The Gospel for July 17th, 2016: “Martha and Mary”
Reflection: The Choice to Spend Time with Jesus
I have been told that this gospel is very challenging to some women who find it hard to accept that Jesus would support Mary’s decision to ignore helping Martha with the hosting responsibilities of providing for the guests. As we are called to serve, a call that many women take very seriously when guests enter their homes, Jesus’s response is rather baffling and counterintuitive. However, as a male, I always feel a little uncomfortable discussing roles and responsibilities that traditionally have been ascribed to women. The truth is I don’t know what is like to be a woman, although I will say it appears to me to be very difficult. For this reason, I would rather not take up the specific question as to whether Mary should be helping her sister with the serving of the guests. Instead, I read this gospel as a lesson about the choice to do any number of service activities that on the surface appear worthwhile and unselfish instead of choosing the “better part” to spend some quiet time with the Lord.
So let’s re-imagine this story for second from a more contemporary, masculine point of view. Imagine Martha is a man named Martin who is a husband, father, and conscientious Christian. He works for a non-profit organization that provides help to low-income and homeless families to identify and obtain federally subsidized housing. This is an organization that believes in its mission and asks its employees to work hard. Their work provides an effective service that provides many families with stability and hope. So Martin’s work week is very full, to which he adds a busy after-work schedule of helping his wife with family responsibilities, including running their children to a number of extra-curricular activities in the evenings and on the weekends. All these commitments have left Martin with little time to do a number of chores that he was raised to believe are important. He has trouble finding time, and maybe the energy, to clean the garage, mow the lawn, and keep the maintenance on the vehicles and the house. So what does he do? Like any good twenty-first century American, he pushes those responsibilities to Sunday. He knows Sunday is the Lord’s day, but he can’t see how he can be a good husband, father, and employee without doing chores for at least part of the day on Sunday. He is not alone in this. Lots of men he knows do this also.
Is this a problem? Certainly, one could argue he is serving others in performing all these roles and responsibilities. He is being the good Christian he is called to be. And from a twenty-first century, time management paradigm it just makes sense. It is being efficient to use time on Sunday if the rest of the week is spoken for. His wife understands because she wants to see the lawn mowed and the garage cleaned too (and she probably is doing her own chores on Sunday or cooking up a big Sunday meal for the family). But here’s the thing: How long can Martin keep this up? How long before something has got to give?
The first thing to go is quiet time with the Lord. In trying keep up, he has stopped praying each day, because he can’t afford to spend that time sitting still doing nothing. On Sunday, to his credit, he is still going to church with the family, but his mind is not there. It is on all the things he needs to do Sunday afternoon and the coming week, or it is on an internal dialogue of self-pity about how tired he is and the changes he plans to make to fix the problem. Or maybe he even is dozing during the longer parts of the service. Sooner or later, Martin will reach a state similar to Martha in today’s gospel. She is “anxious and worried about many things” (41). This is the state that leads many people like Martin to so many of the problems that are well-known among “successful” people. They start to self-medicate, a little bit at a time, with food or substances or sex or entertainment or relationships and justify these behaviors because they deserve a break and no one is perfect. And the harder they push, the more important these behaviors become entrenched in their lives, to the point that their relationships start to suffer because they need to feed these fixes with more time and money.
Martha does not go down that road. She talks to Jesus about her frustration, thinking she is in the right. But Jesus reorients her to Him. He tells her there is need for” only one thing,” “the better part,” (42) whom Mary has chosen by sitting at Jesus’s feet while He is in her presence and listening to Him speak (39). Apparently, Martha does listen to this lesson also. In John 11, Martha turns to Jesus with such faith that she knows He can raise her deceased brother, Lazarus, from the dead, and he does. She stakes her happiness on Him, not on the “many things,” and becomes a saint.
Martin can do the same as Martha and Mary. He can choose the better part as well by spending time with the Lord each day and asking, what do You want me to do, Lord? What is Your will for me? He can give more time to the Lord on Sunday to help set an agenda for the week that is based on God’s plans and not the plans that he has created or that others have handed him. The return on this time spent with Jesus is life-changing. He will learn to let go of those activities that seem so important, but leave him feeling too busy and anxious. They are not part of God’s plans for Martin. Instead he will learn to trust in the Lord, who wants him to be a good husband and father and will give him energy and strength for those activities that truly are his mission for the Lord. Like Martha, he will learn to speak to the Lord about his frustrations and seek His counsel and peace through prayer, the sacraments, the Church, and by fulfilling his unique mission. He will recognize that God will show him which others he needs to serve and when. He may even find that sometimes God will ask him to take a break or a nap occasionally, so that he is refreshed for an unforeseen plan that the Lord has waiting.
It is very tempting to try to figure out how to spend our time by classifying activities as right or wrong on our own. Then once we figure out what we think is right, we fill our time completely with all those right activities. This misses the point entirely. It is not for us to decide. Jesus will show us what to do each day if we just ask and listen. He says, “There is need of only one thing” (42). The challenge is putting Him at the center of all that we do and keeping Him there. But like for Martha, it is a path to sainthood and true happiness. It is why God created us.