Here’s a gospel story for which we love to take sides! Mary or Martha? Those of us who feel we are always doing way more than our fair share, whether in our families, communities, or on our jobs, rally around a miffed Martha when she complains to Jesus that her dreamy sister needs to get up and lend a hand. (The gospel hints that maybe this wasn’t the first time Martha was peeved with the leisurely ways of her sister.) But those of us who think that the way too industrious Marthas of this world need to chill a little before they drive everybody crazy, loyally align ourselves with Mary.
And yet, rather than seeing Mary and Martha as irreconcilable opposites, perhaps they represent two essential dimensions of the Christian life that must be kept in balance. When Jesus tells Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part,” he reminds us that God must be the abiding center of our lives. No matter how much good we may do, if we are so busy that we seldom have time for the prayer, solitude, and contemplative listening that is necessary to nurture our relationship with God, we will lose our way. That is why we need to be Mary “who seated herself at the Lord’s feet and listened to his words.” But we also need to be Martha not only because other people depend on us and we have responsibilities to them, but also because God can work through all the good things we do to love and bless others.
Still, we shouldn’t be so focused on the distinctive character traits of these two sisters that we overlook the one thing on which they both obviously agree: welcoming Jesus into their home and into their lives. Martha and Mary had opened their door to Jesus often enough that he had changed from being a stranger to becoming a friend. Let us pray that Jesus feels as at home with us as he did with Martha and Mary. Let us pray that, like them, we spend enough time with Jesus so that he is no longer stranger, but friend.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology & Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the Passionist Family.