A Gospel passage read at Mass earlier this week featured the Martha-Mary polarities of Christian discipleship. Martha and Mary are both about action. The sisters welcome Jesus into their home, and each goes about serving him, but in a different way. When Martha complains about Mary’s choice, Jesus affirms that she has chosen “the better part” (Luke 10:38-42).
We all might take comfort with the knowledge that God is on our side. The more important question – is it not? – is whether we are on God’s. Mary had chosen to place herself at the feet of Jesus, choosing to serve him by listening. This is basically a position of prayer. Martha, on the other hand, essentially seeks to make Jesus her ally in coaxing Mary into her own project – in this case, the details of hospitality – which involves “many things. Martha wants to serve Jesus, but it seems she has lost her focus in her own program. Jesus merely points out that Mary has already made her choice to do “the one thing” and that this is “the better part” of the service project going on.
Good acts are good things. The action of prayer, however, is “the one thing” that takes priority among them. In Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons,” Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Chancellor of England, derides Sir Thomas More for wanting to “govern the country by prayer.” As chancellor, no doubt, the important affairs of state might have seemed too weighty for him to take much time off in order to pray. Like Martha, Wolsey misses the point. Prayer is action. And it gets results.
The active listening of a Mary is far more focused on Jesus, one might suspect, than the passive, almost slavish, busy-ness of a Martha. Without Jesus at the center of our Christian lives, all our good acts can run the risk of exhausting us. At times, they can become chaotic as program multiplies upon program, absorbing time and personnel. Jesus presents Himself not only as our goal but also our main strategy – the Way, the Truth and the Life.
One may remark that this is a “given” in all Christian action. Can this always be presumed? Without Christ at the center of our entire mission as disciples, we can lose the one “Way” in all of our projects and programs. What, after all, is a strategy but a way to get to a goal? If our goal is God, then living acting as Jesus Himself is the way there. Should one fear that this would isolate us as individuals in some kind of mystical nirvana, Jesus always leads us through community. He leads us through His Church, which is, after all His body. And this not only connects us to and with one another; it sends us into the world.
We cannot really serve Jesus except by, through and with one another. So Mary and Martha must, eventually, work together, if Jesus is their focal point. The priority of prayer – not only the praising and pleading prayer but also the listening prayer – is especially important in families. Parents who literally slave for their children’s material well-being need also to nourish their spiritual hunger for God’s presence. Listening in prayer to God – and to God in them – is a big part of this.
Mary’s gesture of sitting at the feet of Jesus reminds us of her humble, self-emptying service as she actively and consciously focused on Him.
To put it another way, the preaching and teaching Church must also be the listening Church. In fact, that may be the one thing that matters most.