The gospel of today is very simple: Martha is constantly working while Mary is resting in the Spirit – in adoration of God. Martha is the doer and Mary is the contemplative. The idea that Mary chose the best part, meaning contemplation, gave birth to a long-lasting controversy between monks and priests. Which one is better to feed the hungry (Martha) or to meditate and pray near Jesus (Mary)? Is it better to pray for the children in Africa or to send them money? If we interpret the readings as they were written, praying is more important by far. Is that it? Is that all we can get from today’s reading or is there something else? We all want to choose the best part; we all want to be like Mary, sitting at the feet of the Master. Can the world exist only with Mary(s)? If Jesus’ message today was to exalt Mary, then those working like Martha were reprimanded or even overlooked by him. Are there any Martha(s) in the crowd that feel unappreciated? We know that the world is made by many Mary(s) and Many Martha(s). The world cannot exist without them.
I am not sure that the story of Martha and Mary really happened, it may have been a parable – one of those stories that Jesus told that ended in the bible as a real story (we have many of those, could this be one of them?). In any case, Martha and Mary is the story of our journey towards God: at times we act like Mary, other times we act like Martha. Ecclesiastes or the book of Koheleth says that there is a time for everything: a time to be born a time to die, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to kill and a time to heal. I would add: a time to be like Martha and a time to be like Mary.
In fact Martha and Mary symbolize the human struggle between doing and being. In today’s world we have no problem in “doing”, even those who are lazy are constantly doing. What are they doing? They are sleeping, or they are sitting on the couch playing games. Doing is the act that defines them; doing is the act that defines most of us. No wonder people drop dead of exhaustion, they work hard to get money and retire, and when retirement comes they drop dead. They were so busy doing that they missed the being of life.
There is a poem that reflects on the life of a doer: if one could do it all over again, one would spend less time worrying and more time enjoying life, more time laughing, more time dancing, more time sharing with friends AND less time trying to control others or even gossiping about them. We spend way too much time doing and we forget being. But wait, what would you rather be, remember that we are both Mary and Martha?
This question of being does not have an easy answer. Some people are not happy with what God gave them: they want to be shorter or taller, thinner or fatter, smarter, wealthier and younger. Some people wish they were born in different families, different countries with different friends. Being for them is not easy, so they prefer to be defined as a doer.
That’s when Martha and Mary can give us a hint of who we are. We are souls who at times do and at times contemplate. There is a time to go to the well and fill the jars. And there is a time to go around the town to distribute the water. Once the jars are empty, a new cycle emerges: the cycle of refilling the jars. The story of Martha is not about Martha doing something wrong, but about Martha not understanding the cycles of life. What was important was not cooking and preparing the table, but rather enjoying the presence of God. I am not saying that preparing the food and eating is not important, but that the timing was off.
I see this often: some priests spend so much time preparing for mass, that they forget the importance of the mass. The choir could be so attentive to start the song that they fail to listen to the sermon. I see people looking in their purses and pockets for money, they are getting ready for the basket during the collection, but in the mean time they forget to pray.
The story of Martha and Mary is for me a lesson of cycles: it is a message of discerning when is the right moment to act or to be. Martha should have had her house ready before Jesus came, so when he came, she could have sat down next to Mary and enjoy the visit. It is not a matter of either or (either siting at the feet of Jesus or preparing food for him, but rather: preparing food for Jesus AND siting at his feet). It is feeding the hungry and taking time to pray for them. It is asking God for a new job and sending resumes; it is praying for healing and consulting the right doctors; it is doing and being at the same time.
I am reminded of that famous prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Notice that Mary and Martha are both reflected in this prayer: serenity (Mary), courage to change (act like Martha) and wisdom (the combined efforts of Mary and Martha) which is also discernment. Let us pray that we learned to be and do when being and doing is required. That our prayers may not be empty with wishful thinking without action and that our actions may never be empty of the power of prayer. Amen.
Fr. Marc Angelo, PO Box 3414, Culver City, CA 90231
Mass every Sunday at 6:00pm at St. Mary’s in Palms 3647 Watseka Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90034-3914
Every last Sunday of the month mass in Spanish at 4:00 pm and English at 6:00 pm.