What was wrong with Martha's desire to take care of the practical needs of Jesus?
Let’s imagine the scene: Jesus, the great friend, is received in Bethany. Thrilled to greet him, Martha is enthusiastic and efficient: There’s so much to do! But her sister Mary doesn’t seem to pay any attention to that, as she calmly sits and rests at Jesus’ feet, as if the food could prepare itself, as if she thought it was normal to let everyone else do all the work. Martha protests — and what homemaker doesn’t understand her point of view? Everyone would prefer to sit down instead of sweating over a hot stove! It’s all good and fine to listen to the guest when there’s someone there to take care of the practical matters. That may have been what Martha was thinking, and we can understand!
When we become a slave to material tasks
And Jesus, does He realize what is going on? Yes, without a doubt. To start with, because for 30 years he saw his mother prepare food, wash, and get the house in order, as mothers all over the world do. He well knows that these tasks don’t just magically get done. He has experienced both the weight of exhaustion and the delight of eating a good meal. He does not overlook the value and real importance of Martha’s work — He doesn’t look down on her. And what is more, He senses the generosity that pushes her to become annoyed: she wants everything to be perfect for Him. About these tasks Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
“But Martha was distracted with all her preparations.” (Luke 10:40) ‘Distracted’ is the word we should pay attention to. Martha, in a way, has become a slave to her material tasks. She runs the risk of paying more attention to the food than to her guest. This flaw is repeated in many other situations: in systems or processes that become more important than human beings; in religion teachers more worried about problems of methodology than with the Lord Himself; or even in parents who put more pressure on their children to get good grades than to develop their character.
How can we remain focused on what’s really important?
What is primary in our life? This is the question we are continually invited to ask ourselves to keep from getting distracted, to keep our freedom, and stay focused on what is really important, instead of getting distracted by other things. We often complain about having a job with excessively long hours, of always having to rush, of never being able to take a break … Could it be that, like Martha, we get upset and nervous over many things?
“There is only one thing worth being concerned about,” Jesus says to Martha (Luke 10:42). From the point of view of this one thing, there is no opposition between Martha and Mary’s vocation—Carmelite or mother, hermit or head of a business, the main thing for us is to remain at Jesus’ feet and listen to him.
“God is enough,” and this is not true only for monks and nuns, but for everyone. Jesus repeats to us, as He did to Martha, that the first thing in our day is prayer. Our primary preoccupation is to fulfill the will of God. The main concernin our ambitions is the search for the Kingdom of God. Everything else will be provided for later.
Of course, Martha’s vocation is not the same as Mary’s. A mother cannot spend as much time praying as a religious nun; a monk will not have to be as good a financial manager as the owner of a business. Everyone has his or her vocation and mission. What does change, from one phase of life to another, is the way we search, the way in which the “one necessity” is served. This one necessary thing is always the same. The Lord made all of us for Him and, as St. Augustine says, “Our heart is restless until it rests in Him” — whether we are like Martha or like Mary.