Most of the time when I preach, the homily isn’t really for me. There is always something in the Scriptures that speaks to me in some way, but the main message that I receive from God is not necessarily addressed to me. That’s how preaching works: the Word is for all of us, not something the preacher gets to keep for himself. But today’s Scriptures are a little different. They have had something to say to my own spiritual life, and the message has been coming through loud and clear. My guess is, though, that this message isn’t just for me.
I sometimes say about the Scriptures “this is one of my favorite readings.” Today’s Gospel is the opposite. I have always found this Gospel challenging, and it makes me squirm inwardly every time I hear it. Because I’d always like to be Mary, but most every day I’m called upon to be Martha, and that makes me sad sometimes. As I reflected on my first year of priesthood, I found that I had not taken my yearly retreat, and that the only vacation I took was a few days to help my Dad in the days before he died. Maybe you can relate to this. Perhaps you’d like to spend more time in prayer, or reading the Bible, and instead you have to take care of the children, or you end up working late, or you just plain fall asleep from exhaustion at the end of the day. The truth is, some days we are way more Martha than we are Mary and if you’re like me, you feel a little guilty about that.
Back in my first year of seminary, I was in charge of the Liturgies for our class. One day we had a class Liturgy and the Rector of the seminary was the celebrant. I was running around like a madman trying to make sure everything was perfect, and that the Rector would have everything he needed for Mass. When we finally got around to hearing the Gospel for the day, it was this one, and I realized I had fallen into the trap of missing what God was telling me while I was “anxious and worried about many things.” I remember sitting there, thinking, “rats.” So it’s no wonder this isn’t one of my favorite Gospels.
But I have often found when the message isn’t one I’d like to hear, it’s because God is speaking to me about something I need to change in my life. Clearly that’s what’s going on here today. I have also found that when God starts speaking in this way, the best thing I can do is to be still and listen, letting God be God, and trying to find a way to do what he’s asking of me. So maybe all of us who find ourselves a bit too much Martha today can reflect on that message a bit.
First off, let’s give Martha a bit of a break. Because there is a difference between the very legitimate and laudable act that Mary was doing – listening to the Word of Jesus – and just being plain old lazy. Many of us could be tempted down those roads too, and that’s not praiseworthy. You can’t claim to be “sitting at the feet of Jesus” when you’re just trying to avoid doing anything resembling work! And Martha’s tasks were important ones. The demands of hospitality in the ancient world were taken very seriously. Just as Abraham leapt to his feet in our first reading to welcome the three visitors and provide them with a beautiful meal, so Martha had things to do to care for her own guest.
But where Martha went down the wrong path was that she let the details of the tasks of hospitality overshadow the hospitality itself. In doing all the things she was doing, she had actually neglected her guest. Perhaps there was a way that she could have provided refreshment to Jesus in a way that didn’t take her outside his company for so long. Maybe a simpler meal would have sufficed. When the details of hospitality overshadow the guest, then it’s not really hospitality at all.
What’s at stake here is balance in our spiritual life. We are not called upon to make a choice between being Martha and being Mary. We are called upon to be both Martha and Mary. This scripture readings speaks of the service of the disciple, in Greek the word is diakonia, from which we derive our word, deacon. This tells us that the life of the Christian disciple – which is all of us, brothers and sisters in Christ – is about service. What we see in today’s Gospel is that there are two aspects of that service. The first is represented by Martha’s work, and is the kind of service that takes care of what is necessary in order that God’s will would be done: it is a service that reaches out to those in need. The second kind of service is represented by Mary’s work. Her work is one of contemplation: she sits at the feet of Jesus to absorb his words and his presence.
Both kinds of service are necessary in the life of the Christian disciple. The trick is keeping them in balance. Because it is Mary’s contemplation that gives us the spiritual refreshment necessary to reach out to those in need. And it is Martha’s active service that gives meaning and context to our prayers and our preaching. When we avoid either aspect of service, we are getting it wrong, and perhaps our Gospel today is a tug at our hearts – I know it’s tugging at mine – to get it right.
So we need to make time for both our work and our prayer. We have to give priority to contemplation and Scripture reading and whatever kind of prayer speaks to us just as much as we give priority to the demands of our vocations, whatever those vocations may be. We have to let God speak to us in our quiet and in our activity, and to remember that doing God’s will sometimes means getting quiet and sitting still long enough for him to speak to our hearts. It may take a lifetime to get this right, but as we put effort into our service of God, we too will be choosing the better part, and it will not be taken from us.