In one sense, this is an obvious gospel. It is about living well by starting the right way. It makes no sense to be really busy if I don’t know what I am working for. It makes no sense to muck around with little things if I am missing the big picture, if I am not attending to the fundamentals. If I am not first of all listening to God my creator, how can I really be serious about living well? So much, so obvious.
But I think for many of us, even if the story of Martha and Mary makes an obvious point, it still seems challenging. Perhaps its very familiarity is challenging. Perhaps it is both familiar and challenging, precisely because we get the point but still rail against it? And indeed fight against the lesson everyday? Fight against it because we still don’t want to believe it, I mean really believe it? Perhaps, though, that is just me? But it is definitely me.
Every morning I come into the church to pray and set up for Mass. And setting up is much easier than praying. I get the candles out, find the books, arrange the prayers and make the sure the gifts are ready. Martha work. Deep down though I know I should be praying.
So, then I come to prayer. I have to pray my office. I have to put together the skeleton of a homily. So, I pray the office of readings and then morning prayer. I have a read through of the readings and try to formulate some thoughts. Often, though, this is still Martha work. Mary is nowhere to be seen. I know that I can, if I want, probably come up with a homily. I don’t necessarily have to sit at God’s feet and wrestle with his word. And so there is the temptation to be glib, rather than honest.
This is because Mary work is, in fact, much harder than Martha work. Though in our Gospel, it looks like Mary is the lazy one and Martha is the industrious one, anyone who prays knows that this is not the case. As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. Real prayer is much more risky than work of any other kind. This is what makes today’s gospel so similar to last week’s gospel.
Last week, we had the lawyer ask Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life? The answer turned out to be love of God and love of neighbour. No surprises there. However, what was surprising was how Jesus flipped the lawyer’s question – who is my neighbour? – on its head. Jesus responded to the lawyer’s question with the story of the Good Samaritan and then concludes by asking the lawyer, who was a neighbour to the man beaten and left for dead?
The lawyer who had started by seeking to justify himself, seeking to delimit his responsibility, seeking to remain in control, this lawyer now finds himself on the other side of the equation. Now, he is in the spotlight. Instead of getting to define his neighbour, his neighbour now gets to define him. Instead of being in control, he is now at risk of not being a true neighbour. The whole thing has been turned upside down. To inherit eternal life he must be constantly alert, he must become a neighbour to those in need. As I said, Jesus has flipped the whole thing upside down.
The same thing happens today. Martha is trying to remain in control. Mary however has put out into the deep. Perhaps this is the real reason why Martha is annoyed. Perhaps she knows that Mary has chosen the better part. Worse still, perhaps she knows that Mary has chosen the harder path. Mary is showing up Martha’s choice as a pretense at hard work. Martha through her failure to listen to God, her failure to pray, her failure to let Jesus challenge her, she is the one who is strangely not pulling her weight.
This should challenge all of us. Let’s have a look around. Let’s look at the people in the pews with us. Let’s think about the people we pass on the street, at the shops, in our schools. Am I chipping in spiritually? Am I putting in the time to hear what God wants to say to me, what God wants to say through me?
Today, we are praying for some of our children who will be confirmed. Their preparation should remind me us. Can I say that I am taking advantage of the gifts of the Holy Spirit? Am I bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit for our parishes?
Let’s pray then that we put first things first in our own lives. Let us pray for a renewed sense of God’s Lordship in our lives. May we come to know in prayer Christ as our beginning and our end. And as parishes, may we allow God’s word to truly take flesh in our lives for the life of the world.