“Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed Him to her home. She had a sister named Mary, who seated herself at the Lord’s feet and listened to His words. Martha, who was busy with all the details of hospitality, came to Him and said, “Lord, are You not concerned that my sister has left me all alone to do the household tasks? Tell her to help me.”
The Lord in reply said to her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about many things; one thing only is required. Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it.” (Luke 10:38-42)
On the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 17, 2016, we hear this portion of the Gospel of Luke where our Lord comes to the home of Martha and Mary to spend a bit of time. We know that this home is one that He knows since He will later raise Lazarus from the dead there. Although it is not mentioned within the Gospel, Jesus was most likely traveling with the Apostles and they were also most likely there with Him. Because of this we can begin to see that the work of hospitality that Martha had taken up was probably a difficult one. She was involved in the work of preparing food and hospitality for a large group of people. This is a job that would be difficult today, even with our refrigerators and canned or frozen food. For someone in Biblical times it certainly would have been much harder. Water would have to be fetched and brought. Food would need to be prepared, most likely entirely from scratch.
While Martha was busy with the tasks of hospitality, Mary went on another course. She sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to His words. Although the Gospel does not tell us exactly what He taught that day, we can imagine that it was much the same things that He had taught throughout the Gospel. He announced the kingdom of God being at hand; He taught about the beatitudes. We can only imagine what it would have been like for Mary to hear these teachings, because although we know them from other places in the Gospel, it would have been the first time for her to hear them.
The conflict in this Gospel reading occurs when Martha comes to Jesus. She is upset and then expresses her concern. Martha had been doing all of the work to get things ready for this visit of Jesus and Mary was not helping. Within the reading you can almost see her getting more and more upset every time she looks at Mary and sees her sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening. She is upset that Mary is not helping her with the tasks of hospitality and here she challenges Jesus by saying, “Tell her to help me.”
Jesus responds to Martha in a very calm manner by saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about many things; one thing only is required. Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it.” One of the most difficult things in interpreting this passage of Scripture is what exactly did Jesus mean when He said, “One thing only is required.” Some say that Jesus was telling Martha that she was doing too much in her work of hospitality, but many also take it to mean that what Mary chose, to sit and hear Jesus, was the “one thing” needed.
This last interpretation has then been used throughout Church history to show that the religious life, or the contemplative life, is somehow a better or a more holy and reverent way of living, since Jesus has said it is the “one thing” necessary. It has been used to set up some sort of ranking of the holiness of the lives of individual Christians. Those dedicated exclusively to religious life are more holy because they spend their time “at the feet of Jesus” listening to and studying His word, while others who work in other ways are lower in the rank. But is this interpretation necessary?
Of course we must realize that there are other ways in which we can examine this saying of Jesus, especially in light of Jesus saying to Martha, “You are anxious and upset about many things. One thing only is required.” What exactly is Martha upset and anxious about? It is not that she is performing the acts of hospitality; it is not that she is working to serve Jesus. It is that she is upset with Mary because Mary has made a different choice at this point. She has taken a different path for this moment. Jesus here could also be speaking of Martha’s concern about what Mary is doing rather than focusing on her own work and ministry in serving Jesus.
We all certainly know that there are many ways in which we can serve our Lord and these ways can change for us every day, if not even every hour. We can hear His Words when we gather for Holy Mass, when reading the Holy Scriptures or spending a few moments in prayer. We can also serve our Lord when we work together for His Holy Church or when we reach out to help our brothers and sisters. Each of these things, the active religious life and the contemplative religious life, are a vital part of what we are and what we do as Christians.
In saying that “One thing only is necessary” Jesus is saying that the “One thing” is the attention to the task at hand. For Mary this is true because as she sits at the feet of Jesus listening to His words, she lets nothing else bother or distract her. But for Martha, in doing her work of hospitality, she is distracted, anxious and upset and so is not focused just on serving our Lord in this way.
We know that this concern about our service has been a part of the Christian tradition since the time of the Fathers. We read in the works of St. Ambrose in his Exposition on the Gospel of Luke, “Virtue does not have a single form. In the example of Martha and Mary, there is added the busy devotion of the one and the pious attention of the other to the Word of God.” Ephrem the Syrian also says, “Mary came and sat at His feet. This was as though she were sitting on firm ground at the feet of Him who had forgiven the sinful woman her sins. She had put on a crown in order to enter the kingdom of the Firstborn. She had chosen the better portion, the Benefactor, the Messiah Himself. This will never be taken away from her. Martha’s love was more fervent than Mary’s, for before he had arrived there, she was ready to serve Him. … When He came to raise Lazarus to life, she ran and came out first.”
In seeing that “one thing only is necessary” we realize that the one thing may be different at any given time, but for that moment we are to put ourselves fully in the “one thing” that serves our Lord at that moment. Ephrem the Syrian says that Martha’s love was a more fervent love because she was ready beforehand to serve Jesus. This too, reminds us that we should always be ready to serve Jesus, in whatever way, within our lives. This tells us that we must plan ahead, that our charity is not just something that we should respond to when it comes to our door, but that we should go out of our way to seek it out.
In this regard this is why the Future Direction Subcommittee of the Supreme Council has encouraged the parishes and members of the Church to find ways in which they can reach out to their local communities in ways of service. This encourages us to be like Martha, to plan and be prepared to serve the Lord as we find ways to care for all of our brothers and sisters.
And, of course, likewise we find ourselves within the Year of Reverence within the Polish National Catholic Church. This encourages us to be more like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus as we do this in times of Scripture reading and prayers and acts of Christian Catholic devotion.
So the question is not, ‘Are we to be like Martha or be like Mary?’ It’s not even, ‘Which way is better, Martha’s or Mary’s?’ The issue is that we must be like both Martha and Mary. We must listen to the words of Jesus and take in His teachings. We must attend Holy Mass to encounter Christ in the Eucharist, to hear His words, experience His presence among us in Communion and worship Him as our Lord and our God. But then also we must also go out into our world and live in ways which proclaim our faith and show our love for Jesus in how we proclaim His presence to others and show His love to all people.
So be like Martha and be like Mary, during each day, during each moment of our existence. Let the “one thing only” that Jesus tells us is needed be a focus on the Lord Himself. Be intently focused on Jesus as you attend Holy Mass and receive Holy Communion. Be intently focused on Jesus as you pray and read Holy Scripture. Be intently focused on Jesus as you find ways and opportunities to serve your brothers and sisters around you. Be intently focused on Jesus in all your acts of loving kindness and charity. Ultimately know that the “one thing necessary” is to be intently focused on Jesus.