Martha and Mary

Sixteenth Sunday of the Year. Gn 18:1-10a; Ps 15:2-5; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42

Today’s readings contain material for a wide range of homily topics. The First Reading is one of the most important indications of the Trinity in the Old Testament. The reading states that the Lord appeared to Abraham, but Abraham sees three men standing near him. If you look at the text closely, you will see how the account refers to the unity of God (whom Abraham addresses as ‘My Lord’) and three persons to whom he gives hospitality. This famous encounter inspired one of the greatest of all Russian icons, Rublev’s Trinity.

The Second Reading covers many themes, such as the role of suffering in the Christian life and the importance of the Church as the body of Christ. However, I think that for our contemporary needs, the most necessary theme to examine this morning is the encounter of Martha and Mary with Jesus Christ in the Gospel.

On the face of it the lesson of the Gospel seems very simple and is, indeed, one of the most well-known events in Jesus’ public ministry. When Jesus goes to Martha’s house, she does all the serving while her sister Mary spends her whole time listening to the Lord speaking. Martha obviously thinks that this is unjust and asks the Lord to tell Mary to help her. However, the Lord gently remonstrates with her. He says, Martha, Martha … you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part.

This small incident reflects a certain tension that has often been found in Christianity between the active and and contemplative aspects of life. The Middle Ages often saw this tension represented in the lives of two other famous women in the Bible, the two wives of Jacob: Leah and Rachel. Leah was visibly fruitful: she had six sons and one daughter. Rachel, on the other hand, whom Jacob loved more, only had two children and she died giving birth to the second. Rachel seemed less visibly fruitful than Leah, but one of her two sons was Joseph who saved the whole nation of Israel. The example of Leah and Rachel in the Old Testament and Martha and Mary in the New Testament is that the active part of our lives seems more immediately useful, but it is the contemplative part of our lives in which we listen to God that God loves the most. It is this contemplation which bears the greatest fruit, as Psalm 146 also reminds us, The Lord delights in those who revere him, in those who wait for his love.

Now the lesson of Martha and Mary, or Leah and Rachel, seems a simple one but it is a very hard lesson indeed to put into practice. In the Western World today, a kind of distorted spirit of Martha is running wild. Ever more exotic and even ridiculous consumer goods pour out of our factories to serve our needs in every possible way. A kind of music constantly bombards us in public places, a noise that inhibits clarity of thought, and many people have their lives filled with activities, many of which could scarcely be described as necessary. Furthermore, many people have made a virtue of performing these activities ever more efficiently to free up time for yet more activities. Consumer electronics companies, for example, boast that their products can put you in touch with your office anywhere in the world, even when you are on vacation. In England we have largely abandoned Holy Days in public life and the failure to observe Sunday as a day of rest has raised the tempo and exhaustion still further. The problem is that all this activity is obscuring the entire point of life and even clouding our minds. Our lives on earth have only one true purpose: to love and serve God, which, as the fruit of grace, will cause us to be happy with him forever. The Curé of Ars said that if we are not serving God or learning about him we are wasting our time. We cannot love God without knowing God, and we cannot know God if we do not pray, if we do not listen to him in Scriptures and in the Church, and if we lack periods of silence and peace in our lives.

So what practical measures can we take to address these problems? First, I think the most important single thing that any Christian must do in daily life is set aside at least a few minutes for silence and prayer every day. We need to imitate Mary who listened at the feet of Christ. I can testify that this is not an easy habit to establish, but if we win this battle then our lives will be fruitful. Second, although we do certain necessary activities each day, we must be very careful to dispense with unnecessary and vain activities that are wholly disconnected from the true purpose of our lives. Apart from the overt sin of our society today, I think that the saddest thing is that so many people are wasting too much of their infinitely precious time when they should be preparing for eternity. On Judgment Day hours spent watching television will not be added to our credit, but the hours we spent in prayer will be of infinite and eternal value.

May God give us the grace to imitate the example of Mary and make the love and knowledge of God the true foundation of our lives.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Sacred Heart Church, Sunningdale, 22nd July 2007

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