“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.” Jesus says this to Martha when she comes to him upset that her sister Mary is not helping with the duties of hospitality. The interaction highlights two important aspects of Christian faith.
The first is the importance of charity. In this case, hospitality and caring for visitors who are welcomed into one’s home are used as an example. Hospitality is an act of charity. Notice that when Jesus replies to Martha he does not say what she is doing is bad or inappropriate. By saying that Mary has chosen “better” is making a comparison with the hospitality that Martha offers on the basis that both are “good.”
The importance of hospitality is highlighted when we consider life in the ancient world. Travelers passing through towns and villages would depend on the local population for food, drink and shelter.
Today when we travel whether near or far, at least in the developed world, there are plenty of places to find these things. Think of the abundance of convenience stores in our own neighborhoods. Most gas stations it seems have a little shop attached which can provide food and drink and a small supply of multiple goods that might be needed when passing through.
This was not so in the ancient world. People depended on the kindness of others when they were traveling.
You might recall the Gospel passage two weeks ago when Jesus sends out the 72 disciples on mission. He gives them instructions not to take anything with them: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals.” Rather when they arrive at a home they should, “Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you.” In the passage for Sunday’s liturgy, Jesus is the guest in Martha and Mary’s home. He is the recipient of their hospitality.
The first reading from the Book of Genesis likewise has a similar situation. Abraham offers hospitality to the three visitors who approach his tent. He extends to them kindness and welcomes them to his home. Sarah prepares bread. A servant prepares a steer. Abraham procures milk and curds. Abraham cares for the visitors as they pass through.
The first reading also provides a segue for the second aspect. The opening line of the passage states: “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance to his tent, while the day was growing hot.” Then Abraham sees the three visitors. A number of Christian interpretations of this encounter see it in Trinitarian terms. The Lord is visiting Abraham and there are three visitors.
When Abraham first speaks to the visitors he says: “Sir” in the singular. Yet we are told that the “men,” in the plural, reply. Abraham clearly identifies the visitors as representing the divine. The act of hospitality is taken to a deeper level in this encounter for Abraham sees it as an act of worship and service. He is the servant of the Lord and he serves the Lord accordingly.
He pleads with the Lord to allow him to be of service: “Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please
do not go past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest under the tree. Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves ….” Abraham recognizes that he is a servant of the Lord and he wishes to serve.
Going back to the Gospel account we see Martha acting in a similar way. She recognizes the Lord in her midst. She wishes to serve and she does so. Mary likewise serves but in a different manner. Her service is that of listening. She sits at the feet of Jesus who in teaching her serves her. He gives more than bread made of wheat. In listening she eats of the bread of life, the word of God for “man does not live on bread alone but every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Mary will need to serve others but first she needs to be nourished and strengthened to do so. As she listens to Jesus she is fed. As her relationship is strengthened she is filled with the desire and means to be of service. Thus she has “chosen the better part.”
The two aspects of Christian faith reflected in Sunday’s liturgy are important as we walk the road of discipleship. The relationship between the two is highlighted in the Gospel reading. “Listening” to Jesus is the activity we call prayer. Encountering Jesus in his Word, in the sacraments, in contemplation or meditation or in the devotional life fortify the relationship and help us see ourselves as his servants. In listening, we open ourselves to follow where he leads and to offer his love and charity to those we encounter every day.
St. Catherine Laboure once wrote about prayer and contemplation in this way: “After I enter the chapel I place myself in the presence of God and I say to him: ‘Lord, here I am; give me whatever you wish.’ If he gives me something, then I am happy and I thank him. If he does not give me anything, then I thank him nonetheless, knowing, as I do, that I deserve nothing. Then I begin to tell him of all that concerns me, my joys, my thoughts, my distress, and finally, I listen to him.”
Prayer and charity are two important aspects of Christian discipleship presented in Sunday’s liturgy. Jesus continues to teach us as we journey with him to Jerusalem. Listening to him, as a faithful servant, keeps us on the road. The path and the destination is love, giving of ourselves in faithfulness to God and care for our neighbor.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.