The Better Part


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Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha

When we hear the story of Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha (Lk 10:38-42), we tend to think of it as a rebuke of Martha.  The story is familiar to most Christians. Martha is “burdened with much serving.”  The gospel doesn’t go into details, but we might imagine her in the kitchen preparing a meal, or cleaning up afterwards.  While she does these things, her sister Mary sits beside Jesus and listens to Him speak.

When Martha complains that Mary hasn’t done anything to help her, Jesus gently admonishes her by saying, “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” (Lk 10:41-42).

We like to read this as a rebuke of Martha’s concern for practical matters.  Because Mary “has chosen the better part,” then the choice to be like Martha must be bad.  Martha has done wrong by working in the kitchen to make sure her guests were well fed and cared for.  Martha was wrong to worry about household chores such as cleaning and cooking.  We should all strive to be like Mary, and not like Martha.

But we can miss something by reading this account as a total rebuke of Martha.  We can miss the fact that Martha, too, is a saint.  

St. Mary and St. Martha of Bethany are venerated together in the Christian world, both revered for their holiness.  Like all saints, both show us the way along the path of perfection.  Both provide models of Christian life for us to emulate.

There is a tradition in the Church of viewing Martha and Mary as allegories of the two aspects of spiritual life — active and contemplative.  Both are necessary, but one, the contemplative, can be described as “the better part.”  This is not because the active life is bad. But the contemplative aspect of the spiritual life is more directly attentive to that which is divine and eternal.  It is focused on what will not pass away, whereas the active life deals with things of a temporal nature.  The active life feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, visits the imprisoned and the infirm.  These things are all good and praiseworthy.  In fact Jesus tells us that at the Last Judgment our fate will be determined by whether we did those very things (Mt 25:31-46).  But these things, necessary as they are, will pass away.

Eventually, there will be no more hungry mouths to feed.  There will be no more homeless in need of shelter, no more naked in need of clothing.  There will be only God in heaven, His angels and saints adoring in the eternal glory of the beatific vision.  The contemplative life foreshadows that reality in this world.  This is why it is “the better part.”  This is why those who dedicate themselves to the contemplative life — especially those in religious orders — are so honored in the Church.  They live their lives in the light of eternity.

But we are not in eternity yet, which is why the active life is necessary.  It is why we need St. Marthas who are concerned for our temporal needs.  Even those in monastic orders who spend most of their time in contemplative prayer must still work to put food on the table.  The famous motto of the Benedictine order is Ora et Labora, “Prayer and Work.”  Someone has to tend the garden. Someone has to prepare the meals.  Someone has to do the laundry.  Someone has to sweep the floor. Rather than being a distraction from prayer, these chores can themselves be a form of prayer that contributes to spiritual growth.

Jesus does not rebuke Martha for cooking the food or cleaning the dishes.  He rebukes Martha for being “worried and anxious.” While Mary’s attention is focused on Jesus, Martha’s attention has become focused, in a negative way, on Mary. She complains to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” (Lk 10:40).  One can imagine Martha’s resentment building as she worked, thinking negatively about her sister, and perhaps growing envious of her.  She allowed herself to be concerned with what she thought her sister should have been doing instead of being concerned with her own behavior and attitude.

Any time we become judgmental of others, we are not focusing on Christ and our own special relationship with Him.  This was the cause of Jesus’ admonition of Martha; not her attentiveness to her guests’ material needs.

Imagine what it would be like to prepare a meal for Jesus!  What an honor that would be!  How lovingly would you cut the fish and bread; with what care would you bring the pot to a boil; with what affection would you place the morsels on the plate.  Even the most mundane activities of our day can become occasions of grace if we do them lovingly for the Lord.

Whether God is calling you to a life of contemplation in a religious order, or a more active life in the world, as a married or single person, your spiritual life is going to have active and contemplative elements.  You will need to be like Mary and Martha.  There is no escaping the need for labor.  As a college student, that means studying and writing papers, but also doing laundry and perhaps working at a part time job.  Later in life it may mean mopping kitchen floors and changing diapers.  You can choose to do those things with a resentful spirit, or with an attitude of love towards Christ and those you serve.  Our work can be an occasion of sin or an occasion of grace.  But there will come a day, at the end of our lives, when our work will end.

Making time to cultivate a contemplative spirit, like Mary, is necessary to help us stay mindful of what truly matters — “the better part” — that which can never be taken from us.  May the examples of Martha and Mary help us to live our lives on this earth in the light of eternity, the light of Jesus Christ.