The Martha in me – Tuesday, 27th week in ordinary time – Lk 10:38-42
I grew up thinking that Jesus wanted me to be always at his feet; after all Mary seems to have walked away with the praise, “she has chosen the better part.” But being a chef by profession made me unhappy with the response of Jesus; labouring over a hot grill is no easy task and if both had to sit at Jesus’ feet then who would feed the Lord?
So I am not going to focus this reflection on the ‘apparent’ praise of Mary but to critique the Martha in us. To merely assume that this is a case of one better than the other would do a great injustice to the role that Martha played. After all, both prayer and good works are essential to Christian life.
So let’s look at the narrative as it appears. Jesus enters the house of Martha who welcomed Him, we are not told that Mary joined in the invitation but only that she chose to sit at Jesus’ feet. There are several breaches of Jewish protocol here. We are not told if the disciples are in the house with Jesus which makes His presence alone with two women an issue and even more since Martha and Mary are not His relatives. We are then told a woman desires to serve Jesus which would never be the case in a Jewish household. Finally, a woman sits at His feet as He teaches. She assumes the posture of a student learning at the feet of a rabbi, a role traditionally reserved for men.
Let us now examine the evidence in the narrative; is Jesus making a case for ‘prayer’ and not ‘work’ as many have come to assume? The key to this ‘misunderstanding’ is found in the description of Martha’s attitude to her work; she is DISTRACTED. The word distracted in Greek is periespato and has the connotation of being pulled or dragged in different directions. What is the cause of her ‘distraction’? Her sister Mary is not in the kitchen helping her prepare what could only be assumed to be a meal for the Master. Martha’s actions prevent her from being ‘present’ to Jesus through her work just as Mary was ‘present’ to Jesus as He spoke to her.
The result of this lack of ‘presence’ or for her ‘distraction,’ causes Martha to fall apart with hate and anger. First she publically calls out her sisters ‘lack of help’ there by embarrassing Mary. She could have whispered her need for help quietly but her distraction gets the better of her. Anger so blindsides Martha that she now lashes out at the Lord, “do you not care?” The room must have descended in pin drop silence and Martha must have realised her folly too late.
The response of Jesus to Martha has sadly been seen by many as a rebuke. Look at it with newness and you will see it is rather as an invitation; “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing.” The Lord is inviting her to the need to be ‘present’ to Him in whatever way she chooses to serve Him, even if it is to cook a meal.
I often see good Christians involved in Church ministry go through the same challenge. They desire to serve the Lord and get involved in some parish ministry only to find that some others on their team seem to be doing nothing or even worse hovering around the priest in adulation of him. This makes us ‘distracted’ from the work we freely chose to do and anger is replaced by loving service. We don’t hesitate to call these Church members out for whom ‘we think they are’; lazy people or ‘chamchas’ (a very Indian word meaning boot lickers) of the priest. When our protests seem to fall on deaf ears we make the Lord a party to the ‘injustice’ meted out to us. Now this is His fault!
I often see the Martha in me, the one who serves but grumbles and in doing so I have failed to choose the better part.
Fr Warner D’Souza