This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 10:38–42:
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.”
It’s been many years since I’ve been part of a wedding, and except for the signal that it means I’m getting old, I don’t mind it much. The stress of weddings, especially formal weddings, tends to bring out the worst in people, in part because of the expectations we build up for such events. On the surface, it looks like a fun event, being dressed to the nines, having a banquet with friends and family, and dancing the night away. The emotional clashes and costs to get there, though, often overshadow the point of the celebration — so much so that we now have television shows glamorizing the interpersonal fights more than the weddings themselves.
Who needs to watch that? Just sign up to help organize the next family wedding.
I’m kidding (mostly), but it’s true that we sometimes get so caught up in preparation for an event that we forget the purpose of the event itself. That’s not just true of weddings, but of other celebrations and events. It’s not that preparation isn’t necessary, but so is perspective. This is one of the lessons we learn today from Jesus in this exchange with Martha, who has reached the end of her rope with her sister, but hardly the only one.
In the culture of that day — and to ours, still — hospitality was not just a virtue but a social imperative. Martha had not just welcomed Jesus into her house, but his disciples, which we know because she was “burdened with much serving.” It would have been rude not to serve the crowd, a type of rejection. Whether Mary helped or not, the job had to be done. Martha couldn’t let welcomed visitors go without food and drink in her house.
At the same time, Martha seems to be missing the point. This episode parallels Peter’s first impulse at the Transfiguration, in which he offers to build three tents as tribute rather than be in the moment with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. There is nothing ill-intended about Peter’s suggestion, but the process of building tents would necessarily have taken him away from a miracle unfolding before him, unfolding for his benefit. In its way, it misses the forest for the trees.
The same is true here. Jesus gently rebukes Martha’s complaint not because He scoffs at her responsibilities, but because she hasn’t focused on the most important aspect of the event. Christ has come into her house to discuss the Word of God. That should be Martha’s focus and the focus of her preparations and service as well. As necessary as preparation and service are, they cannot distract us from God’s Word.
This speaks to our own approach to worship, and beyond that to life. It’s certainly easy to busy ourselves with preparation and service, and it’s a virtue to volunteer one’s gifts to both, especially for the benefit of the church. But do we replace worship with service and preparation? Are we so burdened with service at Mass or chapel that we forget to pay proper attention to the Word of God? Are we seeing the forest in church, or just the trees?
The same is true outside of church, sometimes immediately outside of it. Inside, we sing about loving thy neighbor, but are we cursing him in the parking lot afterward because of frustration with traffic? (We have an unusual parking situation at our parish, so that one’s on me.) More importantly, do we put service to our other responsibilities, or our own desires, ahead of our need to listen to the Holy Spirit in our hearts? That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re out being mean and nasty to others, but it speaks of a kind of compartmentalization that often occurs between our faith and how we live our lives.
This extends to prayer life as well. As with many conversations in the Gospels, Martha’s conversation with Jesus is a model of prayer, although not the best one to follow. How do we talk to the Lord? Martha loved Jesus and longed for His Word, but all that service was getting in the way of it — and her reaction was to complain about her sister to the Lord. Do we pray in that way? Are we asking the Lord to change others rather than asking the Lord to help form us to His will? Jesus patiently provides some instruction for us in how we pray to Him in his response to Martha, which is to say we should focus on our own shortcomings before assuming those of others.
In our first reading today, Abraham shows a good balance between service and presence. When the three men approached his tent, Abraham welcomed them to his tent with full hospitality. He did not fuss over them, however; when he had given the full measure of hospitality, Abraham waited with patience for them to eat, refresh themselves, and speak their minds.
This is how we are meant to prepare and serve as well. We ready ourselves and we do the work necessary to make the Word of God central to our day and our life. That preparation and service need not be perfect; Christ perfects it for us. When service, preparation, and the business of life distracts us from God’s Word or compartmentalizes it, we should recall the good efforts of Martha and how they missed the mark. While we have Him in our lives, He should be the focus, and we should not resent those who have the correct perspective. And He has promised to be with us until the end of time.
Note: I just assume everyone gets the joke reference in the headline …
The front page image is a detail from “Christ with Mary and Martha” by Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1570-75. On display at Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.