by Father Mike Stubbs
Once, I was asked to read the will after I had presided at the funeral of the deceased. As an outsider, I would appear not to favor any of the warring factions staking a claim to the inheritance. I immediately became wary. What was I getting into?
An outsider entering into a domestic dispute treads on dangerous ground. Is that what is happening in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 10:38-42? Jesus is visiting two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha, who has borne the brunt of the work of hospitality, asks Jesus to intervene: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.”
We should note that Luke describes the location where this takes place simply as “a village.” On the other hand, the Gospel of John more specifically identifies the village where Martha and Mary live as Bethany, a town just outside of Jerusalem. The Gospel of John also mentions that Martha and Mary are good friends of Jesus, along with Lazarus their brother: “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus very much” (Jn 11:5).
This information puts the incident in Luke’s Gospel into a different light. Jesus does not show up at the house of Martha and Mary as an outsider, albeit an honored guest. He is a close friend — practically a member of the family. It is in the context of that relationship that Martha makes her request.
Because of that relationship, Martha feels confident enough to approach Jesus with this issue. If he had been simply a famous person whom they were receiving into their home, she might have hesitated to bother Jesus with this personal concern. But he was more. He was their friend.
As much as we might admire Martha for her freedom in approaching Jesus, we must take stock of Jesus’ reply and compare her to her sister Mary: “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.”
Martha, in contrast to Mary, has allowed the duties of hospitality to take over, leaving her no opportunity to spend time with her guest. Martha’s life is out of balance. She has focused so much attention on hospitality that she has neglected the guest. That is why Jesus criticizes her — not that she has done wrong, but that she has slighted the greater good.
The criticism that Jesus directs at Martha can also speak to our busy lives. The responsibilities of family and work can easily overwhelm us. We believe that there is no time left to spend with the Lord. But, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “If you are too busy for prayer, you are too busy.”
Jesus’ gentle reproach toward Martha challenges us to examine our lives, to see how Jesus fits in. Does he appear as a much honored guest that we fawn over, but do not spend much time with? Or, is he our close friend, at whose feet we sit to listen to his words?