In the gospel reading at Mass this weekend, Jesus and His disciples visited the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha was in the kitchen busy with food preparation, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to Him speak.
Suddenly, Martha came storming out of the kitchen and said, “Hey! What’s wrong with this picture?! I’m slaving away over a hot stove in there, and Mary’s sitting here doing nothing?! C’mon, Jesus, tell her to give me a hand!” (Well, that might be a loose translation of what Martha actually said.)
The first time I ever heard this reading at Mass, at that moment I fully expected Jesus to say, “Good point. Mary, please go help your sister in the kitchen.”
But instead, Jesus replied, “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.”
Whoa, I’m surprised someone didn’t end up with a bowl of pancake batter dumped on His head.
I remember being shocked at Jesus’ comment the first time I heard this gospel reading at Mass. (Or at least the first time I paid attention to it.) He actually criticized the person who was working hard, and praised the one who was doing nothing.
As usual, Jesus was in tune with the person’s heart rather than outward appearances. He praised Mary, not because she ignored her chores, but because she understood the importance of listening to the word of the Lord.
In the same way, Jesus rebuked Martha, not because she was responsible and hard-working, but because she was so focused on her own goal—being the Martha Stewart of Palestine—that she had no time to listen to the word of the Lord.
Very possibly Martha was the kind of person who genuinely does a lot of good things, but who makes sure that everyone else knows it. Often, if this type of person does not receive some acknowledgment and praise, the Hissy Fit Express with be comin’ round the bend any minute now.
There are a lot of Marthas running around in our churches these days. Some people are on every committee and they volunteer for every event. They cook and they clean and they set up tables and they sweep the floors and they go to meetings and they organize and they make a million phone calls—all to help the church do its job.
And many times, these people are so involved in doing all these important activities, they don’t have time to worship. They are so focused on making each event successful, they forget to listen to the word of the Lord. They become just like Martha.
And like Martha, these people often become anxious and worried, frustrated and bitter. They feel like all the chores have been dumped into their laps and no one is lifting a finger to help. Usually, they are right. In most churches 90-percent of the work is done by 10-percent of the people. (How can we increase the volunteer rate? If I knew the answer, I’d write a book and make a zillion bucks.)
People need to strike a balance between Martha and Mary, between the physical and the spiritual, between the mundane and the sacred.
If someone has been so busy doing “church stuff” that he or she hasn’t had time to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to His words, it’s time to come out of the kitchen and relax for a while. We need to listen to the word of the Lord. We need to let it sink in and transform our lives. As Jesus said, it is the only thing required.