This Sunday’s Gospel is the very familiar story of Martha and Mary. Martha is the anxious worker seeking to please the Lord with a good meal and hospitality; Mary sits quietly at His feet and listens. One has come to be the image of work, the other of prayer.
Misinterpreted? In my lifetime I have heard many a sermon that interpreted this passage as a call for a proper balance between work and prayer. Some have gone on to state that we all need a little of Martha and Mary in us and that the Church needs both Marthas and Marys.
Such a conclusion seems to miss the central point of this Gospel passage. Jesus does not conclude by saying, “Martha, now go do your thing, and let Mary do hers.” Rather, He describes Mary not only as choosing the better part but also doing the “one thing necessary.” This does not amount to a call for “proper balance” but rather underscores the priority and primacy of prayer. This, it would seem, is the proper interpretation of what is being taught. Many other passages of the Scripture do set forth the need to be rich in works of charity, but this is not one of them.
With that in mind let’s take a look at the details of the Lord’s teaching today on the priority of personal prayer.
I. PROMISING PRELUDE - Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. In the beginning of the story Martha is shown in a very favorable light. She opens her door (her life, if you will) and welcomes Jesus. This is at the heart of faith: a welcoming of Jesus into the home of our heart and our life. Surely, Revelation 3:20 comes to mind: Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me.
While we acknowledge this promising prelude, we ought not to miss the fact that it is Jesus who initiates the interaction. The text says that Jesus entered a village. In the call of faith, the initiative is always with God. It was not you who chose me; it was I who chose you (Jn 15:16). Hence, while we must welcome Him, God leads. Martha hears the Lord’s call and responds. So far, so good.
What happens next isn’t exactly clear, but the impression given is that Martha goes right to work. There is no evidence that Jesus asked her to prepare a meal for Him. The text from Revelation quoted above does suggest that the Lord seeks to dine with us, but it implies that it is He who will provide the meal. Surely, the Eucharistic context of our faith emphasizes that it is the Lord who feeds us with His Word and with His Body and Blood.
At any rate, Martha seems to have told the Lord to make Himself comfortable and has gone off to prepare the meal. That she later experiences it to be such a burden is evidence that her idea emerged more from her flesh than from the Spirit.
II. PORTRAIT of PRAYER - She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Now here is a beautiful portrait of prayer: Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening.
Many people think of prayer as something that is recited or said, but it is better understood as a conversation—and conversations include both speaking and listening. Vocal prayer, intercessory prayer, and the like are all noble and important, but the prayer of listening is too often neglected.
Prayer is not just telling God what we want; it is discovering what He wills. We have to sit humbly and listen. We must learn to listen, and we must listen in order to learn. We listen by slowly and devoutly considering Scripture (lectio divina) and by pondering how God is speaking in the events and people in our life, how God is whispering in our conscience and soul.
As we shall see, Jesus calls this kind of prayer “the one thing necessary.” What Mary models and Martha forgets is that we must first come (to Jesus) and then go (and do what He says), that we must first receive before we can achieve, that we must first be blessed before we can do our best, that we must first listen before we leap into action.
III. PERTURBED and PRESUMPTUOUS - Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Martha, who is laboring in the flesh but not likely in the Spirit and in accord with the Lord’s wishes, is now experiencing the whole thing as a burden. She blames her sister, but the Lord’s response will make it clear that this is not Mary’s issue.
One sign that we are not doing God’s will is experiencing what we are doing as a burden. We are all human and thus limited; we will naturally feel ordinary fatigue. However, it is one thing to be weary in the work but another to be weary of the work.
A lot of people run off to do something they think is a good idea—and maybe it is a fine thing in itself—but often, they haven’t ever asked God about it. God might have said, “Fine,” but He also might have said, “Not now, later.” Or He might have said, “Not you, but someone else.” Or He might just have said, “No.” Instead of asking, however, they often just go off and do it, and then when things don’t work out will blame God, saying, “Why don’t you help me more?”
Martha feels burdened. First, she blames her sister. Then she presumes that the Lord does not care about what is (to her) an obvious injustice. Then she takes presumption one step further and presumes to tell the Lord what to do: “Tell her to help me.”
This is what happens when we try to serve the Lord in the flesh. Instead of being true servants who listen to the Lord’s wishes and carry them out by His grace, we end up angry and mildly (or more) dictatorial. So, here is Martha, with her one hand on her hip and her index finger in the air . Jesus will be kind to her, but firm.
IV. PRESCRIBED PRIORITY - Martha, Martha, 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. Don’t let the Lord have to call you by your name twice! It is clear that He wants Martha’s attention and that she has made a fatal mistake (one we all can easily make): she leapt before she listened.
The Lord observes her and remarks that she is anxious about many things. Anxiety about many things comes from neglect of the one thing necessary: sitting at the feet of the Lord and listening to Him.
The Lord will surely have things for us to do in our life, but they need to come from Him. This is why prayer is the “one thing necessary” and the better part: because work flows from it and is subordinate to it.
Discernment is not easy, but it is necessary. An awful lot of very noble ideas have floundered in the field of the flesh because they were never really brought before God and therefore were not works of grace.
Jesus does not mean that all we are to do is to pray. There are too many other Gospels that summon us to labor in the vineyard to make such a conclusion. What Jesus is very clear to say is that prayer and discernment have absolute priority. Otherwise, expect to be anxious about many things and have little to show for it.
Scripture makes it clear that God must be the author and initiator of our works: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).
An old prayer from the Roman Ritual also makes this plain:
Actiones nostras, quaesumus Domine, aspirando praeveni et adiuvando prosequere: ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur. Per Christum Dominum nostrum.
(Direct we beseech Thee, O Lord, our prayers and our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance, so that every work of ours may always begin with Thee, and through Thee be ended.)
This song reminds us that when we really are working in the Lord’s will, as the fruit of prayer we love what we do and do so with joy. This song says, “I keep so busy working for the Kingdom I ain’t got time to die!”