I am writing on the feast of St Martha and Jesus’ reproach, “Mary has chosen the better part” is still troubling me. I find this and the rebuke of the prodigal son’s older brother, two of the more challenging stories in the Gospels. Perhaps it is because I am an eldest child.
Responsibility is my second nature and if I had have been a girl I should have been called Martha.
Like Martha I roll up my sleeves when something has to be done. So I feel Jesus’ criticism is unfair. But then it is the unfair and puzzling passages in the Gospels that I find are the most helpful. Donald Senior in a commentary on this passage claims that it is unlikely that Jesus was condemning service or activity. After all Jesus was very active himself. He was frequently busy, healing the sick, feeding the crowds, teaching multitudes, travelling and visiting. In Mark 3:20 Jesus is so busy he doesn’t have time to eat.
So why did Jesus prefer Mary’s love? I think the answer can be found in the context. Jesus visited Martha and Mary as part of his final trip to Jerusalem. He was concerned about what was to happen there and he probably wanted a listening ear more than a tasty meal. He may not have been hungry at all and yet Martha did not sense that. She went on loving Jesus in the way she always had.
It is one of the dangers of being a responsible and generous lover that we tend to insist on loving in our way. We often meet our needs or act out of our perceptions rather than pausing and asking ourselves what does the other need or want. Eric Fromm in his famous book, The Art of Loving defined love as the active concern for the person we love and he insisted that a central part of love was respect, the ability to see the other person as they are and to care for that that person, not the one we imagine.
I don’t remember much from my university lectures but one thing I do is the “sacrificial contract” psychologists believe is implicit in much of our love. We give generously but we expect people to repay our sacrifices, to be grateful and to respond appropriately. They should deserve our love. “How can you do that to me when I have done so much for you?” Clearly there was an unspoken contract implicit in the way the elder brother and even Martha loved.
So now when I read the story of Martha and Mary I don’t think it is a condemnation of Martha or a choice for contemplation over activity. I think it is more a challenge to all of us to be more reflective and attentive in our loving.
We need to pause and love others as they need and not in the way we think they need. Sometimes they will need a good meal sometimes it will be just someone who listens.
It is only when we love someone as they are that our love can give life and promote growth in both of us.