To read the texts click on the texts: Gn18:1-10a; Col1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42
John Lennon, one of the four Beatles, said, “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans”. This is akin to the admonition that Jesus gives Martha in the Gospel text of today when he says to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”
The story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and Mary, which is the Gospel text for today, must be seen in connection with the Parable of the Good Samaritan which precedes it. If the parable of the Good Samaritan stressed the horizontal dimension of relationships, this story stresses the vertical dimension. To be sure, action is important and even imperative, but it has to be selfless. When it is done as a chore or seen as a burden, then one feels encumbered and weighed down by it as Martha does.
Abraham shows in the first reading of today what is meant by selfless action. Without even knowing who his visitors are, he lays out a feast for them and he waits on them. He does what Martha does but without any animosity, bitterness, or resentment. This is because he sees his action as reward in itself. Not content with that, Abraham goes even further and waits on his visitors, attentive to their every word, much like Mary does with Jesus. Abraham is content, like Mary, simply to be in the present. He does not let his actions come in the way of his attention to his visitors like Martha does. Thus, Abraham, like Mary, is given the better part, the gift of life.
The main point being made in these readings is not so much pitting contemplation against action or prayer against work. Both are necessary and both have their time and place. However, if the work that one does is done with a heavy heart, like that of Martha, then it is not efficacious. Martha serves and indeed, serves the Lord, but her service is peppered with so much of self that it leads her to complain against her sister. She develops a “martyr complex” which leads to the feeling that she is left alone. One possible reason why Martha feels this way is because she has not spent enough time listening and learning from the Lord. She does what she thinks is necessary without realizing that this is not what the Lord wants at all. It is service, but on one’s own terms and conditions and not the Lord’s.
In his gentle yet firm reproach to Martha, Jesus corrects her view. It is true that, by sitting at the feet of the Lord, Mary is acting like a male which violates a social boundary. By such an act, she would bring shame upon her house. She also neglects her duty to help her sister in the preparation of the meal. Yet, in his response to Martha, Jesus focuses not on these non-essentials, but on the focus and attention that Mary has demonstrated. Her gaze remains fixed on the Lord. She will not let anything or anyone distract her. Her mind, heart, indeed her whole being, is given to listening to his every word, being attentive to his every move. She will not be anxious and worried over many things since she has chosen that which will take care of all worry and anxiety. It is the better part and cannot be taken away. Social conventions do not matter; external food does not matter; rushing about from this to that does not matter. What does matter is simply to be.
Paul realized this as is clear from his letter to the Colossians in which he states that his service for the Church is not for any reward or gain. It is not done with complaint or protest, but done willingly and without any expectation. His sole aim is to reveal Christ to the world and especially to those who have not had the privilege of knowing him. In Christ, social boundaries are removed, externals do not matter. What does matter is that Christ be made known and be loved above all.
One phrase, which St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, used to describe who Jesuits must be is “Contemplatives in Action”. This has been taken further by some after Ignatius’ day to read “Contemplatives Even in Action”. This phrase can be seen as a summary of the message for today. Like the Jesuits, every disciple of Jesus is called to be that. This means that, while action is not relegated to second place after contemplation, it has to and must flow from contemplation if it is to be efficacious. This will ensure that the action that one is engaged in does not become self-serving. This will ensure that it will be action that the Lord wants and not the action that one feels comfortable doing. This will ensure that one will know that the reward of the action is the action itself and so, one will not complain or whine, but do what one does willingly, and with joy.