I have to confess that part of me dislikes the Gospel reading we have today. Dislike is probably too strong a word: it just kind of makes me uneasy. That’s because I don’t like the idea that there is some kind of competition between the duties of hospitality and the joy of contemplation in the Lord’s presence. That’s how this reading often comes across, and I find that difficult to accept. When I have guests over, I take it seriously. According to my family custom, there is plenty – perhaps too much – food, and I try to make my guests comfortable. That takes work – anyone who has ever had guests for dinner knows that, but I think it’s time well spent.
I’m also not wild about the idea that some often draw the conclusion that this reading places a higher priority on contemplation and prayer over the duties of ministry. Stuff needs to get done; we don’t just show up and have beautiful Liturgy happen. I think that if all we did was pray all day, we’d never get any of the Gospel done, and I don’t think that’s what our Lord intended.
Fortunately, I don’t think these are valid conclusions to be drawn from today’s Gospel – although I do think these conclusions are frequently drawn. And that’s sad for any of us who want to be in relationship with our Lord and yet know that there are the duties of our vocation to which we must attend. Nobody can spend all day in prayer, no matter what their vocation. Priests have the needs of the parish to accomplish. Parents have children to raise. Everyone has the goals of their profession to meet. And Jesus isn’t saying that any of this is wrong.
So 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. And Martha’s tasks were important ones. The demands of hospitality in the ancient world were taken very seriously. And they were difficult duties, too. Think about all that Abraham and Sarah had to do: knead dough and make rolls, slaughter a steer and prepare it, and put together some curds and milk. A far cry from making a run to McChesney’s and popping some steaks on the grill! 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.
I think that what’s at stake here is balance in our spiritual life. We are not called upon to make a choice between being Martha or being Mary. We are called upon to be both Martha and Mary. These 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 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. Saint Benedict’s motto was ora et labora – work and prayer, and that’s the call we receive in today’s Liturgy. 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. We have to be people of prayer. And it is Martha’s active service that gives meaning and context to our prayers and our preaching. We have to be people who work. When we avoid either aspect of service, we are getting it wrong, and perhaps our Gospel today is a tug at our hearts 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.