemplation and action, and remember that each of us reflects, simultaneously, Martha and Mary, Paul and Peter. Each of these becomes a symbol for us. This outlook does not deny their individual reality but enshrines Paul's view that "everything in the Scriptures was written for our instruction" (Rom 15:4).
In Galatians Paul is a man of action, always at the eye of the hurricane. He was not converted in order to spend his life in prayer but rather to "spread among the gentiles the good news of Jesus." Martha, too, fits the pattern of many good, active people in the Gospel of Luke. She is like others in Luke's account, people who threw parties, 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 Jesus' own preparations for the Last Supper (22:7-13). Silent contemplation is the exception, not the rule, in the Old and New Testament.
Still, the role of Mary begins to emerge as also a valid option. We are not surprised at Jesus' words, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about many things; one thing only is required. Mary has chosen the better portion." In a very true sense, Jesus was speaking to the "Mary spirit" that should exist in Martha and belongs to each of us. It is not good to be so active as to be "anxious and upset." Then, we are always in need to be reminded of the secret, inner vision of our lives.
The "better portion," praised by Jesus in no ways makes the other unimportant or unnecessary; it makes our activity full of spirit and soul, direction and wisdom, love and concern. We each need to be both Martha and Mary.
This morning's gospel suggests that Jesus welcomed the hospitality that was shown to him by others. On this occasion it was Martha welcomed him to her house. Yet, it seems that Jesus' visit was more a cause of anxiety to Martha than an occasion of joy. That is clear from Jesus' words to Martha, 'Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things.' We can all turn what is, in reality, a pleasure into a chore. From the action point of view, Mary seems the more retiring of the two women. The house is called Martha's house, and Mary is simply referred as Martha's sister. Yet, this more retiring of the two sisters received Jesus in a way that was more appropriate to the occasion. Rather than allowing herself to be unnecessarily burdened, like Martha, she simply attended to the guest with joy, sitting at his feet and listening to him speaking.
Jesus clearly appreciated the kind of attention that Mary gave him. It is often the way in Luke's gospel that the more marginal people are the ones who respond best to Jesus and have most to teach us. On this occasion, Martha had something to learn from Mary, as we all do. Martha was overly anxious to nourish Jesus, when, in reality, it was he who wanted to nourish both of them with his word. Sometimes, what the Lord wants from us is just to sit and listen, and allow him to feed us with his word and his presence.