Photo Credit: Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In giving his answer to Martha’s complaint, Jesus teaches us what is of primary importance in our lives
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
10 October 2017
In our gospel for today (Lk 10:38-42) we find these words:
Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
There are lots of opinions about what Jesus is stressing in this passage from Luke’s gospel. Among them is the question of whether he is dismissive of Martha’s efforts in providing food for the houseguests. Was her service unimportant or unnecessary? And what about Mary? In sitting comfortably near Jesus and listening to his words, it seems as if she’s taken the easy way out, shirked her duties, left Martha with all the tedious, burdensome work. That’s not a very Christian thing to do, is it?
It’s not that serving others is unimportant or unnecessary; it’s a question of priorities. It’s easy to get so caught up in others’ needs, rushing here and there, that we lose sight of not only the greater value of spending time with Jesus but its essential necessity. This is an important fact of life: if I do not spend time in Jesus’ presence, I cannot be his disciple, I cannot function as God intends. Following Jesus, serving him, presumes to spend time with him, listening to him, watching to see what he does. Further, it is Christ whose love heals and whose Paschal Mystery saves. Serving others, as important as that is, will mean nothing if I have not love for Christ. If I leave Jesus aside but exhaust myself on the inexhaustible needs of humanity, then I have set aside not only the source of my salvation but the very origin of my being and the God who supplies the life-force required for my continued existence.
Then there is this question: what or who do I really love? It’s a question we should ask ourselves daily. If I have relegated Jesus in position to others, am I in love with serving others to the point of giving worship to humanity, so to speak, rather than to Christ?
Or perhaps I’ve willingly given over my love to other created things. People often focus their attention on what is secondary or—more commonly—what is totally irrelevant in the scheme of eternal life. This results in a dangerous off-balance set of priorities. For instance, it’s common today to find many people who are heavily absorbed in career goals, entertainment interests, vacation itineraries, financial planning, sporting events and their associated athletes, fine dining, or the latest social media hype. Where is God in all of this? It’s not that these things are sinful per se, but they become so when God is intentionally displaced by them. There is always the hazard of giving metaphorical worship to creatures or worldly pursuits and falling prey to the bondage of idolatry.
Is Christ an integral part of your life, someone whose friendship matters more than anything else, even your own earthly life, or is he someone you schedule a few distracted moments with when it is convenient? Perhaps Jesus is someone ignored until he is needed? Perhaps he’s overlooked until tragedy strikes? That kind of attitude is an abuse of God: it makes him into an object of manipulation, something one decides to pick up if one is interested, like a play toy, or leave on a shelf if not. If we treated our earthly, human friends this way we would soon have none.
Related to this, is the contemporary attitude toward God that is often more deist than Christian; i.e., God is often viewed as a nice, powerful but distant deity whose main desire is ordered toward helping people feel good about themselves, get along well together, and lead a successful and happy life. This view of “God” obscures the real God of absolute truth, power, love, holiness, beauty, mercy and justice. It’s a projection of wishful yet distorted, reductionist thinking that reduces God to one’s own subjective image. It’s a god manufactured from pop-culture, not the Almighty God revealed in the canon of scripture whose words give divine instruction to men. The result is a compromised, permissive, ambiguous god who makes no real demands on anyone—especially those of a moral nature.
If we desire eternal life, it’s important to strive to learn who God really is, and then open our hearts to him in faith, trust and truth. This necessarily involves grace, prayer, commitment, sincerity, and a love for God for his own sake. Given all of that, the essential nature of carefully examining our attitude about God should be obvious:
In the first place, we ought to be astonished by this fact: when we praise God or give him thanks for his benefits in general, we are not particularly concerned whether or not our prayer is acceptable to him. On the other hand, we demand to see the results of our petitions. What is the image of God that motivates our prayer: an instrument to be used? or the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? (CCC 2735)
But let’s get back to Mary: what was so right and logical and coherent about her attentiveness to Christ, placed over and above serving the houseguests, which led to the approval of God-made-man? Bear in mind that Mary chose to sit at the feet of the Redeemer of humankind, the incarnate Son of God who is perfectly God and perfectly man. In doing so, her focus was rightly on Jesus who is the light of humanity, through whom all things were made (Jn 1:3-4). She gave her full attention to Christ who is primary in her life, and in fact primary to all life, including the existence of all things visible and invisible. Jesus Christ, as God, is the ground of all being and life in the universe, whether physical or non-physical. Therefore Mary’s gaze was fixed on the highest possible reality: God himself.
Grace, truth, life, light, freedom—all these things and more are dependent upon remaining in the presence of their source: Jesus Christ:
In Jesus Christ, the whole of God’s truth has been made manifest. “Full of grace and truth,” he came as the “light of the world,” he is the Truth. “Whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” The disciple of Jesus continues in his word so as to know “the truth [that] will make you free” and that sanctifies. (CCC 2466)
When we remain in Christ’s presence, we remain immersed in a sanctifying, purifying, loving reality—this elevates and completes the human person, giving to him unimaginably more than can be had by human nature alone. In and through and with Christ, we become fully who God intends us to be. Further, the life of heaven is opened for us in Christ. It is through faith in Jesus that the promise of eternal life and assumption into communion with the Tripersonal God becomes a reality:
By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has “opened” heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ. (CCC 1026)
The bottom line is this: if you desire to live the fullest possible life, you need to get to know who Christ really is. That requires prayer and meditation on scripture, especially the gospels. As St. Jerome noted, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” The ancient prayer tradition of Lectio Divina is an excellent method of meditation on scripture that prepares the way for the gift of contemplation and the wondrous life of personal intimacy with Jesus Christ.
When Jesus entered Martha and Mary’s house, Mary gave him her full attention, content as she was to sit at his feet and listen to the ever sweet, infinite power of his divine and human voice. She needed nothing else, for all possible love, truth, beauty and goodness was present there before her. The needs of others faded into the background, while intimacy with her Savior rose to the forefront. In being present to Christ, Mary was engaged in a most reasonable, virtuous and holy activity. Nothing greater was possible. In looking into the eyes of Jesus, Mary was gazing into the human soul of her divine Creator, Savior and Redeemer, who is himself the source of all life. She heard the same voice who said, “Let there be life” (Gn 1:3), speak to her of other divine things in the setting of her simple and humble home. While others busied themselves, Mary rested in the presence of God. It is in this holy, sublime rest that all the energy, motivation, courage and force of will necessary for discipleship is born within.
“There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.