This is the fourth meal story from Luke’s Gospel (10:38-42):
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
“True hospitality – even that given directly to the Lord –
attends to what the guest really wants.”
(Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God)
Martha is brazen in her approach to Jesus. The kyrie (“Lord”) she uses to address Jesus in chastising Mary is the formal, cosmic, and sovereign title; it is not a nicety or formality, as though calling Jesus “sir.” She is leveraging his position as supreme ruler to correct what she perceives as wasteful behavior in her sister: “Most High Ruler, do something about my sister’s laziness. She doesn’t understand.”
Jesus ignores both her expression of the problem and her proposed solution. Instead, Jesus points to Mary as an example of the better way. It is not service against worship; it is service that overflows from worship. Mary is not sitting idly. She has assumed the position of disciple, listening and learning. Hospitality has not been forsaken by Mary. In fact, she has given the guest exactly what the guest wants. Martha, by telling Jesus what to do, demonstrates that she is not really interested in what Jesus says. Jesus’ instruction to Martha is that her work will only have meaning when it is immersed in the Christly ethos and identity of listening. She cares less for what the guest wants than for what she wants the guest to appreciate. And so as a host, she fails.
In our frenetic service on behalf of Christ we often miss the path of simple and deep hospitality, that Jesus desires our work in peace and justice to be rooted in a profound and intimate understanding of him. It is here that we discover the urgent primacy of Sunday worship and immersion in the Eucharistic life of the Church. Much of the contemporary evangelical movement in social justice and the work of service toward others is not rooted in the deep worship life of the Church. But it is in the liturgy where the fullness of Christ’s presence is experienced in his body. It is there that we learn to listen, to be patient, to soak in the transformative power of Christ’s incarnation and Paschal mystery. We sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, and we begin to know what Jesus really wants. If our work in seeking justice in the world does not find its origin there, at Jesus’ feet, it will be a shallow and distorted application of the good news of the Kingdom. For justice, peace, and service are but shadows of their true potential if they are not overflowing from the cup of prayer and worship.
It’s easy to be Martha, to do and not listen, because genuine listening to Christ will most certainly require us to change. We would rather adopt our own version of Kingdom themes, plucked from their Christly identity, neutered and distorted and branded as “true religion.” This is justice and service that is arrogant for it forces our desire and our vision for ourselves and the world on Jesus, who is abundantly willing to set us straight.
It is not at all surprising that this story is followed immediately by the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray.