Bottom line: Martha wanted Jesus to listen to her, while Mary wanted to listen to Jesus.
Today we see two sisters - Martha and Mary. They represent two different approaches to Jesus. You could say a lot about each of the sisters, but I would express the difference this way: Martha wanted Jesus to listen to her, while Mary wanted to listen to Jesus.*
I do not say this, in any way, to put down Martha. She is a great saint and Jesus clearly had a deep affection for her. "Martha, Martha," he says. To repeat someone's name does not necessarily indicate exasperation, but rather in this case, warmth. "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things."
When I have discussed this Gospel with groups of people, almost everyone (including me) identifies with Martha. We have work to do, problems on our mind, things to finish before we can relax. When we try to pray, our minds spin with a dozen distractions. We remember a phone call we should make, something we need to get at the store, a task that just can't wait.
And - God forgive us - like Martha we sometimes put down the "Mary's": "It must be nice. Look at all the stuff I have to do. I wish I could get a break."
Fair enough, but that's not the point. All of us know deep down that the best gift we can give someone is not a thousand dollar or a delicious meal. That would be wonderful, but we want something else. When you and I think about our lives, we recognized that the best gift someone ever gave us was this: open-ended, undistracted listening. That is the gift Mary gave to Jesus. Martha was busy doing something for Jesus - and, to accomplish it, she wanted Jesus to listen to her. Mary on the other hand, just wanted to listen to Jesus. "Mary," said Jesus, "has chosen the better part."
Let me illustrate the gift of listening: Once these two guys had worked together on various business ventures. After years of common projects, things started going downhill in their business. Naturally, it created tensions between them. One of the guys did something dramatic. He reserved rooms at a retreat center and told his business partner that he would block any amount of time - just to listen. The second guy was reluctant. They had too many things pending, plus each had a family. The first guy said it would be the best thing they could do for their families - as well as their business.
So they went to the retreat center and spent time talking and listening to each other - like they had done in college into the early hours of the morning. They didn't focus on anything immediately practical, but when they came back after a few days, things started to click in their business - and also their families. Open-ended, undistracted listening is the best gift one person can give another.
In our human relationships (friend to friend, husband to wife, parent to child) we can easily recognize the power of open-ended, undistracted listening. Something similar applies to prayer. Jesus has all the time in the world to listen to you or me. He comes from the point of view of eternity, which by definition is undivided and perfectly open-ended. The problem is not on Jesus' side. He can listen to each one, all day and all night. The problem is on our side. We are reluctant to do what Mary did - to put aside other activities and to listen.
Just to sum up: Martha is a beautiful person - and all of us can identify with her desire to get things done. And I think all of us would appreciate the meal she prepares. Still, she also a liability that we can equally identify with - her anxiety to have other (including Jesus) listen to her. Mary, on the other hand, simply listened to Jesus. And "Mary has chosen the better part," says Jesus, "and it will not be taken from her."**
*The early Christian writers saw Martha as the embodiment of the active life and Mary the contemplative life. The tranquil Mary models religious orders like the Trappists and Carmelites, while we can see Martha in active orders such as the Dominicans and Norbertines.
**For a much more indepth reflection, please see Martha, Mary and the Attitude of Discipleship : 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (audio file) by Fr. Bob Barron.
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