Martha and Mary are sisters that are said to represent the “active” life and the “contemplative” life, respectively. That is a very well received interpretation of this text and of course, it has its merits. However, it is perhaps slightly inadequate when it is used to compare these two “vocations” in the Church. To “contemplate” the Lord is objectively the final goal of everyone’s existence, although without excluding the love of neighbor in any way. Furthermore, even if the final goal of my life is predominantly a contemplative one, it does not mean that a saint’s very active life of charity is missing out on a more contemplative style of life. You can be a saint either way!
If we look more closely, we will see that the Lord is not merely reproaching Martha for her choice of serving the meal, neither is he forcing the comparison to her sister’s choice of sitting by His feet to listen to Him. Martha is the one drawing the comparison and forcing herself into the conversation between Jesus and Mary. She is even questioning the Lord’s authority, as He seems not to notice the “unfairness” of the situation, and then she goes so far as to tell Him what He should say to her sister. Therefore, she interrupts the Lord’s speech (the Word of God Himself), she questions His awareness and His wisdom, then she attempts to instruct the Word of God what it is He should be saying. That is what needs to be addressed and corrected! Not the charitable choice of serving her brother and sister! Jesus would never do that, because it makes no sense.
What we see here in this Gospel is that Martha is in some way “taken” up by her work. She is not in full possession of herself. One could say that she is “possessed” by her work, which is MANY. The “many” has dispersed her, and she is no longer in control, neither is she fully ‘there’. The result of that is the behavior we have just described. Jesus then calls her back to herself: “Martha, Martha”… She is then led to realise that only ONE is necessary. We are made for that ONE. We also have the vocation to submit the MANY to that ONE. That will never happen if we lose ourselves in the process. If we end up “possessed” by the MANY, we will not be able to submit all things to Christ.
Work is great, to get things done is great! But sometimes we’re just “busy”. This Gospel shows us some signs of when we start to lose control… Be aware that to love God is also to bring all things into submission to Him through charity. That is what is meant when we say that all of the baptised are KINGS! Well understood and well ordered, our life of service is just as valuable as our contemplative life.
Father Sean Mary