16th Sunday of the Ordinary Time
Every time I read or hear this particular Gospel passage, I cringe in protest. There seems to be a monumental injustice happening and Jesus decides to side with the cause of the oppression rather than with the oppressed. Here we hear him chiding Martha who is obviously “burdened with much serving” saying: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
If I were the one to hear such retort, I would have probably replied, “If that’s the case, let me listen to you prattle on about kingdoms and principalities and what not while we let the spoons and forks prepare dinner themselves. What about that?” And that would have put Jesus in his place.
Such an ungracious guest! A dinner is being prepared in his honor together with a coterie of his grimy friends. All he has to do is ask Mary, politely, to help out in the kitchen. And what did Martha get out of her request? A rebuke. In front of many people while Mary could be grinning in a corner out of embarrassment or contentment. So what do we make out of this domestic debacle? Lutheran instructor and preacher Elisabeth Johnson (not to be confused with Elizabeth Johnson, the Catholic biblical theologian) helps us sort out this mess. She proposes understanding the difficult passage by analyzing the manner and context Martha’s request rather than going straight-forward interpreting the text at face value.
She said, rather than taking the side of Martha at once, we take into consideration the situation where Jesus was in. Remember that Jesus was traveling from an unnamed village to Jerusalem (where he would later be crucified). He made a pit stop in the house of his best friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whom he earlier rose from the dead. This context alone would tell us that the staying over in Martha’s house was of great significance to him. If you receive a death threat or are near death, wouldn’t you want your closest friends to be near you? Then there is the custom of hospitality that has to be considered. A host’s number one job is to entertain the guest. No visitor is to be turned away because they may be angels in disguise as the first reading reminds us. But isn’t that what Martha is exactly doing before she is interrupted by Jesus?
Quite the opposite, according to Johnson. She said that Jewish tradition necessitates the host of the house where the guest is staying to listen to the visitor. That is the first act that the ever-so-anxious Martha forgets to do. Or deliberately neglects to do. In another translation of the same Gospel text, Johnson points out that Martha is not only worried but distracted. Jesus reproaches 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.” In her desire to please the Lord, she flits from one place to the other (the kitchen to the receiving room), being all over the place trying to do everything and ending up accomplishing nothing. And there is also the manner with which she made her “request.” She could have excused herself, pulled Mary aside and tell her directly that she needed help in cutting the onions or peeling the potatoes.
But what did she do? She announced within the hearing of everyone (Jesus after all was preaching and Mary was enamored of his tales) this, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” “ Not only did she want Mary publicly reprimanded but she also reproached Jesus himself! We can argue that she did that because they were friends. It’s okay to do so, I have done it many times. But we do not embarrass our friends in front of acquaintances or relatives. And certainly, not if our friend is Jesus himself!
Furthermore, Martha’s choice of words tells us she did not make the request in earnest concern for the dinner preparation but it was spiteful and angry. She accused Jesus of not caring while she supposedly did all the hard work by herself. And instead of asking, Mary please help me. She asked Jesus to ask her to help her. A lot of misunderstanding between siblings and friends stem from our inability to make the request directly to the concerned party. As a result, what could have been communicated easily escalates to a full-blown Cold War.
So there you go. Jesus was not simply siding with his favorite friend Mary, but he was emphasizing the importance of knowing what is truly important vis-à-vis merely urgent. We all have the tendency to have the two mixed and in so doing also miss out a lot in life. How many times have we heard these expressions? I’m doing all these so that my children would not go hungry. I work myself to death so I could give my family a better future. You may be right, the sacrifices you do today are undoubtedly for your loved ones. But have you ever asked your loved ones whether your sacrifices are the ones they truly need or want?
One businessman father whom I had the privilege of joining in a seminar once complained, “My father was a hardworking man. Even Saturdays and Sundays he was at his desk trying to earn us a living so we could have a life more comfortable than he had. He was a good provider. But I hated him. Because he was never present in the most important events in my life. I told myself that if I have my own family, I would not be like him. Now, I’m rich and my son would not want to talk to me. I have become my father whom I vowed not to be!”
All this while we have been silent about Mary except a for few references thrown at her direction. Can we even imagine what was going on through her mind while Jesus was speaking of parables and perhaps hinting of his own demise? In contrast to her sister Martha who was all over the place, Mary firmly planted herself at the foot of Jesus, transposed into the images of Kingdom and Heaven, judgment and justification, resurrection and redemption. Was she out of touch with the realities of everyday life? Was she not familiar with the rudiments of scraping pots and pans and scrubbing the floor? Did she not know that we also need to eat food to be nourished the way we need the words of God to nourish our soul?
Yes, she did. But for Mary, whose priorities are not so mixed up like her sister, she also knew that Jesus had the Words of Everlasting Life. She understood that getting delayed for an hour or so at dinner time was of no consequence compared to not hearing the Jesus’ words. For her, no amount of worldly concern could ever distract her from feeding her soul because she correctly believed that if the soul gets famished, the whole body suffered tremendously. So she took the better part of the bargain. She even risked being chastised (and she was in a spectacular way) by her sister so long as she could fill her ears, her heart and her soul with words that combat anxiety and make us realize that God, in the end, still reigns supreme.
My dear brothers and sisters, let us ask ourselves whether we behave more like Martha (anxious to please others by doing things of secondary importance) or Mary (who chose to relegate all worries and concerns and listen intently to what Christ has to tell). Do we worry a lot that we could not sleep at night despite having prayed about our particular difficulties? Or do we let the day run its course believing that God will never abandon me the way he has not abandoned his friends and children? Like Martha, Jesus invites us to be sit down for a while, listen to his stories of love, compassion and mercy. Can we at least grant him this request?
Can we tune in to the most important thing?
Fr. Noel Y. Bava, SJ