Martha, Martha, Martha… We cannot just go out and do and expect greatness – we must first have direction and meaningful purpose. If we do not first listen to what God wants of us, then our actions are just busy-ness without holiness as our end.
39. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.
40. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.
41. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:
42. But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
It wasn’t Martha’s serving of others that was wrong – for Jesus said that he himself had come to serve and that, if others wished to follow him, then they, too, must serve. However, in her serving, Martha was “careful and troubled about many things,” she was “cumbered about much serving” and complained about it. Was there, then, true love in Martha’s heart that inspired her serving? Or was she, on that day, being one of those people who takes pride in being seen as hospitable and laying out a sumptuous table? Martha’s pride seems rather evident for she questions whether or not Jesus cares about her plight, about justice, and then proceeds to tell him what to do. Compare that to Jesus’s mother at the wedding feast in Cana when she brought what she saw as a problem before her son – she did not tell him what to do, but, rather, told the nearby servants to listen to Jesus and do what he told them to do, whatever it would be. There is deference here and trust in Jesus, something which Martha did not demonstrate in serving (but which she did demonstrate later when her brother Lazarus died).
Martha’s sister Mary, on the other hand, was purposefully sitting at Jesus’s feet to listen to him. She left Martha with the details that the older sister had chosen to encumber them both with, choosing, rather, to hear the word of God. Mary’s humility here is visually evident as she sits in a low place, at the feet of Christ. Her eagerness for and attentiveness to what Jesus says is not lost on him. She “heard his word” – it won’t be lost on her.
Jesus reminds Martha that there are only a very few things that human beings truly need. This makes me think of how we need to eat in order to survive – but we don’t need to dine with elaborate meals that are difficult to prepare and serve. We need shelter to keep us safe – but we don’t need spacious houses appointed with every convenient or luxurious amenity. And as Christ tells the over-anxious server, “But one thing is needful”. As he makes clear elsewhere in the Bible, “Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.” Martha seeks to attend to Jesus the man in the flesh, but Mary seeks to attend to the Word of God. By her choice, Mary is truly serving the Word of God made flesh, who is Jesus Christ, because she is attending to what he says and seeking humbly to learn from him as his disciple. Meanwhile, Martha is busy. Yes, she is adopting the role of a servant, which should be a good thing – but she is adapting the role of a servant to suit her own self-centered needs, worrying and troubling about many things that are not necessary. On the other hand, a God-centered servant listens to God’s word, attentive to what is truly necessary for every human being: divine love, mercy, redemption.
The fact that I’m writing this two days before the beginning of Lent is not lost on me. Soon, Catholics around the world (and other Christians, too) will be “giving up” something for the season of Lent. We humans, like Martha, can daily encumber ourselves with the care and trouble “of many things.” How many of these things are needful? Letting go of some of them for the 40 days of the Lenten discipline can help open our eyes to see how very few things we really need. Some people think that they can’t function in the morning and start their days properly if they don’t begin with a cup of caffeinated coffee. If they give up that coffee for Lent (and stick with the deprivation through the first week or so of difficulty) then they will see that they were able to live and function well without that supposedly needful thing. Someone else may want to give up daytime television or staying up late playing video games or going onto Facebook every day – and the time that that person will gain every day can be spent being with family and friends, thus nurturing essential relationships, or reading to expand the mind and soul, or embarking on that creative project he or she has been dreaming about but has not yet started. I often see Lent as a kind of spring cleaning – I get rid of the clutter of things in my life so that I can get back to basics and remember what is truly important: love. The giving and receiving of love that is divinely sourced – this is what is truly needful. So, I will try, with the grace of God, not to worry and busy myself about things that, in the end, don’t matter at all. And, being thus freed, I will be more aware of who I truly am and of what – Who – I truly need to be ever joyful, to be fulfilled. I sit at His feet…