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.
Now 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."
Today's Scriptures propose a healthy balance between contemplation and action, since each of us reflects, simultaneously, Martha and Mary, Paul and Peter, Jonah and Nineveh. They are all pointers to something God wants of us. This is not to deny their individual personalities, but it echoes St 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 inclined to listen for God's will. As we saw yesterday, when ordered to Nineveh to preach repentance he acted promptly but in the wrong direction. He could have avoided trouble by just ignoring the Lord's command and sleeping his life away at home in Israel. Martha is like others in Luke's rendition of the Good News, 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 both the Old and the New Testament. In the Book of Jonah repentance was not just the ritual of sackcloth and ashes. All were required to "turn from their evil ways," a phrase repeated twice in this short book, and therefore essential for true conversion. Both ritual and moral action were expected.
But the quiet, listening stance of Mary of Bethany also appears as a valid option. As a background, we can recall how Moses, the founder of biblical religion, ascended up on mount Sinai and "stayed there for forty days and forty nights" (Exod 24:18). And during his time spent in writing the law, Moses refrained from eating or drinking (Exod 34:28). The king of Nineveh also called his people to fasting, penance and prayer, to draw near to God.
We may be surprised at Jesus' words to Martha, "You are anxious and upset about many things; one thing only is required. Mary has chosen the better portion." One might say that he was commending a spirit of calm reflection that should exist in Martha and in each of us. We shouldn't let ourselves be always anxious and upset. We need to be reminded of the main purpose of our lives. The "better portion," praised by Jesus in no ways makes the other, active, portion unimportant or unnecessary; it simply must be joined to wisdom, love and concern. We each need the spirit of both Martha and Mary.
Most people on hearing this gospel feel sympathy for Martha. There she is preparing a meal for Jesus and his friends, and for some reason he declares that Mary has chosen the better part. "Poor old Martha" would be a common response. Clearly Jesus is not opposed in principle to people working hard in the service of others. In the parable of the Good Samaritan he praised the man's compassion and love. But as the book of Ecclesiastes says, "there is a time for every matter under heaven," and in light of this we could say, "there is a time to be active and a time to refrain from activity."
When visiting the home of the two sisters Jesus understood it as a time for them to refrain from activity so as to listen to what he had to say. It was Mary who recognized that this was the kind of hospitality Jesus wanted on this occasion, the hospitality of listening rather than the hospitality of activity. Mary was more attuned to what the Lord really wanted than was her sister. Yes, the Lord wants us to work on his behalf, but he also wants us to listen to him. Wisdom consists in knowing when it's time to be active and busy in the Lord's service and when it is time simply to sit and listen to his word.