“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.” —Luke 10:42
When we’re being honest, most of us will admit that it isn’t easy having house guests. However much we might look forward to their visit and enjoy their company, there’s also often a sense of relief when they go on their way. I’ve certainly experienced this. Beyond the cleaning, cooking, and flurry of activities that goes into preparing for their arrival, it can be exhausting hosting and entertaining, particularly if you aren’t able to find some moments for quiet or a chance to retreat into your own space.
As we read this Sunday’s Gospel account of Jesus’ visit to the home of his friends Martha and Mary in Bethany, we have to remember that the sisters were hosting Jesus in exactly the same way that we host friends and family in our homes today. And it’s no wonder that Martha was busy, trying to do her best for their special guest. While we might be tempted to be critical of Martha’s busy-ness, we should recall that in the ancient Near East, hospitality was one of the greatest virtues. We can see this expressed in Abraham’s eagerness to welcome the three guests into his tent in our First Reading.
But then we have Mary, quietly sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him, present to him in a way that Martha wasn’t. In fact, while Martha was being hospitable in countless practical ways, she had allowed her work to take priority over the presence of her guest.
As one of my favorite commentaries on this passage observes, “Martha’s ‘hospitality’ was made edgy because of her becoming burdened with the cooking and serving and only focusing on that, losing sight of Jesus. Martha settles for being only a servant (and complaining about it at that!) while Jesus is looking for disciples” (from Living Liturgy, 2016).
Mary, on the other hand, was expressing a different form of hospitality as she focused all her attention on their guest, making herself available to Jesus as she “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him.” She had assumed the posture of a disciple—a student—intent on receiving the wisdom of the Teacher. When Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part, he’s acknowledging that Mary has been attentive to his Presence.
And, yet, in the end, I think that we would do both Martha and Mary a disservice if we dismiss Martha’s work and only praise Mary’s contemplative, attentive heart. As we know from our own experiences of giving and receiving hospitality, true hospitality isn’t only about either serving or listening. Hospitality is ultimately about creating a space where we can be both attentive to our guest and willing to serve their needs as they arise. Sometimes, we are like Mary, listening to stories and simply experiencing the joy of having our guest close at hand. Other times, we have to be like Martha, ready to serve and tend.
As we reflect on this story, we might think of what it has to say to us about life today. After all, this passage from Luke’s Gospel isn’t just the a story about Jesus dropping in for a weekend away from the crowds. This story is a lesson in discipleship, inviting us to reflect on how we recognize and welcome Jesus as he comes to us today. And there are many ways Jesus is present to us. This obviously includes how he comes to us in the proclaimed Word and in the Eucharist in the Mass or how we experience his divine presence in prayer. But we also encounter Jesus in those whom we love, as well as in the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, refugees, and all those who need our love.
The question before us—posed by the figures of Mary and Martha—is this: Are you creating a space for Jesus, paying attention to him and serving his needs, here and now, in whatever way he comes to you?
How have you recognized Jesus’ presence in your life? How did you respond?
Jesus gently chides Martha for being “anxious and worried about many things.” What anxieties and cares prevent you from being present to Jesus in prayer and meditation?
What is the “one thing” Jesus is asking of you today?
Words of Wisdom: “Listening is always involved in hospitality. The most gracious attempts we can muster are meaningless if we do not actually hear the stranger. Listening is the core meaning of hospitality. It is something we can give anyone and everyone, including ourselves. It takes only a few minute to really listen.”—Daniel Homan, O.S.B., and Lonni Collins Prat in Radical Hospitality