You’re having a dinner party.
You’re in the kitchen. The pasta water’s boiling, the salad needs tossing, the table needs setting. The guests have arrived, and you need to keep things popping.
So where’s your sister, the co-host? She’s discovered that the guest of honor is so fascinating that she’s taken off her apron and sat down close to him in the front room to hear all the conversation.
Are you angry? Ya think?
Since the Gospel of Luke first told a version of this story a couple of millennia ago, millions of women have probably been inclined to think that Martha has a good point. Her guest is Jesus, and probably everyone is hanging on his words. But someone has to cook, serve and clean up.
And Martha does get upset. So upset that, rather than remonstrate quietly with Mary, she complains to Jesus himself about her sister.
Jesus, it appears in a quick reading, seems to take Mary’s side. Mary has “chosen the better part.”
Any woman who has ever juggled Thanksgiving dinner by herself would agree Mary’s chosen a pretty nice option. Forget the stuffing and instead relax with a glass of red. I remember thinking once, as I read Luke’s story, “So, Jesus, are you going to help with the dishes?”
But we need to be careful about quick and literal readings of the Gospel. Everyone who reads Scripture prayerfully experiences it personally. St. Ignatius of Loyola taught us that bringing ourselves into Scripture by using our imagination is a beautiful way to find out how God is speaking to each of us.
In early October, a weekday reading for the liturgy was the story of Jesus dining with his good friends, Martha and Mary, whose brother Lazarus Jesus was to raise from the tomb. These seem to be people Jesus knew and loved well, in whose home he was comfortable and with whom he spoke freely.
Remember, this was a man’s society where women were second-class citizens, and of course the distaff side of dinner fell to them. Martha must have felt very comfortable and relaxed with Jesus to complain about her sister so freely to a male guest. If you, in your imagination, sit at this party, you might feel you’re with a family open to jokes, laughter and even a little whining.
So on this October morning, I no longer felt sorry for Martha, or irate for her, burdened as she was with the meal prep and hoping for a verbal nudge to Mary from Jesus. Instead, I realized what a beautiful gift Jesus offered Martha, and was offering me that very morning.
The point was so much bigger than “who’s going to help with dinner?”
Jesus tells Martha she is “anxious and worried.” I’m often anxious and worried as well, particularly in these trying times in our country. Other translations are similar: “You worry and fret,” he says, or “You are worried and distracted.”
Suddenly, those words told me the whole story. Jesus was talking well beyond women’s work or any particular dinner party. He wasn’t just talking to Martha.
He was saying to all of us in these frantic times, with 24-hour news and constant social media and a cultural bias toward always being busy: Don’t be so distracted. Sit at my feet and listen to me. Prioritize the quiet, the reflective, the prayer in your life.
Give me your anxiety, your worry, your distraction. Become thoughtful, present to the moment. We all have the obligation and the option to choose the better part.
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