There are a variety of possible answers to that gospel question. You might say love, friendship, shelter, money, employment(especially these days), meaning, purpose, direction, and the list could go on.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus visits his dear friends Martha and Mary and each one gives him what she believes is best. Martha welcomes Jesus to her home and immediately runs into the kitchen to prepare a meal. A warm greeting and a hot meal is what Martha believes is the best she can offer Jesus. Mary, her sister, sits down at the feet of Jesus and listens to what he has to say. Mary believes the best she can offer Jesus is her time and her undivided attention.
Had the story stopped there, all would have been fine. It would have been two examples of love: Mary loving Jesus by her conversation and Martha loving Jesus with her hospitality and cooking. But in a twist that has most people defending Martha against Mary, Martha complains that Mary is not in the kitchen. What are we to take from this?
There are a few lines of thought around what this passage means. I will speak about two of those. We get clues in the passage itself. First, the descriptor is of Martha – complaining. “Burdened with much serving…” the passage tells us. That should be our first hint. And when Jesus responds, he highlights the ‘problem’ that Martha has. You are ‘anxious and worried about many things… Mary has chosen the ‘better portion” we hear translated. But literally, in Latin, the words are “Unum Necessiarum” – the necessary thing. “Mary has chosen the necessary thing” –that around which it all falls into place. It is not that Mary’s gift of listening is necessarily better than Martha’s gift of serving. Had Martha been content with the gift of hospitality she was offering, her cooking would have been the “necessary thing” she was giving to Jesus, and it all would have fallen into place for her. But because she was distracted and disturbed and burdened with that, her gift to Jesus came from a divided heart. And there was no peace within her. There was no ‘necessary thing’ in what she was doing that brought it all together for her. That is the first line of thought around this passage.
I think in the course of our lives that ‘the necessary thing’ changes for each of us. And because there is much that needs to be done in our world, most of us jump into Martha’s role of service. We think that Martha got a bad rap. But here is where Jesus’ response taps into this other river of understanding, this other current that has been going on since Adam and Eve in terms of people’s response to God.
Throughout the bible, LISTENING has to come before ACTING. Too often we act without listening. Too often, people presume that they know what God wants of them and what they are supposed to be doing. A whole life of listening without action never gets the kingdom built. A whole life of action without listening builds our own kingdoms. Once we have listened and heard – then we can act with God’s will. A prime example is David’s desire to build temple. He’s ready to go. But Nathan says: “Listen to God – there is something else for YOU to do now. Leave the temple to Solomon. Do what YOU must do at this time.” And David gets it right. Like Mary, he listens – and leaves it for his son.
In our story, Mary SITS at the feet of Jesus. That was a posture that indicated you were willing to be a disciple. And it was decided not a cultural role for a woman to play in the time of Jesus. But Jesus was not bothered by that cultural conditioning. In praising Mary’s attitude of listening, he is inviting EVERYONE, not just the men, into the role of a disciple. Now, hear again what Jesus says to Martha in that light: “Martha, you are worried and preoccupied. And that worry keeps you from what is necessary – to be a disciple. Mary, in her listening has it right at this moment. Sitting at my feet, she is learning what it is to be a disciple. And though you can love me in many ways, I need you to love me now by your becoming a disciple, by your listening. Once you have listened for what I have put in YOUR heart – that one necessary thing, then you’ll act with the same freedom that Mary knows in her listening. Then you’ll be free to be who I called you to be.”
For you and I – that is the invitation, isn’t it? To discover the ONE THING God has put into our hearts to do at this stage of our life. So it comes back to that Gospel question for all of us. This day, July 17/18, 2010, what is the best gift you can give to our Lord? Bring that gift to the altar…