Jesus visits Martha and Mary in the village of Bethany. They are the sisters of Lazarus whom Jesus would raise from the dead according to the Gospel of John (Ref. 11:38-44). Martha welcomes Jesus to her home and is preoccupied with many tasks of hospitality, while her sister Mary sits at the feet of Jesus like his disciple, gives him full attention and listens to what Jesus says (Ref. Luke 10:38-39).
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, we hear that Martha, overwhelmed with work, asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. This is Jesus’ reply, “Martha, Martha, you are worried about … many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
Mary’s quiet devotion displays greater reverence for Jesus than Martha’s anxious toil. “Mystically (St. Gregory the Great, Moralia 2, 6): the two women signify the two dimensions of the spiritual life. Martha signifies the active life as she busily labours to honour Christ through her work. Mary exemplifies the contemplative life as she sits attentively to listen and learn from Christ. While both activities are essential to Christian living, the latter is greater than the former. For in heaven, the active life terminates, while the contemplative life reaches its perfection” (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, New Testament P 129).
Pope Francis in the Angelus on July 21, 2019, St. Peter’s Square, shared with the faithful his insights in the two dimensions of spiritual life in the present day and age as represented by Mary and Martha.
Mary shows the prayerful attitude of the believer. She leaves what she is doing to be close to Jesus; she does not want to miss any of his words. For us, it means pausing a few minutes during the day to gather ourselves in silence, to make room for our Lord. By commending Mary, Jesus is saying to each one of us, not to overwhelm ourselves with things to do, but first and foremost, listen to the Lord’s voice, in order to properly carry out the tasks of the day.
Martha is the one who has the charism of hospitality. Jesus is not condemning her attitude of service, but rather, is concerned about the stress and Martha’s worries. The Pope recommends that when the little ones and the poor knocks on the door of our families and communities, we should ensure they feel welcome and that they feel “at home”. When we truly focus on listening to our Lord, clouds disappear, doubts and fear give way to truth and serenity and the situations we encounter will settle in their right places.
The Pope went on to say that this gospel passage reminds us that the wisdom of the heart lies in combining the two elements of contemplation and action demonstrated by Mary and Martha respectively. If we want to savour life with joy, on the one hand, we must be at the feet of Jesus, to listen to him as he reveals to us the secret of everything; and on the other, we must be attentive and ready in hospitality, when Jesus passes and knocks on our door with the face of someone who needs a moment of rest and fraternity.
Let’s conclude this reflection with this beautiful prayer from Pope Francis:
“May Mary most holy, Mother of the Church, give us the grace and love and serve God and brethren with the hands of Martha and the heart of Mary, so that, in always listening to Christ, we may be artisans of peace and hope.” Amen.