Martha and Mary

Sixteenth Sunday of the Year (C). Gen 18:1-10; Ps 14; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42

In today’s Gospel, Martha serves at the table while Mary sits at the Lord’s feet and listens to him speaking. In the Old Testament, this account of Martha and Mary is prefigured by the story of the two wives of Jacob: Leah and Rachel. Leah seems more obviously fruitful, as she bears six sons. Rachel, by contrast, whom Jacob loves the most, only bears him two sons. One of these two sons, however, is Joseph, who saves the whole family. So these two women, Martha and Mary in the New Testament, and Leah and Rachel in the Old Testament, represent two kinds of discipleship. Martha or Leah represents the active life, which is busy doing things for God. Mary or Rachel represents the contemplative life, the focus of which is to listen to God, to know God and love God.

The fact that Scripture presents us with a combination of these figures suggests not only that both ways of living are good, but that the good life for a Christian usually entails a combination of contemplation and action. For most Christians, the mixed life of contemplation and action is best. Nevertheless, Jesus adds that these two parts, contemplation and action, are not equally valued in God’s eyes, “It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her” (Lk 10:42). In other words, in weighing up the relative merits of action and contemplation, it is contemplation, principally listening to God speaking in prayer, which is the ‘better part’, rather than doing things for God.

So why, then, does Jesus describe prayer as the ‘better part’ of the Christian life? One answer is that even in practical terms, history teaches that a life in which prayer plays a major part is often extraordinarily fruitful, certainly more fruitful than a life devoted purely to action. In the Old Testament reading today, Abraham welcomes the Lord, represented by the mysterious three figures who visit him, and they promise him a miraculous fruitfulness, that his elderly wife will bear a son. In the last century, for example, St Therese of Lisieux achieved almost nothing by her own efforts in practical terms, but devoted her short, intense life to prayer. Yet when her bones go on tour today, literally millions of people go on pilgrimage to see her mortal remains and pray. Since her death, she has been one of the most successful missionaries of recent times. Similarly, Padro Pio is reputed to have prayed the Rosary more than a hundred times a day, and in both life and death has won many souls for Christ. Furthermore, even in practical terms, missionaries often have a far greater and more wholesome impact on living conditions in many poorer parts of the world than secular aid agencies. These examples illustrate a general lesson of Scripture, in which God states that, “All your fruitfulness comes from me” (Hos 14:9), and “Cut off from me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). God does not, in any absolute sense, need us to do things for him, although he may give us the joy of doing certain things with him. Since God is the source of all that is truly good, even for practical reasons, prayer is the better part of our lives because it is the source, ultimately, of our practical fruitfulness as well.

The deeper answer, however, is simply that the whole purpose of our lives is to love and serve God, and we cannot love God if we do not know God, and we cannot know God if we do not pray. Indeed, Jesus gives a warning that, on the Day of Judgment, there will be many people who say that they spent their lives working for him, preaching and even working miracles in his name, but to whom Jesus will say, “I do not know you. Depart from me, you evildoers” (Lk 13:27). The evil of such persons is rather like that of a spouse who says, “I am working hard to do things for you, but I don’t want to spend any time with you, listening to you or speaking to you.” Such a relationship is a caricature of love, rather like trying to manufacture a flower. While outwardly good, it is, at heart, a dead thing that can bear no fruit.

What, then, are the practical lessons for our lives? The most important lesson is one that I have stated before, but which I have no qualms about stating again. Apart from the sacraments, especially Sunday Mass and Confession, the important thing we can do in our lives, and that which will be bring us the greatest benefit, is to follow Mary’s example and pray every day. If every Catholic prayed the Rosary, or some other devotion like the Divine Mercy chaplet, or learned and prayed some of the Psalms or the Divine Office every day, our homes, our lives, our schools and our world would be transformed. So as a final message today, if you do not already do so, invest a little time each day in prayer.  I promise you that you will find this investment of time difficult, perhaps the hardest thing you do, but there is nothing that can be more beneficial to yourselves and those you love.

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