What Are You Looking At?
This is the Gospel Reading for Tuesday in the Twenty-Seventh Week of Ordinary Time.
Most Christians refer to this, simply, as ‘The Story of Martha and Mary’; and homilies about this story often compare the role of contemplation against the role of activity. I’m going to try to look at this from a different angle.
Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.”
The Lord said to her in reply, “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.”
Lk 10, 38-42
Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing
Lk 10, 41-42
I consider this story, which is a vignette really, a ‘sure fire’ conversation starter among Christians. Just about every disciple I’ve ever spoken to, upon hearing this story proclaimed, has had something to say about these sisters’ domestic dispute. No surprise, really. Where in the Bible do we find a story more ordinary, and more relevant to our everyday experience? There’s no miracle to wonder at, no complex bit of theology to mull over, no frightening prophesy to get our hearts pumping. None of that. Just one person keeping tabs on another, making sure nobody gets a ‘free ride’, making sure everybody ‘gets her due’. Isn’t that just like us? Isn’t that just like everybody?
The Father is concerned with justice, and as we become more like Him we become concerned with justice as well; but long, long before we ever give a thought to justice we find ourselves in an absolute fret about ‘fair’. This story is about ‘fair’. If you want to do some homework, you can look up Lk 12, 13-15 for another little story about ‘fair’. What frustrates us so, as we come to know Jesus better, is that he doesn’t seem to give a hoot about ‘fair’. Fair doesn’t enter into his thinking at all. Martha wanted to talk to him about fair, but he would have none of it; in fact, he changed the conversation entirely.
When we look at these sisters we see a ‘busy bee’ and a ‘lazy bones’ and we have no trouble deciding which one is better; but Jesus doesn’t even consider the things that get us all worked up. What catches Jesus’ attention is the fact that one sister is depending on God while the other is depending on herself. What he points out is something that any of us can observe if we take the trouble to look for it: the one who’s depending on herself is ‘anxious and worried’, whereas the one who has simply put herself in God’s hands is at peace.
If we hold on to the human perspective we’re going to assume that ‘anxious and worried’ is a perfectly normal frame of mind. Everyone has a job to do, everyone has deadlines to meet, everyone is in competition with everyone else. What’s more, everyone has money troubles, and health scares, and authority issues. And every one of us has a sneaking suspicion that other people are ‘getting away with murder’ — doing less than their share and taking more than their share. Of course we’re all ‘anxious and worried’. Why shouldn’t we be?
What we consider ‘normal’, Jesus considers seriously troubled. He knows, as we all do, that human life requires industry. God Himself is industrious, and those of us made in His image glorify Him with our work. Nothing wrong with industrious; but there is something seriously wrong with ‘anxious and worried’. As long as our attention is focused on what’s ‘fair’ we’re bound to be anxious. ‘Fair’, after all, is a human invention, and our focus on fairness leads us to focus on ourselves. To us, that’s normal; to Jesus, it’s spiritual imprisonment.
When we’re focused on God, our eyes are where they ought to be; and when we see God, we see Him pouring Himself out — body and blood — for our benefit. What possible response can we have but gratitude? Are you going to look for a fair exchange? Are you readying yourself to bargain shrewdly?
Martha and Mary adopted contrasting styles, at least they did in this story. The contrast, though, wasn’t between work and repose; the contrast lay in the things they were looking at. Mary sat beside the Lord, at his feet, listening to him speak. Mary was looking at Jesus and she found peace because Mary had taken herself entirely out of the equation. Martha was looking at ‘fair’ and all she found was anxiety and worry. Her trouble was that she couldn’t get out of her own way.