LIVING BALANCED LIVES
Gen 18:1-10; Col 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42
Today’s readings teach us about being hospitable; on how to be welcoming. In our first readings Abraham gives us a concrete example on how to be hospitable. He serves his strange visitors without reservation and attends to their all needs. In our second reading, St. Paul also gives us an example of spiritual hospitality as he speaks to us of giving our lives so that others may know the saving power of Jesus. In today’s gospel we have another example of hospitality when Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary. Martha is very busy attending to the physical aspects of serving Jesus. She prepares food; trying to figure out how everybody is going to get fed, while Mary is busy attending to the person of Jesus by sitting at His feet listening to His teaching. When Martha complains that Mary is not helping her and Jesus seems not to care, Jesus reprimands her. Martha, in trying to do a good thing, comes across in a kind of a bad light in this text.
For our reflection of today, we shall focus mainly on the story of Mary and Martha. This story has important lessons for us, followers of Jesus Christ.
- MARTHA’S CONTENTION
From the look of things, Martha and her sister, Mary, got on well. This may have been a particular incident that she disliked and so expressed herself about. We are told that while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, Martha was in the kitchen working. Normally, Martha would have liked to sit at the feet of Jesus too. However, someone had to prepare food, and set the table. She took up the cooking without any problem. As she worked in the kitchen, she began to feel OVER-whelmed and UNDER-appreciated. She started to feel upset that Mary was not sensitive enough to recognize that she needed a helping hand. One can imagine Martha saying to herself “Here I am in the kitchen toiling away over a meal which these people will eat in just a matter of minutes, yet everyone else is out their having a good time with Jesus! Don’t they understand how much work is involved?” A simple request from Mary, “Martha, can I do anything to help?”, would certainly have changed the situation, even if Martha’s response would be: “Oh no, I’m fine; you just continue with your discussions.”
Martha had started out trying to do something pleasant for Jesus but her attitude was beginning to take a wrong turn. To an extent, her service was no longer about Jesus. It was now about ME, Martha. Jesus describes Martha as being distracted. When one starts feeling sorry for oneself, one begins to view everything and everybody through a negative lens. In this situation one begins attributing the worst possible motives to everyone, and starts feeling like a victim. At this point, one may strike out at anyone and everyone who comes near. That is what happened when Martha finally had enough. She gave it out to Jesus and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Lk 10:40). One can imagine her facial expression! It would certainly not have been friendly. Martha is frustrated and that frustration came out as anger toward Mary at not helping her and even at Jesus for not noticing her sacrifice and making Mary go to the kitchen. It is easy for any normal human being, any one of us, to end up where Martha finds herself. When one becomes so involved in what he/she is doing, one tends to feel that everyone else should be equally as concerned about one’s pursuits. Indeed, we can become so distracted that we lose our focus. We can become so obsessed with the things going on in our life that we fail to see beyond our activity. This is what happened to Martha.
- THE PERCEPTION OF JESUS
Jesus turned to Martha and simply said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:41-42) One can imagine Jesus looking Martha right in the eye and speaking with a touch of sadness, “You are worried and upset about many things”. Jesus identified her problem. With the next phrase, He gave her the solution to the problem, “but only one thing is needed”.
Jesus may have been talking about the meal. He may have been saying, “Martha, you are worried about getting so many things ready for us, only one thing is needed. You are trying to put on a feast (and getting all worked up as you do so) when all we need is a simple bite to eat.” However, it is more likely that Jesus was telling Martha that she was upset about many things but was really missing the one thing that she needed most. He was not going to scold Mary because Mary was seeking the thing she needed most: a message from God and a relationship with His Son. Jesus was not telling Martha that it is bad to show hospitality to someone else. Martha was not wrong to want to be a good hostess. However, she took a good thing too far and it took her away from something far better. Martha’s priorities had become twisted.
Both Martha and Mary love and serve the Lord so much. Both of them are interested in the Lord and want to please the Lord. The difference between them is the manner in which they go about trying to please the Lord, their manner of expressing it. Martha takes the way of service or working for the Lord. Mary takes the way of relationship or being with the Lord. Martha loves the Lord with her serving while Mary loves the Lord with her listening and presence. In other words, Martha is the perfect host because she is busy with the work of the Lord, and Mary is perfect disciple because she is more interested in knowing the Lord of the work. For Martha the priority is service, for Mary the priority is relationship.
- PERSONALITIES VARY
Human beings have different personalities. Some enjoy reading, some enjoy watching television. Some people like country music; some like religious music. People have different tastes. There are people who always like to be doing something. They love to solve problems and meet needs. There are others who love to ponder deep truths. Such people may love to curl up with a good book. They love reading and digging up new information. They are happiest when their minds are engaged in learning. None of these personality types is better than the other. We need balance in our lives. The person who has all kinds of knowledge who never does anything with that knowledge is useless. And the person who is always running and who never stops to “fill up his/her tank” at the feet of Jesus soon runs out of “fuel”. We are not talking only about personality type; it is about a balance in our personalities.
- THE NEED FOR A BALANCE IN OUR ACTIVITIES
The danger of lack of balance in what one does can be seen in all fields of life – in priests, religious, managers of corporations, doctors, farmers, married couples, etc. We are so eager to see that what we are doing grows, to the extent that we neglect certain essentials. We can neglect to tend to the fire of our own relationship with Christ. Our work becomes our God. Everything becomes centered on ME. We can see this happen in marriage relationships. A couple is so active in searching for means to make their lives comfortable that they never take time to nurture their relationship or teach their children good values. They are so driven in the task of providing a nice home and good life that they have no energy remaining for their spouse or kids. When one spouse says, “You don’t have time for me anymore” the other cannot believe that his/her spouse could be so “selfish” to fail to see all “what he/she is doing for the family”. Eventually the couple drifts away from each other and decide that they no longer love each other. This is simply because they have neglected to attend to their relationship. It is easy for this to happen in other areas of human. We get so busy (often in good things!) that we neglect our relationship with God. We drift apart, and our act of service becomes an obsession that takes the place of God in our lives.
The warning here is that we must always keep hungering for the Word of Christ. We have to watch out that our “God-time” does not get consumed with other activities (even good activity). One of Satan’s most effective tactics or weapons is to keep us so busy that we do not have any time to build our relationship with Christ. Spiritual problems commence when we begin having little or no time for and with the Lord. This happens: when we do not have time to read the Bible or when we find ourselves distracted by other things immediately we sit to read; when we find difficulty concentrating in prayer because there is so much going on in your head (phone calls/messages, obsession with TV and other forms of entertainment, etc.); When we find one excuse after another for our absence from SCC meetings or Sunday Mass; when we become upset with our Christian friends or members of our apostolic groups who ask if we are “alright”. Signs of this nature are pointers that we may need to spend a little less time doing stuff and a little more time sitting at the feet of Jesus.
- THE MYSTICAL DIMENSION OF THE STORY OF MARTHA AND MARY
Mystically, the portrayals of Martha and Mary in today’s Gospel represent the two dimensions of our spiritual life: the ACTIVE APOSTOLIC LIFE and the CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE. Martha represents the active apostolic life because she was hard working and we could even say selfless in what she was doing. Mary represents the contemplative life as she sits attentively listening and learning from Christ, and finding deeper meaning in his teaching.
- a) In the active apostolic life, there is always a need to create and maintain moments of quiet, otherwise a danger may set in. This is so because an excess of good works and apostolate can leave the soul empty if prayer and interior life are neglected. It is in those moments of silence before God that he can speak to us. It is where we can rediscover the value and meaning of our life and work. It is in silence and contemplation that we can find strength and guidance from God. As the wise teacher tells us, we need “a time to be silent,” (Eccl 3:7). Christ sees the effects in Martha: “you are anxious and concerned about many things…” Like in the case of Martha, over active apostolic work without the contemplative can lead to the danger of: resentment, narrowness of mind and unkindness. It can also give room for anxiety. These sentiments develop in a bid to fill the vacuum left by a lack of serious prayer and the contemplative aspect of spiritual life. In the midst of all activities, productive as they may be, the human soul always needs to be nourished with prayer and reflection.
- b) While praising the contemplative life, it is good to bear in mind that Jesus is not calling us to choose between active apostolic life and contemplative life because they are not in opposition with each other but of complementary. We need the two in our lives as Christians. Jesus needs listeners as well as He also needs cooks. Our love for God must also become incarnate in whatever we do to meet the needs of others. Contemplation must not be without work. There is a need for a Mary and a Martha in the life of each one of us. Prayer goes with service; listening is complemented with doing. The good disciple both prays and serves.
In this respect, we recall that when Jesus called the apostles to follow him, he called them for A DUAL PURPOSE: “to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message,” (Mark 3:14). To be with the Lord, means: to know him, to fellowship with him and to be nourished by his word and sacraments. While to be sent out to proclaim the message means: to do the Lord’s work, to serve the Lord in others, to proclaim his message of love in word and deed. There is a bit of Martha and Mary in each one of us. We are both body and soul. All we need is to keep both in balance.
- WHAT HAPPENED TO MARTHA AND MARY LATER ON IN LIFE?
So often, when we read the stories of people Jesus encountered we are left wondering what happened to them afterwards. That’s not the case with Martha or Mary. We see them both later in the gospels. They both became dynamic and faithful followers of Christ. It would appear that Martha listened to Jesus. She heard His warning. She adjusted her life based on His advice and she grew and developed. When Martha’s brother Lazarus died, Jesus came to see the two sisters. We read this dialogue in the Gospel of John, “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” (John 11:21–27)
Martha understood. She had listened. She pursued the greatest thing. As a result, in this time of crisis she had a faith that would not waver. She understood the nature of Christ even when others did not. She changed, and so can you. It is never too late to begin to do what is right.
The story of Martha and Mary is a warning for us to put first things first. We must keep our priorities ordered rightly. If we do this, we will also reap what we have sown. Our families will grow strong. We will experience the Lord’s blessing. We will bask in His peace. We will enjoy His generosity and be uplifted by His strength. We will be used by God in ways that are more significant than anything we could do on our own.