“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.”
To be honest, our gospel story of Mary and Martha has always made me a bit uncomfortable. Martha, who is so busy taking care of everybody else’s needs, is made out to be a bit of a tattletale and a complainer. Perhaps I get offended because I tend to be more of a “Martha type” myself. I love being in the kitchen during a dinner party. It saves me from trying to come up with interesting “small talk” in the living room, which is definitely not my forte.
What’s more, is that when Jesus is welcomed into Mary and Martha’s home, he’s not traveling alone. To welcome Jesus is to welcome those who are traveling with him. And anyone who has hosted a large dinner party knows that entertaining large groups takes a lot of work. As a matter of fact, the Greek word used to describe Martha’s tasks is “perispao” (can’t you just hear the sweat) meaning “simply too much to do.” C’mon, let’s give Martha some credit.
Any attempt to use today’s gospel to vilify Martha (working!) while extolling Mary (contemplating) is not particularly helpful for several reasons. Foremost of all, is that Jesus does not say Martha’s work is not necessary; he simply says that Mary’s act of faithful contemplation is better.
Another common approach to this story is to hear encouragement for a more “balanced” life, as in a proper work-life balance. I’m not sure that gets us very far, either. It’s a nice thought, kind of like developing a time budget: I’ll devote a certain percentage of time to work, family, leisure, self-care, etc. Yet, ask any parent whose child suddenly becomes ill how long such plans last.
Rather than a “balanced” life, it might be more helpful to try and nurture a “centered” life. I think this idea goes back to last week when Jesus identified the “greatest” commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Rather than trying to balance all of the demands placed upon us, a centered life is to let our identity as one created and redeemed by God’s love flow through whatever particular role or context in which we might find ourselves. Such a God-given identity gives us a place to stand in a chaotic and compartmentalized world.
I’m not sure that helps much as a stress-reducing tactic. But I do think it helps us give value to each moment of our lives, no matter how mundane the task we currently are attempting to accomplish. It is our baptismal identity as a beloved child of God that truly is the better part that can never be taken away.