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, 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."
To interpret today's gospel we must keep a healthy balance between contemplation and action, and remember that each of us reflects, simultaneously, Martha and Mary, Paul and Peter, Jonah and Nineveh. They are all symbols for something God wants 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 good action. As we saw yesterday, when ordered to Nineveh to preach repentance he acted promptly but in the wrong direction. He could have avoided all trouble by 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 the Old and New Testament. In the Book of Jonah repentance did not consist simply in the ritual acts of sackcloth and ashes. All persons 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.
Still, the role of Mary begins to emerge as also a valid option. First of all, note how Moses, the founder of biblical religion, ascends into the clouds as he went up on mount Sinai and "stayed there for forty days and forty nights" (Exod 24:18). Later we are told that during his time spent in writing the law, Moses refrained from "eating any food or drinking any water" (Exod 34:28). The king of Nineveh also called for fasting, penance and prayer on the part of everyone, to draw close 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 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 portion 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.
Most people on hearing this gospel feel some sympathy for Martha. There she is working hard in the service of Jesus and Jesus declares that Mary has chosen the better part. "Poor old Martha" would be a fairly common response. Jesus is clearly not opposed in principal to people working hard in his service and in the service of others. Yesterday's parable of the Good Samaritan praises compassion and active 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."
Apparently Jesus understood that his visit to the home of the two sisters was a time for them to refrain from activity so as to listen to his word. Jesus had something to say and he wanted them to listen. 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 Martha was. Yes, the Lord wants us to work on his behalf, but he also wants us to listen to him. Wisdom consists in knowing when the time has come to be active and busy in the Lord's service and when it is time simply to sit and listen to his word.