Mary’s Heart and Martha’s Hand

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So often, Jesus takes homey incidents from life and converts them into parables. Jesus takes every day circumstances and transforms them into moments for spiritual truth. Such is the gospel story for today.

Now Mary, Martha and Lazarus were good friends of Jesus. Their little Village of Bethany was located just two miles from Jerusalem, and Jesus visited them often. We know that in today’s gospel story, Jesus, the famous rabbi, was coming to their home for dinner, and Martha was going to plan and prepare that meal. Now, you can’t serve the renowned rabbi of the land baloney sandwiches. Jesus is coming to dinner and you have to make the meal special. So we can imagine Martha going to market the day before the feast in order to get the freshest food available and the finest of wines. What a shopping spree that was, and the next morning, Martha was a flurry of activity, busy cleaning the house and the yard before she began to prepare the feast for Jesus. And then, she set the table with her finest pottery ware. Soon it was the time of arrival and Jesus knocked on the door, and everyone was so excited to see him. They laughed and chatted and then Jesus sat down on a pillow in the front room and started to teach. And soon Martha was out in the kitchen, so busy, so focused on her last minute preparations, but she was irritated. The more Martha worked, the more frustrated she got with her sister, sitting in the living room, cheerfully listening to Jesus. Mary was focused on Jesus and his words and listening to him with all her heart. Soon Martha stood in the kitchen door and her anger could not be contained any longer: “Jesus, would you tell Mary to come into the kitchen and help me with all this work.” Jesus spoke to Martha calmly, “Martha, Martha, don’t be so upset. You are busy and distracted with many things. Mary has chosen the better portion and this will not be taken away from her.”

And thus ends the story and the parable. But, Martha, well Martha has become a symbol of action-oriented people, responsible people, men and women who get the job done. And the world needs people who get the job done. This is certainly true in the church. How would the church ever survive if not for the Marthas and Marvins who sing in the choir, teach CCD, work with the less fortunate, work with the youth group, and sustain the church. The same is true with the family. We need responsible people to do the work of the house: to cook, to clean, to keep the house operating, to pay the bills, to keep the cars running, not to speak of raising the children. What is wrong with being a Martha? Nothing. There is nothing wrong with being a responsible, action oriented, get it done kind of person. Jesus did not fault Martha for being responsible. Martha’s fault is that she was … too busy to listen … too distracted to sit at his feet and absorb his presence … too busy living life to quietly hear what Jesus had to say … too involved with all her activities and actions that she didn’t find time to first listen to the voice of Christ.

And so Jesus taught in an unforgettable way that listening precedes action; that we listen first and then do or act. That is why we need Mary’s heart and secondly, Martha’s hand. Listen first and action second. Like Mary we need to listen to the voice of God with our hearts; to focus, to center, to concentrate, on Christ and his words; to blot out all of our past busyness and all the clutter of our minds from yesterday; to blot out all our future busyness and all the clutter of activities that we are going to do. It is an art to listen to the voice of Jesus in a sermon. It is an art to listen to the voice of Jesus in our prayers when our minds are tempted to run so fast and far away. It is an art to listen to the voice of Christ as we are absorbed in reading the Bible when our minds are tempted to think about other things. Listening is a gift of oneself to the other, a centering, a concentrating of oneself on the other, on Jesus Christ, and listening to his voice. Mary knew how to listen to Christ, and we are encouraged to do the same.

Sylvia Bates