The Better Part. 16th Sunday OT.
I wanted to write a homily about Martha and Mary this week, but I’m afraid I just didn’t have time. Too busy.
Just kidding. Seriously, though, I mentioned the Gospel text to someone earlier this week, and they said “well that’s what’s going on in the world today.” Busy busy busy. Worried and anxious about many things. I’m afraid some people could have that engraved on their tombstone: “worried and anxious about many things.”
You could call it the pace of life, and it’s hard to find a sweet spot. Many of us are chronically busy. We get so caught up in our rat race of choice that we have no time for what’s really important. On the other hand, some of us are at a place in life where each day drags on in sameness, where it’s really hard to answer someone who asks you “what’s happening with you?”
But the story of Martha and Mary isn’t only about whether you’re too busy. It’s about whether you’re worried and anxious - and that’s not the same thing as busy. Most of all, it’s about whether you’re in touch with the one needful thing.
You could read this story in a curmudgeonly way and start denouncing the superficiality of modern life, etc. But you can also read this story as profoundly encouraging, and I think that’s more helpful. For one thing, I suggest that we are often too hard on poor Martha. Who among us would serenely go about the work of hospitality while our deadbeat sister and roommate sat there not lifting a finger, and not feel any resentment? And notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke Martha for serving. In fact, I wouldn’t call this a rebuke at all. What the Lord said was “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.”
Maybe some of us need reminding that hand-me-downs are not child abuse, that cable TV is not actually required for human life, and that we live a short drive from a stunningly beautiful natural forest. But I really believe that most of us are really trying to live out Christian priorities. Most of are really trying, as the title of a recent book has it, to have a Mary heart in a Martha world.
Our first reading shows a counterpoint to Martha’s anxiety: Abraham and Sarah are also a picture of hospitality, also seeing to various chores, but without the complaint and stress. They are doing the chores, but they are focused on the people. They are focused on their guests. Poor Martha is burdened, stressed out… she’s focused on chores while the Son of God is sitting in her house! When she finally gets fed up and vents, Jesus gently reminds her that her worries and anxieties are misplaced. “There is need of only one thing. These things that are stressing you out so much… I’m not asking you to do them. I’m just asking you to be with me.” The Lord gives her permission to let it go. Mary has chosen the better part.
Here’s a very important line: “it will not be taken from her.” Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. Mary has chosen the thing that lasts, the thing that endures. How much of the work we do will endure? How much of it can we be assured will never be taken from us? Martha’s problem wasn’t that she was trying to be hospitable. Her problem was that she was burdened with her service, which means she was drifting away from love. Love is difficult, love is exhausting, but love is not burdensome.
Jesus guides her back toward the service of love, instead of the service of burden and anxiety. And that’s the real trick. What must be done must be done… but do we work out of anxiety and burden, or out of love? Are we focused on Christ in our brother or sister, or are we quietly growing resentful and bitter?
For it is Christ who we serve in our brother and sister. We know that. Christ told us so very clearly. Christ is in our home. Are we Martha, ignoring him and worrying about things that will pass away? Or Mary, asking nothing but to be in His presence? All this world is passing away. There is only one thing that is needed. In the end, says the Apostle, these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.
We’re all trying to get the priorities straight and live them out. We’re trying, and it’s hard. But this might help. Next time you notice that tightly wound ball of stress robbing all the joy and serenity from your heart, remember Christ’s words to Martha. They are not rebuke, but encouragement. How much of this is really, really necessary? And if it is really necessary, than why do I feel burdened and anxious? It is Christ whom I serve. Christ in my coworkers. Christ in the person ringing my telephone. Christ in the person making unreasonable demands on my time. Christ in all these people trying to buy groceries at the same time. Remember his words and take heart. Are you anxious and worried about many things? Shh… peace! Christ is sitting in your living room. Asking you only to do the one needful thing. Love. Love everybody. Love them from top to bottom of your to-do list. Love them with a free and joyful heart. It shall not be taken from you.