The one thing we need
Today’s Gospel is familiar to most of us and appears to be a simple, straightforward teaching, but is often misunderstood, and has even been cited to justify a degenerate and dualistic understanding of life in the Holy Spirit.
We’ve been programmed from the same homilies and commentaries we’ve heard from our youth to immediately construct sets of contrasting concepts whenever we hear this Gospel. We then “judge” which is the best, which is easy to do of course, based on the words of Jesus about Mary choosing the “better part”.
Hmmm. But are we really sure we are properly interpreting what Jesus was alluding to with those words?
Such dualistic pairings of concepts with this quick and dirty intetpretation include: “action vs contemplation,”… “working vs praying,”…and “doing vs being”.
I think it’s fair to say that there is a sense with most Catholic Christians that “contemplative” Religious Orders of nuns, monks and hermits produce holier people and is a surer, more direct path to spiritual transformation in God than consecrated men and women in “active” Religious Orders who are forever busy with work in the world as their particular vocation.
Again, such ideas claim support in their interpretation of the words of Jesus in this Gospel seemingly preferring Mary over Martha.
Such ideas are completely imagined, and therefore abstracted from the actual concrete dynamic of our life experience. They totally miss the point of this Gospel, which is not to suggest that it’s better that we pray than work; but rather, HOW we are to do both, to work AND pray always stationed in the ‘present,’ with awareness of the ‘Presence’ of God.
Martha’s “doing” wasn’t the problem. Martha’s problem was where she was putting her attention!
Martha was – according to Jesus – worried and anxious about many things. She was thinking about herself, not listening to Jesus seeking to understand His words, which requires giving those words your attention. Mary was doing that; Martha was not doing that.
The “better part” is to do whatever Jesus instructed us to do, and what I’m saying above is essentially the same as what Jesus said on another occasion, which is “to seek ye first the Kingdom of God;” or, on several other occasions: “to watch and pray ALWAYS,” which leaves no space in one’s head or heart for fearing or worrying about tomorrow, so as to leave one’s attention completely free to be present “to” and engaged “in” the present reality while aware of God’s Presence!
Martha could have done her work without worrying while also listening intently to Jesus, just like Mary.
The “better part” was Mary’s choice to give her attention to Jesus and to listen to what He was saying and had nothing to do with the fact that she was idle, as I see it, which was really just an incidental descriptive detail.
Martha, on the other hand, let other thoughts fill her head, which prevented her from being able to truly listen to what she was hearing Jesus say. Remember, it was the same small room they were all in.
Sure, it’s easier to put your attention on something when you’re completely free of outside distractions, but we all know that the biggest and most challenging come from within our own minds, especially if we’re experiencing anxiety and are not at peace.
Jesus makes it clear that it was that type of distraction involved in this case…Martha wasn’t adding numbers!
Preparing food for a special guest while he’s sitting in the SAME room is not a situation that would create a “distraction” problem for Martha. In fact, many people actually find conversing and engaging with a guest to be easier and more relaxing while they are busy with their hands preparing food.
The “better part” Jesus is teaching us about is to give fully our mind and heart to God in faith, trusting His promises, love and mercy, having no fear, and giving absolutely no thought to our own foolish imagination’s fantastical fancies full of fluster, fretting and frustration.